Creating the complete reader

6th September 1996 at 01:00
Diane Hofkins looks at the parallel plan for 2,000 schools to be guinea pigs in the Government's literacy project.

Detailed guidance on what children need to know to become good readers and writers, and in what order, is being developed for the Government's flagship literacy centres project to be launched this month.

The 2,000 participating schools in 13 local authorities will be expected to adhere to highly-structured teaching objectives, organised on a term-by-term basis. The project's effectiveness will be monitored by testing children at the outset and two years later.

Research shows that all children need to learn a specific set of concepts, and that, for most, these need to be taught explicitly, say officials. John Stannard, national director of the project, hopes to develop a bank of materials which all primary schools can use to ensure that their pupils are well-rounded readers and writers, who understand how language works.

"Development is the same for everyone", said Chief Inspector Chris Woodhead. "The literacy centres will be spelling out what aspects you teach, when. "

Central to the programme will be a dedicated hour of systematic and direct literacy teaching each day in each classroom. "The hour is very important to the whole project, and that's non-negotiable," says Mr Stannard, a seconded English HMI with an early years background. Schools, of course, will be doing other literacy work, but this hour will be for the programme specifically. There will be an emphasis on working with the whole class, big groups and small groups, with a 10 to 20-minute whole-class segment at the beginning, a class plenary at the end, and group work in the middle. Using shared texts, read by everyone in the class or group, is seen as a central strategy.

Another key element is parental involvement - and this is where individual schools and local authorities will have more scope. This is known to be important to children's reading success, and Mr Stannard wants to identify good practice. Norfolk, one of the 13 participating authorities, believes that its successful family literacy project helped secure its bid for a centre. Sheffield, too, with its innovative Raising Early Achievement in Literacy project, believes it has valuable ideas to contribute.

The five-year, Pounds 25 million project setting up 25 literacy and numeracy centres was announced by Education and Employment Secretary Gillian Shephard in January. Her announcement looked all the more timely later that month, as concern was whipped up about poor national test results at 11 and 14 and weak teaching in 20 per cent of primary lessons. A key purpose is to help tackle underachievement in Britain's inner cities, and most of the authorities chosen to take part are urban.

The teaching programme goes well beyond simple "basics", concentrating in detail also on how to advance children's skills in understanding what they read, how different kinds of books work, and how to write in different ways.

The objectives will have four strands, which relate to the national curriculum English Order: Range of work: this will include the kinds of reading and writing children should cover, including information books; Comprehension and composition: this involves working with the whole text, understanding what it is about, and getting to grips with how it works (including children's own writing). For instance, says John Stannard, "Children need to understand that you read an information text differently. You dot about in it." Teachers will be helped to provide more "scaffolding" for children's writing, to provide structures to make sure children consider settings, character and plot organisation in fiction and other relevant aspects in non-fiction writing; Grammar and punctuation: this strand, more important at key stage 2, entails looking at how words are organised into sentences, and what children need to know about it at different stages. Grammar study can be quite sophisticated, taking in aspects like the structure of books, seeing if they are in the third person or first person or if an information book is in the present tense; Phonics, vocabulary and spelling: this is "word level" work, which includes word recognition and handwriting. Children will learn about words, sounds and phonemes (the smallest unit of sound in a word). Extending children's vocabulary is a particularly important aspect of this strand, says Mr Stannard.

Are teachers worried that there will be too much emphasis on phonics and spelling? "We have rather a lot of searching questions about it, and quite properly, too," he says, "but no real resistance.

"Children need quite specific, quite careful, very thorough teaching at this level. Where children - even children who become reasonably successful by the end of key stage 1 - haven't had the word level work, they become reasonably confident at reading well-known texts, but when they haven't got those other strategies they tend to run into difficulties when they hit texts that are not familiar," he says.

The programme will also cover phonological awareness - recognising the sounds in words, and children will learn that there are various common ways in which the sounds can be spelt.

Mr Stannard believes this work can be effective and exciting if done well. "There's a great deal to play for," he says.

He will be asking local authorities to identify teachers and schools for others to visit, to help disseminate good practice. Failing that, the project will have to develop specialist pedagogy, he says. His team will be looking carefully for the sort of teaching that enables children to understand these aspects of literacy, and to make them their own.

About 20 schools in each local authority will come on-stream in January 1997, followed by 20 more each succeeding September until the year 2000. This autumn, two consultants appointed by each local authority will attend week-long training courses, and then go on to work with the schools. At the outset, they will help schools carry out an audit of their teaching arrangements, standards and resources, and to set targets against which to monitor their progress.

The "top-down" approach, the comprehensive requirements, the notion that Government could be dictating teaching methods and the short time span have all led to some scepticism about the programme. The close involvement of a chief inspector who has been criticising primary teachers and extolling the importance of whole-class teaching and phonics is also causing some nervousness.

Teachers' fear that the Government wants to use the project to impose whole-class teaching "has to be faced", says Mr Stannard. "When I came in I was quite clear that this was about reading instruction." He wants the project to help teachers to know what they want to get across, and to do it in a systematic way, he says. "It's not that one should do whole-class teaching; it's not that one should do group teaching; it's not that one should do individual teaching. There are ways that are more effective to reach objectives."

There will also be fears that the national curriculum for English is being overridden. Mr Stannard says: "This is not the national curriculum, but a means of implementing it." He sees the project as a work in progress, and stresses that anything that doesn't work well will be thrown out. Literacy, he says, is children's key not only to the curriculum but to their cognitive development.

"So I am very committed to this, and I am going to work hard to make sure it succeeds. Equally, I am very committed to the teachers. I want them to succeed."

* The 13 participating LEAs areBristol, Essex, Hampshire (with the Isle of Wight), Sandwell, Islington, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Newham, Norfolk, Sheffield, Southward (with Lambeth) and Waltham Forest.

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