Dangers of imposing an untested policy

12th September 1997 at 01:00
Shouldn't we know by now how to teach children to read? This may seem like a reasonable question as the millennium draws to a close, but as time moves on, so do ideas. Technology and understanding advance, or change. The experience of childhood changes, too. The place of reading in children's lives is not the same as it was 20 years ago, or 100 years ago or 1000 years ago, when few were thought to need to read at all. Perhaps different eras need different methods. Labour is trying to pin down the teaching methods for this era, for a time of furious change, when everyone's most important tools are communication skills. They want schools to use approaches with a proven track record, with facts and figures to back them up. They believe the time for every school to invent its own wheel is past.

So far, so good. But how does the Government know it has the right answers? One year from now, Labour will launch its Year of Reading. It will try to boost reading as a "cool" activity, encourage parents to read more with their children, help adults - especially parents - with literacy problems. But at its heart will be the structured "literacy hour" in primary schools. David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education, wants every school to do it, and only those which can prove with reports from OFSTED, the schools inspection service, and test results that they are succeeding without it will be allowed off the hook. About 40 per cent of schools thought to be needing the most help will be given a full training programme through the National Literacy Project, which developed the literacy hour in its approved form during the final months of the Conservative Government, and launched it in 13 pilot local education authorities.

Signs are, from the pilot schools and from similar projects, that it does raise standards when implemented well, and it has been received with enthusiasm in schools. But it is still an experiment, and there are no conclusive results. It seems early days to implement this policy wholesale.

Five years ago, the Three Wise Men, in their discussion paper on primary practice, warned against "questionable dogmas" orthodoxies that were then dominating teachers' thinking. Many of these ideas - that children should not be told things, or that classrooms had to be extremely busy at all times - were used by teachers who didn't understand the thinking behind them. What will people say about today's new orthodoxies five years from now? How will new thinking develop if there is one approved way to teach literacy?

The official literacy hour is based on a tightly-woven framework for teaching reading and writing. It does not provide for the systematic teaching of the third component of the English national curriculum: speaking and listening, which are particularly important for children with English as a second language, or those who start school with poor language development. This Primary Update is devoted entirely to literacy issues. It looks at a range of approaches from different parts of the country and celebrates the delights to be found in children's literature. At its centre is a highly uncomprehensive guide to national and local literacy projects. With 1,800 projects on the National Literacy Trust's database, it cannot be complete.

The Government is right to believe that good literacy teaching should not be left to chance. But it needs to think hard about the impact of top-down initiatives that have not been thoroughly tested.

Diane Hofkins, Primary Editor

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