Reception children in classes running a structured daily "literacy hour" outperformed their peers in ordinary reception classes in literacy skills, and were better at working on their own and in groups, according to a new study from the universities of London and Oxford.
The findings, presented to the SCAA conference by Professor Kathy Sylva, reader in educational studies at Oxford, offer hard evidence to back up the Government's determination to bring in literacy hours as a central plank in its standards drive.
She and her colleagues, Jane Hurry and Jeni Riley from London University, studied six classes in the Literacy Initiative for Teachers (LIFT) project and six matched classes in the city of Westminster.
At the end of reception, the 111 LIFT pupils were ahead of their 92 peers in reading, letter recognition and concepts about print.
The researchers studied classroom activities minutely, with surprising results. There was no difference in the amount of time spent on literacy, staffing levels or the proportion of time devoted to whole-class, small group or individual learning. Teachers in the LIFT classes, however, spent more time instructing children through questioning and more time managing small group activities.
Professor Sylva found that LIFT children spent significantly more time reading to one another, reading alone and engaging in collaborative writing. The control group children spent more time tracing, drawing and colouring, playing and moving about. "The successful learners experience slightly more direct teaching but much more collaborative learning," she said.
"What's fascinating from the pedagogical point of view is that direct instruction was only part of the picture. Teachers instructed and managed, to be sure, but each individual child spent more time engaged in collaborative learning within their groups than in talking to or listening to adults. "
Meanwhile, two other studies suggest that formal teaching in the nursery actually impedes children's academic and social development, she said. American research from Michigan published this year followed ex-pupils until the age of 23 from three different types of nursery: a HighScope programme, in which children plan their own activities, a play-based nursery, and a formal nursery.
More of the formal, skills-based nursery "graduates" had been arrested for a felony, been through disciplinary hearings at work and had had minor brushes with the law. Those that had been involved in a programme emphasising child-initiated activities and active learning were more involved in the community.
"Even more relevant to a new government, the HighScope graduates had significantly higher rates of voting," said Professor Sylva.
In another study, published last year, Professor Sylva and Maria Nabuco of Portugal demonstrated the benefits of HighScope, whose pupils did better in reading and writing, while formal nursery ex-pupils had higher levels of anxiety and lower self-esteem.
Professor Sylva recommended that the Government's curriculum for four-year-olds should retain its current "light touch" demands for mental learning and "boldly expand the social, moral and creative side to it".
The academic curriculum should remain spare in the early years, while a firm foundation for collaborative learning and social skills should be laid.
"What better place to acquire necessary social skills than in the nursery? And what better place to begin the skills of productive teamwork than in the reception class?" Professor Sylva concluded.