Hour of need

11th April 1997 at 01:00
The Government's National Literacy and Numeracy Project was launched just over a year ago, and its programmes are now up and running in some 500 schools around the country. Diana Hinds gauges reaction among teachers and pupils

Reasons why teachers might distrust the National Literacy Project have been well rehearsed in recent months. The project's hefty mass of term-by-term requirements, so the argument goes, is unduly prescriptive and reduces teachers to the level of mere technicians. But what is striking, one term after the project got under way in pilot schools, is how positively the teachers seem to be responding to it. Yes, the National Literacy Project tells them what to do, but that is just what some of them want.

"The project represents a very structured, solid way of teaching, and our experience so far is that teachers are finding it reassuring," says John Wilkinson, project manager for Hampshire, one of the 13 participating local authorities. "There has been too much fuzziness in the past about what is the best way of teaching literacy, and teachers like to know where they are going. This project is hard work for them, but they are feeling positive."

"One teacher told me that in 20 years of teaching English this was the first time she felt confident," says Sue McCaldon, one of Manchester's two literacy project "consultants". "Another said, 'I don't know what I was teaching before, but it wasn't English'."

In Islington, parents have reported Year 5 children coming home with a new fervour to read whatever they can lay their hands on. In Hampshire, a head teacher was delighted to hear Year 3 pupils going about the school discussing prefixes.

The detailed framework of termly targets, drawn up at the project's national headquarters in Reading, sets out progression in skills ranging from phonics to writing different genres. Teachers are being trained and supported by two literacy "consultants" in each LEA.

Central to the project - and one of the keys to its success, according to supporters - is the daily "literacy hour" in every classroom. This consists of a 10 to 15-minute whole-class session working on a shared text ("text level" work); 10 to 15 minutes on whole-class "sentence level" or "word level" work (such as grammar, phonics or spelling); 25 to 30 minutes of group activities (grouped by ability); and a "plenary" session, to review the lesson.

"Whereas before teachers might have spent a whole lesson on just one aspect of literacy, the literacy hour is varied, concentrated and pacy," says John Wilkinson. "For the children, the structure is predictable, and they look forward to it."

Barrie O'Shea, head teacher of Dunscombe Primary School in Islington (formerly the lowest achieving school in the borough), says classes have been calmer and children more motivated as a result of the literacy hour. "Quite a few teachers were reluctant to take it on at first, but once they've started they are fine," he says. "Giving teachers absolute clarity about what they need to do is really important".

Specialists outside the project remain sceptical, however. "I can understand why teachers are welcoming it, because they have had the goal posts moved so often in recent years," says Sue Palmer, general editor of the Longman Book Project. "I like what is in the framework, but I am worried that it could become too dogmatic and prescriptive. Experts telling teachers what to do is not the answer; teachers need knowledge and training, but then they need to be trusted."

Doreen Challon, literacy consultant in Hampshire, argues that although it is undeniably prescriptive in its objectives, the project does require teachers to come up with their own ideas and activities.

Sue McCaldon adds that, "far from turning teachers into automatons, the project is shifting their attention away from what to teach, to the skills of how to teach". Not only are they giving more time to "interactive" whole-class teaching, they are also having to learn ways of organising group work, such as "guided reading", a technique unfamiliar to most schools, where children read and discuss in a supervised group of five or six.

How well schools respond to all of this varies, with those most confident about their literacy teaching faring best. "Some schools are doing extremely well with the project," says John Stannard, national project director. "Some feel they need substantial support, and a small number are still feeling very insecure."

Some schools, he acknowledges, may well need more support than the five days with consultants allotted at present. As the project develops, groups of confident teachers might themselves be able to help other local schools, he suggests. He says the project's unashamed emphasis on phonics has encountered "less resistance than I had expected".

Jean Kidner, literacy project manager for Islington, says: "There have been questions about it, with schools saying they have been told, in the past, not to teach phonics in a disconnected way. But we are encouraging them to teach active phonics; not relying on worksheets and exercises, but using lots of props, like puppets, or magnetic letters."

A number of schools find the project's expectations for each year group too high, so they are being advised to adopt the framework for the year below. There is also widespread concern about the extent to which the whole-class sessions lend themselves to "differentiation". This is particularly acute, John Stannard says, in the top primary years, where the gaps are widest.

The termly targets (as opposed to the annual targets set by the National Numeracy Project) are felt by some to be unnecessarily inflexible. Some schools also say they have had to cut other areas, in order to accommodate the programme.

But the predominant source of concern is, yet again, the amount of work and planning required.

"One member of staff's husband walked out and went to sleep in a local hotel because he'd had enough of the workload," a teacher confided recently to an Internet users' group, adding, "I'm joining the project after the Whitsun holiday and need the depression tablets already."

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