The Government's literacy targets do not take enough account of the importance of speaking and listening for very young children, says Norma Corkish.
This Government has set itself ambitious targets, one of which is that 80 per cent of children will be expected to reach specified standards in reading by 2002. This it hopes to achieve through the use of the literacy hour and through the National Year of Reading which begins in September and which will highlight the importance of reading.
Most, if not all of us, will want to ensure that the targets are met. But all our efforts may be in vain unless more thought is given to the underlying factors which lead to success in literacy.
A clue to these factors is found in the fact that children with dyslexia show clear difficulties with language - speaking and listening - in the early years. Unless their language skills are developed, teaching these children to read is likely to continue to fail. So it is for all children. Our knowledge of child development tells us that to be able to read effectively, a mature grasp of conceptual and spoken language is necessary.
Serious cause for concern arises because the Government has given no explicit acknowledgement to the fact that language underpins literacy.
The curriculum for the training of primary English teachers, which comes into force from September, has six pages on the teaching of reading and writing but only two short paragraphs on the teaching of spoken language. In addition, it is expected that most children will begin to be taught to read at four years of age, if not earlier.
The Kingman report on the teaching of English (1988) says: "Teachers need to encourage talk which can be exploratory, tentative, used for thinking through problems, for discussing assigned tasks and for clarifying thought: talk is not merely social and communicative, it is also a tool for learning."
When learning fails, emotional and behavioural difficulties and school exclusions follows. In the words of a recent BT Forum report, Communications: a key skills for education: "In the context of a basic skills drive, speaking and listening may seem a a soft option - the icing on the cake which can be added when the basic building blocks of reading, writing and arithmetic are in place. But to assume that is to misunderstand just how children learn. Communication skills are not so much the icing, more the raising agent."
The report adds: "In our print and television obsessed society story telling (as opposed to reading) is almost a lost art and with it we are losing the means of teaching our children the skills of holding an audience, sponding to that audience and creating a bond through the rhythm and pattern of the spoken word. We are also losing opportunities to help our children to listen attentively and to demonstrate, by the use of eye contact, that they have heard."
Early years teaching in mainland Europe embodies an understanding that language and communication skills are fundamental to later and more formal learning.
Children are given opportunities to develop listening, speaking and social skills and are also encouraged to develop co-ordination skills through games and music which help spatial thinking and practical skills such as writing. The teaching of reading does not begin until seven years of age, yet reading standards in these countries is higher than in the UK.
All of this takes place in a structured setting, where the development of self-esteem and self-confidence is given pride of place - absolutely critical factors for success in the classroom.
Not only may the Government be shooting itself in the foot in an attempt to hit its own targets, but it is likely to be making it harder for inclusive education to work.
A clear focus on developing language and communication skills will not only lead to improvements in literacy standards, but also easier access to learning and better communication between pupils and teachers. If such a strategy is followed, emotional and behavioural difficulties and exclusions are likely to fall and schools will be more able effectively to "include" children with special educational needs.
Norma Corkish is chief executive of AFASIC, a charity which represents children and young people with speech and language impairments.