Playing by the book

23rd January 1998 at 00:00
1. Gina Hodges

Position: Deputy head and Year 6 teacher School: Hunter's Bar Junior School, 350 seven to 11s, many from Sheffield's "muesli belt", 9 per cent free school meals Literacy style: children are apprentice writers National test results: KS2 English, 87 per cent level 4-plus Inspection verdict: "Many pupils are achieving beyond the national expectation for their age . They write in a vivid, interesting way"

Children read Tennyson one day, Roger McGough the next. They read silently for substantial periods. Drama, art and topic work are related to texts. Many homes are bookish, parents very supportive. Writing is always for a reader or audience; writing skills are presented as the power tools of the professional writer.

Gina says: "We make sure we have some texts to make them laugh, and some to make them cry. We have texts that challenge them, spark off their imaginations. We try to make them excited about language and its power.

"Generally I would try to relate technical work to what we were reading. For example, we write the unwritten chapter in Carrie's War by Nina Bawden.What was the conversation between Mr Evans and his sister when the children were in bed? What would he say? What would she say? We might start with some role play. Then I'd ask them to write it as it is in the book. I would say we are going to concentrate on verbs that make our writing more interesting. I ask them to remind me what a verb is. We would look at some text on an overhead projector. What word would fit in here? How is the writer achieving this effect? How could you achieve that effect?

"They proofread and edit and punctuate their own texts more carefully if they know it's for a real audience. For instance, when we are working on metaphor, they each write a poem about someone the whole class knows and we have to guess who it is. It can be someone in the class or a famous person. If they know something like that is going to be read out, they give total commitment to it."

2. Mike Walsh

Position: Headteacher School: Goddard Park Primary School, 530 four to 11s on bleak Swindon estate, 40 per cent free school meals Literacy style: colourful, enriching, boy-friendly National test results: KS1 reading, 82 per cent level 2-plus; writing, 96 per cent level 2; KS2 English, 88 per cent level 4-plus

Silver foil, cardboard tubes and magnetic letters create "writing machines" in every infant classroom. Ability setting in the juniors, specialist English teachers, parent workshops and a big investment in non-fiction are the foundations of Mike Welsh's strategy. The teachers gave up their staffroom to house a language-enriching pre-school playgroup.From Year 1 all pupils write on 30 laptop computers.

Mike says: "Year 1 children create a story on the writing machines and use the laptops to develop it. Some children can use a laptop before they can write properly. It encourages. It motivates. It enables. In urban areas, you commonly find children are unwilling to commit themselves in writing unless they are sure they are right, so their stories tend to be short. With laptops you are more likely to see a fluency, a flow.

"By Year 6, they can write longer stories and develop characters. They edit, redraft, punctuate and so on. They produce poetry anthologies and newsletters. They can word process a story for the school paper and do graphics at a work station. It's all writing for a purpose.

"A lot of language work is with buddies. They do a piece of work and their response partner asks questions about it. You need to provide experiences for inner-area children before you get imagination and creativity. We have resident artists and writers and go on lots of visits. We have a lot of stimulation for literacy. It's not just heads down stuff."

3. Liz Waterland

Position: Headteacher School: Brewster Avenue Infant School, 185 three to seven-year-olds in crumbling district of Peterborough, 37 per cent free school meals Literacy style: a treasure house of books National test results: KS1 reading, 69 per cent level 2-plus and writing, 58 per cent level 2-plus Inspection verdict: This is a good school. Children enjoy reading and are confident readers.

Individual children their home backgrounds, their stages of understanding, their taste in books are what count for Liz Waterland. She was worried that Ofsted would criticise her 15-year focus on using real books. In fact, Brewster Avenue was named one of the countrys best schools last year. Being a pupil there is like living in a library.

Liz says: "I remember an adult saying to me that she didn't read after she left school, because there was nobody to read to. I want to put books into children's hands, not after they have learned to read but right at the very beginning, so they see themselves as readers.

In reception, our children use word banks to make their own story books about themselves, their families and their friends. They make their own reading schemes if you like. As the range of their stories increases, so does the range of the words they use.

If a child chooses a book that isn't at their level of reading, we read it to them. We expect a child to speak and listen, to read and be read to. How is he going to know about the next stage in literacy development if he hasnt heard it read?

Children are individuals. They have to have experience before they can understand. Once they have experience of books you can teach techniques like word and letter recognition.

Pupils can bring their own responses to text and stories. When I see literacy projects that say, Literacy is defined as the ability to read and write, I think: the ability just to do it isn't literacy. A child is fully literate when he can not only do reading and writing, but wants to do it and takes pleasure in it as well."

4. Sue Buckley

Position: Professor of developmental disability at Portsmouth University School: The Sarah Duffen Centre in Portsmouth Literacy style: it must be fun National test results: children with Down's syndrome have achieved levels 1 and 2 in reading and writing Inspection verdict: not applicable

Joanna was two and a half when Sue Buckley taught her to read 30 words.She also had Down's syndrome. That was in the early Eighties. Since then, Sue's research has established that these children can learn to read and write using the same strategies as their peers.

Sue says: "The assumption in schools at the beginning of the Eighties was that these children might learn a social sight vocabulary: ladies, gents, bus stop, that kind of thing. They weren't being taught to read; they were learning to wipe their bottoms and tie their shoe laces.

As soon as we started placing children in reception classes and saying we wanted them to learn to read, the teachers heaved a sigh of relief and started treating them like everybody else. We thought they wouldn't manage letter sounds because they often have hearing problems, but they did. We thought the sentence structure in reading schemes would be too difficult, but they don't want to be left out. So they ended up doing everything.

Our study has shown that, in the first two years of school, pupils with Down's syndrome make about the same progress as ordinary slower readers. Even though they find it hard to apply their phonic knowledge, even though they rely largely on word recognition, they still manage to make the same degree of progress. At eight and nine it gets harder because they have problems with comprehension. The dog chasing the cat is black is a sentence many children with Down's might not get.

Some kids will read story books for pleasure. Others won't get that far but they can read postcards or find football on the television page. And some will manage even less but getting it will have improved their spoken language and cognitive skills.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today