Read like an open book

13th June 1997 at 01:00
Using Written Sources in Primary History

By Joan Blyth and Pat Hughes

Hodder and Stoughton #163;12.99

Vast though the written record may be for recent British history, it very quickly fades to nothing, as you go back in time. One page of a telephone directory contains more information about more named individuals today than all the available sources for pre-Roman Britain contain about individuals living then.

In fact, those dynasts in southern Britain who inscribed their names on coins in the century following Caesar's invasion are the first individual Britons that we know of. Before words anonymity reigns. Without the benefit of names and written evidence, the reconstructed past is shadowy, for history is not only fashioned using words but is heavily dependent upon words.

Evidence is now the watchword of the history teacher and children cannot be taught that Nelson wanted to be kissed, or that Alfred was Great, without examining the evidence. Even so, some primary teachers are wary of the written record and find documentary evidence difficult to tackle in the classroom. Getting to first base is often the problem. Where can one obtain suitable material? Not all primary teachers have had training in history and many simply do not know where to start.

Joan Blyth and Pat Hughes set out to offer some pointers and deal with each of the British history study units in turn (not omitting the unit for key stage 1 you will be pleased to know). Some 49 sources are quoted (although some were "specially prepared") but the authors' expectation is that these will not be used unaltered. It is a pity that the issue of evidence tampering is neither confronted nor explored at this point, but then it is not that sort of book.

Right from the start the links between English and history are stressed and most of the activities are intellectual and literary. Not that the authors see history as a subject whose main function is to service the curriculum needs of English, far from it. They clearly believe that history has worth in its own right.

Joan Blyth and Pat Hughes work through their selected sources by giving some historical background and then interrogating it. What? Why? Who? The largely literary activity outcomes develop from there. Plaques, coins, memorials, samplers and even CD-Roms are cited and the authors are at pains to point out that written sources are not solely documentary. (Whether CD-Rom is medium or message might make an interesting debating point.) The examples used are interesting and diverse. Material from the unit on "Romans, Saxons and Vikings" is taken from Tacitus; a memorial stone in the Grosvenor Museum Chester; Bede's Ecclesiastical History; the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle; a 13th-century Icelandic saga; and an Anglo-Saxon poem from the Exeter Book.

There is a good bibliography although an even more extensive list of sources would have been useful and the otherwise fine list of fiction is marred by the omission of an attribution as to period, for not all the book titles are sufficiently revealing on this point. Record Office work is covered in the appendix and some of the articles (Ian Mason's from the Essex Record Office, for example) are lively and interesting enough but one sometimes wonders whether they were written for the same audience as the rest of the book.

Correct and functional, Using Written Sources is wholesome and smooth - like natural yoghurt - and about as exciting. I longed to see some of the practical ideas developed and explained in ways which might inspire the teachers and ultimately catch the imagination of the child, but they are rarely presented as other than simple statements. "Make a big class map. This could be linked with work on rivers." Yes it could, but I was neither tempted nor convinced it was worth it.

Paul Noble is head of Blunsdon St Andrew primary school, Swindon

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