The moving finger writes

16th April 2004 at 01:00
Translating your thoughts into words on a page is an emotional experience, finds Gerald Haigh

I sat beside a little boy of five at Lyndon Green infant school in Birmingham the other week as he was learning to write. He had already joined in a group enterprise to create a sentence modelled by the teacher on the flipchart.

Now his task was to set down in his book his own sentence: "On Saturday I went to the park with my Dad and I went on the swings and the slide."

He picked up his pencil, steadied the book with his left hand, and for a moment contemplated the blank paper. Very clearly, the challenge was great.

But he knew he was up to it, and he set about his work with a will, speaking the sounds aloud, occasionally reverting to the "Letterland" names ("Sammy Snake", "Hairy Hat Man").

He shaped his letters well, and remembered his finger spaces. After every word he stopped and read his sentence from the beginning, just as his teacher had told him to do. Every so often he made a welcome discovery, as when he came to the phrase "went on the swings" and realised that he had already written both "went" and "the" earlier in the sentence, and so needed only to copy them. Once, he inadvertently left out a word and had to squeeze it in.

Not once did he stop talking - sounding out letters aloud, reading what he'd done or discussing with himself what came next. Nor did his concentration flag.

I didn't help him. Not only was I hesitant because my knowledge of early-literacy methodology is inadequate, but he did not really need it. So I confined myself to encouraging noises and occasional exclamations of "Good lad!"

His finished sentence was legible and accurate - a tribute to good teaching and personal motivation, and he settled back with a big smile.

What I saw at Lyndon Green - a school named for excellence in this year's chief inspector's report - was in many senses the classic National Literacy Strategy approach, beautifully done.

Headteacher Jackie McDowall, however, insists that right from the start she and her team have made the strategy serve their needs rather than vice versa. "We've really tried to hang on to the fact that it's the child who's at the centre, rather than the strategies. We know what works for us," she says.

Hence the school retains a topic-based approach to the curriculum - much of the children's writing arises directly from the topics, as letters, instructions, reports (a letter of apology by Goldilocks for sleeping in the Bears' beds, a recipe for porridge).

The structure of the literacy hour itself, moreover, is observed in spirit rather than merely chronologically.

Once a week there's an extended session of writing for everyone, from 9am to 10.40am, with a wide range of approaches - talk partners, teacher modelling, hot seating. The lesson for all primary heads and teachers is not to worry too much about systems, guidelines and strategies. It's what pupils learn that counts.

Two things stay with me from my visit to Lyndon Green. One is the sheer emotional power of what is happening when young children embark on writing.

I'm reminded of when, at a Nuneaton infant school I used to visit, one of the catering staff called the head's attention to a child who was writing with her finger in spilled gravy.

"Don't tell her off!" cried the head. "The urge to write is upon her!"

To observe this is intensely moving - and underlines the realisation that everyone responsible for the future development of these five and six-year-olds carries an awesome responsibility.

The other thing that struck me was that a separate infant school - in many areas a disappearing institution as schools combine into all-through primaries - has some practical advantages. There is no possibility of governors tweaking the budget to favour key stage 2, for example, and as Jackie McDowall says, the staff are specialists in the age range.

"You appoint people with an early-years bias," she says. "They know the curriculum and they're interested in introducing it to very young children."

One more thing. Did I say the little boy I sat with was "learning to write"? That's not quite right, is it? At that moment he was a writer, secure as any Andrew Motion or JK Rowling in the knowledge that once again he had found, and set down, the words to convey his thoughts.

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