Learning about Language: Issues for primary teachers, Alison Sealey, Open University Press Pounds 12.99.
There will be those who well remember the controversy about the decision not to publish the outcome of the Government-sponsored Language in the National Curriculum (LINC) project. Despite that decision, a number of books have subsequently been published which have drawn directly on that study. Learning about Language is one such publication. Alison Sealey worked as a primary advisory teacher on the project. Clearly, she has been prompted to write this book for practising primary teachers in the light of the most recent revisions to the English national curriculum concerned with the requirements to include standard English and language study.
The stance taken in the book is that "children can learn about language by investigating examples of 'naturally occurring' language in use". The author describes these authentic examples of spoken and written language as the "texts" around which the teaching of language can be organised. Throughout the book, she draws on practical examples of teachers and children using language across the curriculum from the schools involved in the LINC project.
The book is ambitious in nature in that Sealey endeavours to write for a range of purposes and examines the subject from different perspectives. On one level, she explores ideas about language acquisition, language as a social practice and how primary children's understanding of language changes. She rehearses the debates that have surrounded the teaching of English and the changes to the English Orders.
Having provided this broad context, Sealey then concentrates on phonology and orthography; lexis; grammar; and semantics. Given her background, it is not surprising she places great stress on children learning about language naturally as opposed to acquiring knowledge about language through, say, decontextualised grammar exercises.
Threaded through the book is the author's exploration of issues concerned with three related topics: what schools are like and what formal education is for; what children are like as language users and learners; and what language is like and how it should be thought about. Predictably, the reader is constantly reminded that teaching about language is complex and controversial.
Much emphasis is placed on the the teacher as a facilitator of children's learning, although Sealey acknowledges that not all her suggestions are realistic for the busy classroom teacher. Direct teaching, therefore, is given some attention, but the main thrust is encouraging teachers to teach about language through the medium of projects, topics and plans. How to assess children's knowledge about language is given only limited attention.
In common with those who advocate that children learn to read by being exposed to "real books", the approach taken in this book is that, through the use of "real language", children come to learn about language. It will be for those working in schools to decide how to interpret such advice.
It is books like this that really bring home the fact that the job of being a primary class teacher is both complex and demanding.