Fact and friction

10th March 2000 at 00:00
Literacy Hour work with non-fiction can generate enthusiasm right across the curriculum, argues Margaret Mallet

Reading for information has never been more exciting. The sheer range of material in schools is awesome: books, letters, posters, leaflets, cassettes, CD-Roms, software and, of course, the Internet.

The National Literacy Strategy framework requires us to teach about the structure and language of texts, about finding information and making notes. But lessons across the curriculum provide the strongest contexts for helping children grapple with concepts and ideas.

There is much to be gained from exploiting links between work in the literacy hour and in other lessons. Meredith Hooper's The Drop in My Drink (Frances Lincoln), for example, is ideal in a Year 4 science session to illuminate concepts like erosion, the water cycle and the threat of pollution. The same book - poetically written and with wonderful swirling illustrations - can be used in the literacy hour to show how a skilful use of verbs communicates the movement and action of water. And why should fiction have all the best metaphors? Here a drop of water is imagined as "a miniature crowbar" which has moved mountains, made valleys and carved coasts.

Whatever their age, pupils can be helped to move actively into a new area by formulating their own questions. These can surprise us. A reception class sharing Spider Watching (Walker Books) thought of 11 questions about spiders ranging from the fairly predictable "Are all spiders black?" to the ethical "Should people kill spiders?" Children's feelings and attitudes are as important as "the facts" - a point well recognised by the Walker Books Read and Wonder series.

We should never forget the power of talk round texts. By the early secondary years, children appreciate the kind of analysis in books like A Right to Smoke? and Drug Abuse? (from Franklin Watts' Viewpoints series), which differentiates between evidence and opinion. This leaves space for speculation and helps 12 to 14-year-olds to engage with important issues, particularly where discussion is carefully orchestrated by the teacher.

Drama creates interesting audiences for reading and writing, and has welcome recognition i the new English orders. I watched a Year 4 class teacher set up a dramatic situation around the plan to create a waste dump near a village. Geography and science texts on environmental issues informed the children's improvised arguments for and against the dump. Even the more reluctant pupils enjoyed writing letters of complaint to the council. This in turn led into work on letters in the literacy hour.

The new emphasis on non-fiction motivates boys in particular. But they will be easily turned off by literacy hours drearily structured round mechanical tasks. Ways of locating information, using contents, indexes, headings, sub headings, page numbers and bibliographies - all NLS Framework objectives for Year 3, term 1 - can all be energised when children create their own books.

Making books and newspapers, hand written and on computer, is a powerful way of demonstrating how non-fiction works. Time constraints must not mean lessons dominated by work sheets.

Very young children can be helped to use programmes like EasyPage, while desktop publishing packages like FirstPage are well established as support for older children's planning, editing and reviewing. The professional look of the formats offered in many software packages motivates children in the later primary and early secondary years when they work on persuasive and journalistic writing.

Pupils of all ages enjoy making electronic books and working on the multimedia authoring program Hyperstudio. Some schools now have scanners, so that children can scan in their own illustrations to match their text.

But children still enjoy writing some texts by hand. You Can Make Your Own Book! (Longman) explains how to make concertina, origami and wallet books with removable objects and pop-ups. Once the format is chosen, they will start to make the decisions that all authors of non-fiction have to make.

Margaret Mallett is visiting tutor in Primary English at Goldsmiths College and author of Young Researchers: informational reading and writing in the early primary years. Routledge 1999.

EasyPage Porters Primary SoftwareTel: 0114 258 2878. Web: www.ppsoft.demon.co.uk.Hyperstudio and FirstPageTAG. Tel: 01474 357886. Web: www.tagdev.co.uk

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