Don't lose sight of literacy in the return to primary 'topics'

15th June 2007 at 01:00
Bethan Marshall is senior lecturer in English education at King's College, University of London

It seems inevitable in things educational that what goes around must at some point come around once more: in this case, the topic. Once very popular among primary schools, in the dim mists of time before the literacy and numeracy hours took hold, topics were the way most children came to terms with the primary curriculum.

Teach the rainforest or the Egyptians and the topic came in handy. Its main advantage was that you could cover whole sections of what you were meant to teach under one heading. If you taught the rainforest, you could do geography by looking at how rainforests were threatened, science through studying the animals, and art by painting the plumage of exotic birds. You might even ask the pupils to write a poem. The Egyptians would obviously furnish history, but you might make them study how they organised their crops as well. Maths could be taught by experimenting with pyramids, and art or language could be introduced by looking at hieroglyphs and wall displays.

The advantages seemed endless, not least because the subject boundaries by which we divide areas - the geography from the science or history - often feel artificial and false. Topic work also made primary schools seem a little more creative than the subject-driven institutions of the secondary sector. One school I visited had done a whole project on coasts. Boats were built, poetry written about the stormy seas, the history of a port was studied as well as the reason it was there in the first place. They had even been to the seaside to examine the detritus left on the shore.

Why, one asks, would you ever want to teach differently? The answer, such as it was, came with the introduction of numeracy and literacy hours. The gap, it was argued, between the primary and secondary curriculum was too great and the exam results at key stage 2 proved it.

Part of the difficulty had been with the teaching of English. It was too easy for English to be done in a general way that did not pay enough attention to what it meant to be good at the subject. Books were read as individual readers, but not enough attention was paid to shared texts which were enjoyed by the whole class. Writing, too, suffered. Children wrote the odd poem and the occasional creative piece, but too often it was simply a one-off piece of writing with no time to draft or re-work it. English, if it was anything at all, became the comprehension exercise.

The problem was that the literacy hour was no solution to the dilemma faced by primary teachers either. Rather than teach English, teachers were given a long list of competencies which they had to cover in a neatly packaged hour.

And that hour became about the list of skills they had achieved instead of a child's enjoyment of reading and writing. The pressure of tests made it even worse. Creativity, once a hallmark of primary education, floundered on the exams altar. And so, once more, primary teachers have returned to what they know how to do best. Never specialists in an individual ubject, and keen to teach in an integrated way to young children, topics, or "projects"

are, for the primary teacher, perhaps here to stay. And topic work is fine, but it's essential that the important aspects of English - reading aloud, use of language, writing, love of books - are not neglected, as they were in the past.

So may we see Victorian Britain taught through its engineering achievements and its squalor, its literature and population flow, or the Vikings as migrants and poets, and volcanoes as part of the ever-shifting plates of the globe, as siphons of pressure, as explosive mountains and as the home of Pompeii.

As for the apparent dip in achievement that occurs at key stage 3: who cares? It happened without topics as it happened with them. That is a problem for which there is no immediate solution. For now, let us remember that children are meant to have fun at school, not simply endure it.

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