The hour is nigh;Opinion

12th June 1998 at 01:00
Huw Thomas says teachers must get away from thinking of the literacy strategy as an attack.

By now, many primary teachers will have made a start on the Government's new literacy hour ahead of its official September start date.

In many cases teachers are doing what they have always done in English but making sure it slots into an hour a day. For many, the next step is to look at the objectives outlined for their year group in the national literacy strategy and incorporate these into their current planning. It is a marriage of what has been with what is to come, a sort of "summer of love" for literacy.

My guess is that as we return from the half-term break we return to a system where the majority of primary classrooms are doing a literacy hour. However, some within the profession see the new strategy as an attack. The "Now Mr Blunkett is going to tell us how to teach reading" attitude prevails, in which the literacy hour is seen as the blasting of previous practice. This view sees the new strategy as an extension of the recent habit in higher echelons of attacking the teachers as the "enemy within". The danger is that teachers then approach it with the sort of enthusiasm with which we all entertain a slap in the face.

This sort of thinking will only be fuelled by presentations of the literacy hour as victor in the battle between traditional and trendy teaching. A recent example of this was John Bald's article in The TES ("The 'L' hour is power", May 15), which depicts the literacy hour as a "head-on assault" against the profession's "liberal progressives" launched by a Government wielding "an approach to reducing inequality that is diametrically opposed to the values that have governed British education, and particularly primary education, since the mid-1960s".

Such imagery could fuel the despondency among teachers who see the literacy hour as a forced repentance for the past.

The healthier view is to see the literacy hour as the gathering together of the best we have been doing in primary education since the mid 1960s. The literacy hour does not replace the practice of 30 years, it makes the most of it.

Take, for example, the idea of children working in groups. This progressive idea is positively encouraged in the new literacy hour. The benefit of children working in groups has even been applied to what many would seem as the most individual of activities, reading their reading books.

The past 30 years have also seen a shift from teacher-directed instruction to child-centred learning. The new literacy strategy dismisses "transmission teaching" (just telling children the stuff they need to know) as "crude" and "simple". It exploits what we have learned about the value of discussion and interaction within a classroom as a pathway to learning.

Then there is the "real books" shift away from stilted, schematised reading towards quality books that were shared in the classroom. Probably one of the most encouraging aspects of the new literacy strategy is the varied types and uses of texts it encourages.

Children are to look at characters in fiction, multicultural stories, newspapers and adventure stories. The strategy grasps the fact that reading is more than trotting out words you see on the page and promotes the riches of real reading.

Finally there is the lesson from the past 30 years that teaching has to have a bit of spark about it if it is to engage children's enthusiasm and imagination. The new strategy and the materials that support it promote a range of teaching materials and well-paced lesson content. In one of the schools piloting the literacy hour children ended up referring to it as the "luxury hour".

All this smacks of a wise initiative, one which is able to work within the profession encouraging what is already working and adding a new way of taking things forward. The image is important.

If the teaching profession sees the new strategy as another piece of teacher bashing it will adversely affect the implementation of the literacy hour.

Nothing is worse than starting a new venture that is to be guided along by unenthusiastic staff, half-hoping to prove they were actually right all along. The myth that the battle between good and bad approaches to literacy has ended in the triumph of the literacy hour is a misreading of the past 30 years.

Teachers need to see what takes place this summer as a more mature relationship.

Huw Thomas is a primary teacher in Sheffield and the author of books and articles on literacy

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