He was so frank. She was so prim. Guess who got the job?

31st October 1997 at 00:00
Sue Palmer compares the style of two different types of advice on literacy

Primary teachers are used to advice. They get it from just about everyone, from the Prince of Wales to the woman in the corner shop - and, of course, all those nice people who write for The Daily Mail.

In the teaching of literacy skills - that vitally important area for primary teachers - there are two main sources of advice: the National Literacy Project, with its 13 centres dotted about the country, and the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority (now subsumed within the new Qualifications and Curriculum Authority) which produced the national curriculum. Both have recently drafted guidelines on how to plan and structure the teaching of English throughout the primary school. The NLP's draft document is Framework for Teaching; SCAA's is called Planning and Progression in English at Key Stages 1 and 2.

The documents have a common underlying message: literacy teaching is not about choosing between top-down "whole language" and bottom-up "code-driven" methods - it should address both. At all times, teachers and children should approach reading and writing at three levels: text level (comprehension and composition); sentence level (grammar and punctuation), and word level (phonics, spelling and vocabulary).

Since both documents have their basis in the national curriculum Orders for English, they are also in broad agreement about the information and ideas to be covered, and the types of reading and writing in which children should engage in the two key stages.

Beyond that, however, the documents speak with very different voices. NLP's Framework is assertive, upfront and aspirational. SCAA's Planning and Progression is more tentative and reserved. If these documents came to life, you'd know exactly what sort of English advisers they'd be.

Mr NLP Framework looks you straight in the eye. "This is how you do it, " he says, in confident, ringing tones and it has to be admitted that, after all the chopping and changing of recent years, such certainty is thrilling. "You have a literacy hour every day in which you teach 100 per cent of the time - half whole-class, half group teaching. Set up routines the children can follow during group work so there's no time wasted on management. Then you can devote your time to teaching." Gosh, you think. That sounds effective - I bet there's no messing about in Mr Framework's classroom.

"I'll give you a list of exactly what to teach," he continues, "so you don't have to worry about that either. Then you can get on with the how part - the actual job of teaching." He then provides you with 37 pages of teaching objectives, term by term, year by year, listed in three columns - text, sentence, word. It's all there, from introducing the letter-sounds in Reception, through every conceivable text-type, spelling rule and sentence construction, to a level of grammatical and stylistic analysis in Year 6 which would astound many a secondary English teacher.

You don't have to worry about not understanding the objectives - there are always explanatory parentheses and long lists of examples. Mr Framework is breathtakingly thorough. In some ways it's refreshing to be given all this help after years of trying to work it out for yourself. In others it's distinctly threatening.

"Oh, and here are your half-termly and weekly planning sheets," he goes on enthusiastically, "and some assessment sheets in case your school's assessment methods aren't suitable", and lists of all the sight words and spelling words and phonic knowledge children should acquire each year. "I think that just about covers it." He gives you a winning smile, tells you not to think of it as a strait-jacket but as a way of maximising your strengths as a teacher, and never to forget to use your professional judgment.

Ms SCAA Planning and Progression is much more low profile, speaking in measured, academic, impersonal tones. She refers to teachers in the third person, as if all too aware that there are lots of different people in the profession, and what suits one might not suit everyone. She's also aware of wide variations between schools, and thus tentative about laying down rules too hard and fast. "Here's a format I've devised," she says self-effacingly. "It might be useful for comparing with existing policies, to see if there are any gaps, or for mapping children's progression in aspects of English. It might provide a developmental framework for planning or a format for mapping the term's work."

Compared with the dynamic Mr Framework, she's rather dry and abstract, talking adviser-speak about policies and planning, "coulds" and "mights" - all of which seems a long way from what you do in the classroom. Ironically, by taking the possibility of individual variation into account, Ms P and P manages to distance herself from individual teachers.

Still, she may be short on charisma, but she's good on charts. She provides two sets: term-by-term objectives for planning on pink paper and the same objectives listed to show the progression through key Stage 1 and 2 on blue paper.

As you'd expect, these are more succinct than Mr Framework's, sticking carefully to the national curriculum Orders and avoiding any suggestion of over-prescriptiveness. Objectives come in clear, concise bullet points and examples are used sparingly (sometimes, on the subject of grammar, a little too sparingly so you're not absolutely sure what's intended).

Ms P and P doesn't engage in eye-contact or inspirational rhetoric - it's not her way. Her excellent coverage of speaking and listening (which Mr Framework, concentrating on literacy, chooses to ignore), and her interest in progression (the word "developmental" springs unbidden to mind), leaves you wondering if she sympathises a little with the more liberal wing of the teaching establishment. But then, she's very much the civil servant; so you may think that but she couldn't possibly comment.

Different advisers, of course, suit different people. Some teachers, especially those lacking in confidence about teaching English, worried about standards in their school, or just utterly browned off with conflicting advice from a variety of sources, will relish the straight-down-the-line, Do It My Way, Framework approach. Others, with well-established policies and good standards of literacy among pupils, would probably find the P-and-P line more to their taste. However, it seems unlikely they will have the choice.

The Government wants a proactive, aspirational, can-do teaching profession, and is in no doubt which "adviser" is more likely to deliver the goods. The final version of the National Literacy Project Framework will be sent to every school later this year and LEA support will be available to implement it - schools will be expected to take its advice or prove they've got a scheme of work that is equally good. There are at present no plans for general circulation of SCAA's Planning and Progression.

National Literacy Project: Framework for Teaching available from The NLP, National Centre, London House, 59-65 London Street, Reading, RG1 4EW (Tel: 01189 527500)

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