Pie Corbett urges teachers to have their say
"I'm supposed to be looking at prefixes but lots of my children can't spell 'they' - what should I do?" (Year 6 teacher at a literacy conference.) Even as I write, closeted in the bowels of the Department for Education and Skills, a small group is rewriting the national literacy framework. The original revolutionised teachers' subject knowledge. It is hard to remember but nine years ago many of us did not know what a clause was. We knew something about non-fiction but had scant understanding of different text types. And "genre" sounded like something from a Mediterranean menu. So, we have travelled a long way.
But the framework has now become a double-edged sword - it provides schools with a common programme to ensure that children have a broad diet of fiction, non-fiction, plays and poetry. It has helped us think about the way in which words, sentences and texts weave together.
However, for many teachers the framework has become a strait-jacket that limits children's progress. It has trapped us into "delivery" mode with teachers trotting through objectives without thinking about whether these are relevant to children's needs. Where a school's standards have risen, they have felt free to adapt and create teaching objectives in direct relation to progress. So, at the same time as reviewing the curriculum, we should also be developing its partner - teacher assessment. Assessment drives progress.
The framework should be clearer and simpler so that schools and teachers can develop an inter-related curriculum. There needs to be less fussy detail and content, so that there is more opportunity for children to practice and apply what has been taught. Many children do not make enough progress - not because they have not been taught, but because they have not learned.
Sentence-level objectives need to focus more on progression in grammatical skill (for example the effective use of adjectives) rather than knowledge.
True knowledge of the nature of an adjective arises out of thinking about choice and impact. Skill precedes knowledge. It is helpful if children practise constructing and manipulating sentences in mini-whiteboard games.
Too many children have suffered "death by grammar" exercises. The objectives need to clearly indicate that grammar should be "exercised" - by using it.
It would make sense to match up the reading and writing objectives relating to both fiction and non-fiction and to add in "talking the text type". For instance, when teaching "discussion" writing in Year 5, it would be important to hold several class debates. These would give children the chance to hear and speak the language they are reading and writing. This simple and obvious idea was missed out as a key theme in the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority's existing speaking and listening guidance.
A simpler, clearer framework is needed. This should include established research findings, as well as developments cited by the DfES innovations unit. The importance of using drama and multimedia needs to be highlighted.
Storytelling should be a strong strand in foundation and key stage 1. It is a powerful method of helping children internalise narrative patterns that can then be drawn upon in their writing.
Teachers have to weave in creativity, imagination and first-hand experience - the framework introduction needs to re-assert the central role of motivating young readers and writers. Part of raising standards will come through firing up children so that they read greedily and become avid writers. It would be worth identifying key aspects of reading and writing that need to be taught continually. These include planning, drafting and revising or developing the ability to read in a critical and appreciative manner through responding, predicting, picturing, commenting, relating, interpreting. Literacy is a complex set of interwoven behaviours not easily defined in a framework which may fall into the trap of being reductive. The teacher brings the framework alive and makes language learning dynamic, purposeful and serious fun.
Hopefully, a new framework will be liberating - but we should be reworking teacher assessment at the same time. The guidelines for marking Sats are too complex and not appropriate for daily teacher assessment. Teachers need to be able to manoeuvre within the scheme of work and use their assessment to focus their teaching.
Contribute your own ideas through the standards website (www.standards.dfes.gov.uk). Why not devote 10 minutes at the next staff meeting to listing key points? After all, it is our framework that we will be teaching.
And by the way, in answer to the Year 6 teacher who asked me about spelling, I think you should teach them how to spell "they" because the given objectives do not relate to helping your children make progress. They are inappropriate and only you, the teacher, can make that professional judgement.
Move within the framework - and try not to worry about "delivering"
objectives if they are irrelevant to pupil progress. Remember, lorries deliver, teachers teach. There is a difference.
Pie Corbett is a literacy consultant. How do you think the literacy framework should change? Visit www.tes.co.ukstaffroomprimary