Models of clarity and inventiveness

5th December 1997 at 00:00
INFOACTIVE:. NON-FICTION FOR INFANTS. Collins. Pack 1(12 titles) Pounds 22; pack 2 (12 titles) Pounds 27.50(Teacher's notes available in January and two more packs in preparation).

SCHOLASTIC WORKSHOP:NON-FICTION WRITING SKILLS NON-FICTION WRITING PROJECTS. Key Stage 1Scottish LevelsA-B AND Key Stage 2Scottish. Levels C-E. By Sallie Harkness, Lynda Keith and Joyce Lindsay . By Sue Ellis, Gill Friel, Elaine Wylie, Catriona Mackenzie, Jim Allan and Gillian Fleming. Pounds 19.99.

Tom Deveson on good reading that leads to good writing.

Mr Gradgrind called for "facts" in a voice that was "inflexible, dry and dictatorial". No one would dare suggest that such a tone is ever heard from the Departmen for Education and Employment headquarters; but, nevertheless, it comes as a relief to discover these books that make non-fiction so supportive of the national curriculum, yet so various and enticing.

The Infoactive packs bring together 12 little booklets, each of 12 pages, with no more than two sentences per page (sometimes less) on a range of subjects and experiences familiar in infants' classrooms. Full of visual and diagrammatic imagination, they introduce the understanding, sorting and retaining of information in exemplary ways.

There is practice in the arts of classification and comparison, through such effective devices as repeating the form of a question while altering the noun, or by finding differences between the earth and the moon or between a small child and a dinosaur. One particularly attractive book shows seasonal changes in a Japanese landscape, gaining and losing leaves, each new season from the previous page repeated as the old one, showing the cyclical nature of the year in a perfect miniature.

There are activities for following sequences, such as the times of day or the successive birthdays of a five-year-old. The favourite here will probably be the life-story of a pizza, from cornfield, flower-pot and cow to dough, tomato and cheese on the plate. Science and technology feature frequently in pages that exercise children's skill in following simple instructions or devising investigative tests.

There are opportunities for skim-reading as information accumulates over two-page spreads, or is signalled by captions, grids and diagrams. There are also some horizontally-split pages (for comparing facial expressions or contrasting living animals with their skeletons) and speculative queries that gently introduce the question mark. These books deserve to be popular for their clarity, inventiveness and common sense.

Good reading leads to good writing. The practical guides from Scholastic, one for each primary key stage, will also be helpful and supportive to teachers. Writing Skills offers sensible advice on how to organise and improve children's non-fiction writing, with a generous supply of lesson plans and photocopiable work-sheets. Writing Projects provide about a dozen extended units of work, with guidance on differentiation and assessment.

The skills explored at key stage 1 are carefully distinguished into the categories of information, persuasion and instruction. In the first section come ideas like analysing and describing favourite sandwich fillings; the second encompasses the use of argument to state a case, and goes on to suggest how to write a letter of complaint about missing jigsaw pieces or how to use (and subvert) the language of advertising; while instruction introduces procedural writing, drawing on what children already know about purpose and sequence, with an emphasis on clarity and coherence. It presents such activities as untangling mixed-up rules for games or alerting dim adults to the correct use of a video recorder.

For juniors these skills are moved forward into those of recounting, reporting and explanation, as well as the further development of procedural and persuasive texts. Children are asked to verify true and false "facts" from an information book, to explain why different things are stored in different places at home, to sum up arguments used by and against hunt saboteurs or to compare two cities across a wide range of physical and social criteria.

It's interesting to note that these activities incorporate the liberal arts of grammar, rhetoric and logic, the trivium of subjects introduced to young students in medieval times. Perhaps the Utilitarian Gradgrind, with all his swaggering assurance, was less wise than those who years ago considered philosophically and modestly what learning really means.

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