Reading and writing for the real world

21st March 1997 at 00:00
Extending Literacy: Children reading and writing non-fiction. By David Wray and Maureen Lewis, Routledge, #163;10.99.

For some children, learning to read is quite possibly as easy as riding a bike. But as the pedantic Professor Toad might have said - it all depends on what you mean by "riding" (and indeed, what you mean by "bike").

With reading as with riding, it is too easy to make the assumption that it is all the same. In fact, the skills and techniques involved alter from genre to genre, from purpose to purpose.

By and large, schools prepare children best to read and write narrative, which, David Wray and Maureen Lewis point out in Extending Literacy, is definitely the dominant taught genre, whereas the bulk of adult experience is with text other than narrative. What is rare, and surprisingly so considering the "language across the curriculum" emphasis stressed by the Bullock Report in 1975, is teaching specifically geared to helping children cope with mathematical, historical, or scientific reading and writing. It is true that children may practise reading in a range of curriculum contexts, but this is not quite the same thing.

The Exeter Extending Literacy Project (EXCEL - not so much an acronym, more an exhortation), begun in 1992, could be said to be picking up where the work of Lunzer and Gardner left off in the early 1980s.

As a result of their work, sequencing, cloze procedures and the like were added to our armoury of teaching strategies, and Directed Activities Related to Texts (DARTS) are with us still.

DARTS injected life into many moribund worksheets and exercises. Indeed I recall being introduced to them as "Fun" Activities Related to Texts (an acronym best left unsaid). Accepting that DARTS are good, EXCEL has partly been seeking to tease out the answer to the question, "Good for what?".

Among the basic assumptions made by the EXCEL team is the Bullock line that reading and writing are not issues for English alone. Also that the question of coping with a range of texts is too important to be ignored any longer and that pupils' reading and writing experiences should mirror the kind of interactions encountered outside school and must therefore be purposeful.

As the project was entirely school and classroom based, all the strategies put forward in the book have been track-tested. Perhaps because of this, the book turns out to be more than an academic write-up of a piece of research. It is down to earth and practical, full of ideas extensively illustrated by examples worked through by children.

The EXIT model (Extending Interacting with Texts) is developed to describe the process children engage in when tackling non-fiction, and a substantial proportion of the book is given over to the strategies developed within the model.

The outcome is nothing earth shatteringly new - experienced teachers will be quick to recognise the essence of ideas and techniques they may have used under different names and in different circumstances - but refined and brought together in this fashion, they form something more powerful and effective than the occasional injection of inspired teaching or good sense.

Ignore the esoteric language used to describe these strategies - genre exchange, strategy grids and metacognitive discussion, among others - the model provides a useful construct for coming to grips with important issues, and the techniques are both interesting and demonstrably workable. Moreover, the four teaching principles built upon here clearly have, as the authors rightly claim, wider application.

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