Crucial reading

18th September 1998 at 01:00
PRACTICAL WAYS TO TEACH STANDARD ENGLISH AND LANGUAGE STUDY. By Michael Lockwood. Pounds 4.50. WRITING ACROSS THE CURRICULUM: Frames to support learning. By Maureen Lewis and David Wray. Reading and Language Information centre, University of Reading. Pounds 10.50 each (photocopiable).

I cannot remember a time when the always difficult areas of knowledge about language, standard English and grammar at key stage 2 have been split so starkly in two.

There has been a remarkable recent increase in English courses holding a correctness-based "this usage is right: that usage is wrong" line, employing largely formal, whole-class teaching. The reasons for this are not hard to find - the pressures on teachers to adopt their approaches are great. On the other hand, as the 1988 Kingman report is taken off the shelves, there is a realisation that now we must decide what "knowledge about language" means in practice.

Michael Lockwood's booklet is a comprehensive and encouraging attempt to do just that. It is an engaging mix of clearly expressed theory and excellent practicality. Discussing Richard Bain's influential 1991 model for learning about language, Lockwood identifies the stage of "description and reflection on language" as the crucial one. Formal analysis "may or may not follow": the important element is rooting knowledge of language in real experience, because if it is not, it can never be learned.

However, this is not the recipe for "dumbing down" many traditionalists assume: constant teacher intervention alone can make it happen. The bulk of the booklet shows how this intervention works. Writing conferences where the act of writing becomes shared and important, constant referral to books where much of the point is understanding how styles work (Dr Xargle, Captain Najork and many others), the notion of the "language wardrobe" where not only the idea of register but also the point of Standard English become practical and clear: all these and more approaches are described. I would confidently say the booklet is pretty well indispensable in today's primary school.

An idea that Lockwood calls on is that of writing frames, which were a result of the NuffieldExeter University EXEL project. This idea, simple and yet effective, is capable of almost limitless expansion through every kind of writing. Based on the two ideas that everybody, not just children, finds the blank sheet of paper intimidating and that every genre - argument, discussion, narrative - has its common structure, writing frames enable children to first use, then inter-nalise the thought processes that let writing take place. In Writing across the Curriculum, Lewis and Wray provide commentary and photocopiable frames for maths and science as well as argument and narrative. In its different way, this booklet is as important as Lockwood's.

Dennis Hamley is a former English adviser for Hertfordshire.

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