Nerve centres

13th December 1996 at 00:00
Unnacceptably prescriptive or an innovative drive towards raising standards? Bill Laar looks at the Government's plans for its national literacy project.

Seldom has an incomplete draft training programme, design-ed for trial in a mere clutch of local education authorities, and unseen by all save a handful, raised such nervous expectation, inspired such rumour or fired such controversy. But this has been the effect of the highly-structured syllabuses for literacy centres in 13 LEAs. Two advisers in each authority will begin their work next month with 200 schools, mostly in urban areas, under the guidance of a small team appointed by the Department for Education and Employment.

Plans for a National Literacy and Numeracy Project with about 10 numeracy and 10 literacy centres were announced in January by Education Secretary Gillian Shephard, who wanted an initiative to counter low standards in city schools. The literacy project team, headed by seconded HMI John Stannard, and working with other national agencies such as OFSTED and the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, has drawn up a comprehensive framework for teaching, a draft of which was leaked to The TES (December 6) It has already been condemned in some quarters as an unacceptably prescriptive, centralised curriculum, imposed on teachers and mistaken in its thinking and approaches.

The Government officials who conceived and delivered the project's "framework for teaching", which is being used on training courses in the participating LEAs, have treated its arrival with caution, like modest parents disclaiming the excessive hopes of others about a new baby and counselling the need for time to permit it to develop and prove itself.

For all their reticence, I believe that an agenda for literacy will emerge that will determine the education of primary - and possibly lower secondary - pupils for the foreseeable future. Boundaries are being set and frame-works established that will not be easily rolled back, nor quickly dismantled.

The project views literacy as central to learning. It recognises that children who cannot cope with texts, express themselves and "think" in writing at an early stage of their junior school lives, are likely to be disabled and marginalised in an increasingly text-dominated curriculum. Children who are not literate by Year 4 - the age of 9 - are unlikely to be autonomous learners. Teachers struggling to accommodate large numbers of such children find effective class management and teaching difficult to sustain.

The project has taken the teaching of reading - an area as complex and impenetrable as any in education, that has divided teachers and bewildered a despairing public - and has set out an unequivocal policy and minutely detailed strategies.

Perhaps most remarkable of all, it seems to have got the essentials right. Even more important, it is bravely explicit and lucidly informative about the most difficult and intractable areas of the reading curriculum.

The vision and definition of literacy offered is far-reaching, generous and rich. It is obvious that scrupulous and informed account has been taken of the most authoritative research of the past decade. For example, the project's "framework for teaching" puts forward cogent arguments against relying solely on children's language experience, implicitly rejecting Frank Smith's dictum that children learn to read by reading. The document stresses the need for systematic teaching of phonics and spelling, and argues that children should not rely wholly on grammatical and contextual knowledge in making sense of reading.

The model for developing children's reading strategies seems to me largely irreproachable; it succeeds in combining the crucial elements - context, grammatical knowledge, graphic information, soundspelling connections and word recognition - and the essential learning strategies into an integrated complex, very different from the vaguely eclectic mix advocated by many for so long ("we take a bit of this approach and that strategy, as it suits us.") The document argues, persuasively, the place and purpose of grammar in the literacy equation; it explicates clearly the need for spelling and handwriting to be treated as an integral component of reading and writing and not merely as discrete, associated skills.

The framework deals brilliantly with the crucial integration of reading and writing, providing structures for them to grow off each other. It provides similarly for the interaction of three "strands" of understanding: text level (composition and comprehension), sentence level (grammar and punctuation) and word level (phonics, spelling and vocabulary) work.

An extraordinarily detailed programme of teaching objectives is provided, reflecting the general approach. The reading comprehension objectives are a model of their kind. They cover and interweave a comprehensive range of experiences, competences and skills which would be acceptable to any school of thought about literacy teaching: awareness of genre, of the sequences and structures of plots and of the organisation of narratives; understanding of figurative language; the capability to be critical about one's own and other people's writing; a grasp of the way different types of text (fiction, information books, dictionaries) are presented and structured; and of strategies for reading, such as locating main points, comparing accounts and skimming. For instance, in Year 1, Term 1, children are to be taught "to describe story settings and relate to own experience"; by Year 3, Term 2, in a study of myths, legends and traditional stories, they should learn "to identify some typical themes such as creation myths, fablesparables about, for example, trials and forfeits, good over evil, weak over strong, wise over foolish. .."

The objectives provide a systematic framework within which teachers can be creative. For instance, it would be quite feasible to achieve them through "real books".

Why then the controversy, muted as yet, but likely to erupt as the programme becomes more widely disseminated?

The project is unrepentantly prescriptive. It demands a dedicated "literacy hour" each day in each class, and its structure is fixed and sacrosanct. Children will be organisedin ability groups (someteachers are already disturbed by the implications for children whose first language is not English). There will be direct instruction by the teacher, with whole class and group organisation (again, many teachers are worried about diminished individual teaching, especially where very young children are concerned).

Many will be concerned that the extraordinarily detailed phonic programme is excessive, unnecessary in some respects, and likely to assume undue prominence.

What is undeniable is that the programme will prove immensely demanding for the teachers whose schools are involved. It represents a formidable agenda that will call for highly-informed, extremely well-organised teachers, working at a consistently energetic level. Schools will need to provide extensive staff training, in-class support and the organised use of "additional adults", such as parents. The massive task ofrealising the substance of the objectives will have to be tackled, making heavy demands on expertise, knowledge and ingenuity. There will be a significant need for extra resources; in particular, schools will need extensive sets of graded reading material. For many schools, existing reading schemes may need to be significantly modified, supplemented, or replaced.

The project will call for considerable recording, monitoring, planning and evaluation. It will create demanding targets for improvement. This, in turn, is linked to high expectations of pupils.

Last, but by no means least, schools may have to review radically the current organisation and timetabling of the curriculum.

This is where the project could have a major and unlooked-for consequence. If it is to be widely implemented, I believe it will oblige us to re-examine the extent and nature of the primary curriculum, especially at key stage 2. The dilemma of how to provide both basics and breadth has been sidestepped by Government bodies, and has drained and exhausted primary schools and exposed them to unfair criticism. The inevitable encroachment of the National Literacy and Numeracy Projects will make it impossible to deliver the national curriculum in its present form, however desirable it may be as an entitlement.

They may convince us that we should permit schools to suspend two subjects until Year 5, dedicating the time available to making literacy by age eight an over-riding priority.

Bill Laar is a registered inspector and education consultant


Literate primary children should:

* read and write with confidence, fluency and understanding

* be interested in books, read with enjoyment and evaluate and justify preferences

* know and understand a range of genres in fiction and poetry, and understand and be familiar with some of the ways that narratives are structured through basic literary ideas of setting, character and plot

* understand and be able to use a range of non-fiction texts

* be able to orchestrate a full range of reading cues (phonic, graphic, syntactic, contextual) to monitor and self-correct their own reading

* plan, draft, revise and edit their own writing

* have an interest in words and word meanings, and a growing vocabulary

* understand the sound and spelling system and use this to read and spell accurately

* have fluent and legible handwriting

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