No time like the past

26th May 2000 at 01:00
From hieroglyphics to ration tickets, historical texts and artefacts can be a stimulus for writing. By Huw Thomas

History lessons do not have to be squeezed out of the day by the march of the literacy hour.

The past presents a wealth of texts. The Punishment Book of a Victorian School or The Myths of Ancient Greece, photocopied on to overhead projector transparencies, make excellent resources for shared reading. Such texts call upon children to consider the structure of a sentence and the meaning of the whole text in order to understand unfamiliar words. Take, for example, Philip Stubbes's description of football in Tudor times:

"Sometimes their necks are broken... sometimes their noses gush with blood... whosoever scapeth away the best goeth not scot free, but is either sore wounded, crazed and bruised, so that he dieth of it or else scapeth very hardly."

Children need to figure out words such as "scapeth" and "goeth". One way of doing this is to split the class into small groups, giving them a list of old words for which they must provide definitions, and getting them to re-convene to compare their answers. Such texts can also challenge children to appreciate the picture presented of a game of football, as one half of the village batters the other half in the bloody pursuit of a stiff pig's bladder - a far cry from the game they play today.

History can also stimulate a broad range of writing activities. For instance, pupils can devise procedural texts that provide instructions for using the artefacts encountered in history topics. Whether making papyrus or pomanders, children can turn these experiences into instructions.

Re-creating the menu for a meal at Hampton Court enables us to understand something about the past. Children can re-create types of text which are unique to specific periods. The declamations of a town crier should be clear and to the point - from the first "oyez" to the last detail. The speech delivered by a Greek chorus describes a painful tragedy, but can children do a modern version? This works particularly well if the pupils draw upon the plot of a television soap.

History provides a good supply of personalities for children to consider. Portraits such as those of Elizabeth I are source texts that communicate much about their subject. Above is a painting of Elizabeth I dressed in full regalia, and showing symbols of royal power, while behind her the winds scatter the Armada.

In looking at such source material children can list features of the portrait, and then work in groups of three when selecting the two things that interested them most and making notes on why that particular feature attracted their attention.

The National Literacy Strategy encourages children t see the different points of view adopted by various characters involved in an event. If you were inside the Greeks' Trojan Horse, you would probably think it clever. If you were inside Troy, however, you might denounce it as sneaky, unfair and cowardly.

Children can look at events and write persuasive texts arguing the rights and wrongs of a particular case. The monk who writes against the dissolution of the monasteries, the reformer who wants to see an end to child labour - these are the points of view children can adopt, mustering and presenting the arguments for their case.

As well as being important text types in their own right, play scripts provide another way of exploring points of view. The scripting of an argument between two participants in a historical event can provide some good chances for a rant, such as a shopkeeper arguing with a shopper over rationing. If two children write one script, each can contribute their character's point of view.

Diary entries are another way into an event. A class looking at the story of the sinking of the Mary Rose can record the ship's demise, taking on roles such as the French sailor who sank it, the carpenter who built it or a stowaway girl who escaped the wreck.

The mixing of fact with imagination can help bring to life a character's feelings. Dealing with real events draws a more reflective presentation of such feelings from children, who are sometimes less forthcoming when looking at fictional characters.

History fosters children's understanding of story settings. Ask them to imagine they are visiting the time they are studying in a time machine, but they will need much background information on the sort of people they would meet and the places they would visit. Children need to be encouraged to add information into the story. If they are locked up in a pyramid, what else is in there with them? If they end up in a Victorian classroom, what work will they be asked to do? They can keep looking at the difference between the time period they are studying and the present. How does the time traveller feel when called out of class by a schoolmaster - cane in hand - for blotting their copybook?

Having to contrive the story to fit the historical facts can be an advantage. It can pull the plot in interesting directions. Children visiting a Tudor town may not just encounter a villain, but a villain who is a rat-catcher. Imagine ending up in his cellar!

The potential to link history and literacy is worth maximising. It provides extra input for a subject squeezed within the curriculum, and a fascinating resource for stimulating literacy work.

Huw Thomas teaches in Sheffield. Artefacts can be obtained from History in Evidence (Call: 0800 318686)

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