Perfectly matched

4th September 1998 at 01:00
The demands of the national literacy strategy go hand in glove with the teaching of history, says Grant Bage

Literature and history were joined long since by the powers which shape the human brain; we cannot put them asunder." So claimed the historian C V Wedgwood. What of primary-school literacy and history in this age of task forces and targets? Two paths are open - using materials and ideas from history in the literacy hour, or reinforcing the learning of literacy in history.

According to the NLS Framework: "Links with the rest of the curriculum are fundamental to effective literacy teaching." It also says: "Where appropriate, literacy teaching should be linked to other areas of the curriculum. For example . . . studying myths, autobiographies or stories linked to a study unit in history." It also states: "Other subjects should be treated as vehicles for literacy work."

So is history a mere maid-servant, a cipher for phonemes? It need not be: the document insists that in the literacy hour "pupils must be working on texts".

Enter history's rich textual array. Personal, family, street and town names as well as birth dates - are these just words from the reading and writing requirements for a child's reception year? Or do they link into a historical text that tells a child his or her life story?

How about the framework's Year 1 "playground chants and traditional stories"? Are these stepping stones to literacy, or intrinsically interesting texts that can help children write, read, listen and talk as they enquire of the past?

Literacy, like history, happens where texts meet skilful teachers and enthusiastic learners. History is interesting and linguistically and textually rich. Why spend thousands of pounds on published schemes when history offers so much for free?

Take non-fiction, for instance. In Year 1, says the NLS Framework, children must experience "recounts of observations, visits, events". Wheel in anyone over 20, and they will recount an event, whether it was the Queen Mother's birthday or Paul Gascoigne's visit to town. And in Year 2, they must deal with "information texts including non-chronological reports". Compile one with children, using the local graveyard or school log book.

Then start combining fiction and non-fiction. Year 3, term 1 calls for work on "information texts on topics of interest". Year 3, term 2 requires the study of "myths, legends, fables, parables, traditional stories, oral and performance poetry from different cultures". Sounds like studying ancient Greece.

Take Year 4 NLS fiction - "historical stories and short novels, classic poetry, range of poetry in different forms". Add non-fiction's reqirement for a "range of text-types from reports and articles . . . information texts on same or similar themes . . . information texts linked to other curricular areas". Then stir in dollops of the Victorians. Only now our recipe is not strict national curriculum history, we can cook creatively - scrutinising stories of real local heroes, reading from statues, plaques and plinths, savouring the poetry and singing the hymns Victorian children learned.

We can analyse fictional and factual texts. And yes, it could all get messy. National curriculum history's clear and powerful key elements could drown in seas of dull comprehension. Literacy hour objectives could be diluted into sloppy curriculum planning. But are we teachers, or robots? The dangers of failing to link literacy hours and numeracy hours with the curriculum's subjects are equally great.

Take two case studies. One school for five to nine-year-olds in east England, despite having reasonable results, was panicked by the literacy hour into a secondary-style key stage 2 timetable. History for seven-year-olds will be the last half-hour on Fridays and the first on Tuesday mornings. Good luck to them, but I wish they had talked to the second school, for five to 11s in the west of England. Its reading and writing results were poor, so teachers introduced the literacy hour last year. Being sensible and confident, they adapted the NLS Framework to their existing history (and geography) curricula. Next year they will do the same for science.

It took longer to plan their literacy hours, but building on existing strengths made it cheaper in classroom and human resources. In the long run it will also ease their curriculum re-planning up to and beyond the millennium. And their children's results? They improved, dramatically.

History is genetically bonded to literacy. History analyses evidence to produce argumentative text, skins a story to reveal its bones or simply researches our roots. History gives children the tools to become literate and reasons to use and sharpen those tools. Nobody is telling schools merely to teach the three Rs. Young minds need nourishment and stimulation.

Learners, parents, teachers and governments want a broad and balanced curriculum. Wedgwood reminds us how: "The English language has many moods and the historian makes use of them all." So long as we don't panic, so can we teachers.

Grant Bage is a member of the Historical Association's primary committee

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