We all know about mental maths - the kind of quickfire lesson opener that's been a tradition of primary practice for longer than any of us can remember and is now firmly established as a cornerstone of numeracy. Handled properly, it's good fun - competitive, quick, inclusive, and a gift for the teacher who wants to trade groan-worthy jokes and insults with the class.
What about mental literacy, though? Is it possible to envisage a similar sort of approach in a literacy hour lesson? John Bell, literacy co-ordinator at Norwich Road Primary in Thetford, Norfolk, certainly thinks so, and has developed the routine of giving what he describes as "15-minute blasts" of quick-thinking oral work - each covering an aspect of grammar or spelling.
"It gets the children motivated - really engaged. It involves lots of different skills and learning styles," he says.
What really makes it work for him, he believes, is his use of Keyboard Crazy - a simple enough device originally intended to improve children's keyboard skills. It consists of a much oversized plastic reproduction of a qwerty keyboard, the keys replaced by square holes. Into each hole neatly slots a square "tile" printed with a keyboard character. The basic task is to put the tiles into the right holes, reproducing the correct layout.
Variation is achieved by having both upper and lower case tiles, and also by the availability of card underlays, printed with the keyboard characters, to be slotted in under the holes as a guide. This guide can then be removed when a child is familiar with the layout.
The basic keyboard skills activity is to ask the children for words, perhaps with clues ("First group to spell the name of a small bird with a red breast") to which they respond by quickly putting the tiles in the right keyboard places. By doing this they become familiar with the qwerty layout astonishingly quickly, and their facility with their computers increases accordingly. While it would be possible to play similar games on the computer itself, or even with a pencil on a preprinted sheet of paper, it's evident that having to handle the tiles - searching for them in a pile on the desk and slotting them in, working together as a small group, adds an important dimension that makes all the difference to the children's enthusiasm and motivation.
John Bell liked the game, but was quick to see further possibilities.
"I was given the game for keyboard recognition skills," he says. "It works perfectly for that, but it needn't be limited to it. If we can do quick-fire thinking in maths, why not in literacy - which word in the sentence is an adverb, which is an adjective and so on."
Hence his "mental literacy" sessions, which he started at his previous school, with a marked effect on Sat scores, and is now establishing at Norwich Road. There's no doubting the children's enjoyment. I watched John's Year 4 class, for example, working in teams of four, each with a Keyboard Crazy, searching for words with "ight" in them.
"Now this 'ight' is quite an aggressive word," he said, and already the children were eagerly sorting through their tiles looking for the letters to make "fight" and starting to place them in the right slots. One by one the groups shot up their hands as they finished, and John walked quickly round, checking that they had their tiles in the right place, and judging which group had finished first.
The motivational power of this simple device is astonishing. Tasks which would be off-putting were they done with paper and pencil suddenly become both co-operative (within each group) and competitive (between groups) and entirely inclusive - because reluctant writers, for example, are just as good at it as anyone else.
"It's having a significant impact on the attainment of writers," says John Bell. "If you can give them a gateway to writing, you get the payback."
The secret, he believes, lies in the way that Keyboard Crazy engages different learning styles.
"It's visual, with letters on the board, kinaesthetic because of searching for the tiles and placing them, and auditory because of the discussion in the group."
John Bell devised a battery of lesson ideas, many of which are available on the Keyboard Crazy website, though he says, "Most teachers who see it say, 'Thank you, but I can think of more than that.' Really it's open to every kind of teaching style - whole class, groups, work with children with dyslexia." (At Green Lane Special School in Warrington, for example, Keyboard Crazy's been used for teaching French.) At Norwich Road, Keyboard Crazy is in action across the whole school. Penny Ricketts, assistant head in charge of key stage 1 and foundation stage is a total convert: "It's absolutely fantastic. Children are enthralled, engrossed. All their inhibitions about spelling are out of the window." (As literacy co-ordinator, John Bell has dropped spelling tests: "I think they are memory tests. I'd much rather teach rules.") At Norwich Road, the introduction of John Bell's enthusiastic, fun-orientated approach has gone along with a change of mood and style brought by head Dulcie Ogilvie, who arrived two years ago, that's seen big improvements in achievement and attitudes.
"We're looking for more creative ways of working," she says. "This year we're looking at creativity throughout the curriculum. John, as literacy co-ordinator, is finding innovative ways of tackling tasks that could be boring -spelling, manipulation of words. The children love playing all the games, and they're brightening up our literacy sessions."
Keyboard Crazy is available from Keywise Systems
Tel: 0151 482 5546
Fax: 0151 482 5538