Rewriting the literacy hour

25th June 1999 at 01:00
Richard Fox on how good teachers fit writing into the school day.

One of the main problems posed for teachers by the literacy hour has been how to give writing its proper place in a scheme that was designed primarily with reading in mind. However, experienced teachers are already solving the problem. In the course of carrying out a research project, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (Effective Teaching of Writing at key stage 1), I have spent much of this year observing and interviewing a group of 10 "effective" teachers of literacy in the south-west. Each has a strong record as a teacher of English at KS1, with good results and recommendations from headteachers and local advisers. They also have about 20 years of teaching experience each.

How are such seasoned campaigners taking to the literacy hour, with its tightly organised programme and detailed recommendations on teaching methods? One of their strengths is their open-mindedness and readiness to go on learning. They are not at all "anti" the hour. They welcome the clarity of its programme, the time they are now able to devote to literacy teaching and the boost it has given to our expectations for children's learning.

But they are also of one mind when it comes to the teaching of writing. It needs more time and a rather different approach to organisation than it gets in the standard literacy hour format.

Extended writing is the most obvious problem. It needs separate time outside the literacy hour or within a modified one. This is exactly what these teachers are giving it. They have the professional self-confidence to ignore features of the literacy strategy with which they disagree and the ability to modify it whenever they see fit. Thus they neither complain about the imposition of the hour, nor feel bound to follow its every twist and turn. They are adapting to it where it works well and changing it where it seems to be failing. It is refreshing to see such professional boldness in action.

At key stage 1, confidence and a readiness to "have a go" are crucial for children's development as writers. The transition from making marks on paper to learning the conventions of letter formation, spelling and punctuation is a very difficult one and these teachers do everything they can to support and boost that confidence and to provide a "safety net" for their young learners. They see confidence, motivation and a positive attitude towards writing as the top priorities to develop in their pupils and they pursue these goals by designing imaginative tasks, by lively interactive teaching and by a rich mixture of encouragement and challenge. To a woman (and they are mostly women) they are highly proficient at the arts of classroom organisation and control. They waste very little time and they are very energetic in their teaching.

Handwriting is one aspect which they feel is marginalised in the strategy. It requires at least one session of formal teaching per week, and this must include both demonstrations and careful monitoring of letter-formation.

Extended writing needs more than the 20-minute sessions called for in the standard literacy hour format. In fact, several of these teachers have begun timetabling one literacy hour per week devoted almost entirely to extended writing. Another option is to use alternate weeks for reading and writing. Group work and guided writing do have a place in these teachers' classrooms, but often they prefer to work in conference with individual writers. Indeed, the need for one-to-one contact in both reading and writing seems to be one area in which the more group-oriented literacy strategy is being quietly resisted.

These teachers have no problem with the current emphasis on word level work (decoding skills), they simply seize every opportunity to link word and sentence levels (grammar and punctuation) to text level and to the overall aims of the writing. They constantly weave backwards and forwards between word and text level, pushing consistently for "quality words", "quality language" and an enjoyment in playing with the patterns of language. One fear they all voice is that the literacy hour, for all its strengths, could in the wrong hands become an inflexible formula for dull and mediocre English teaching.

They like its pace and rigour and they accept the advantages of grouping by attainment. But they warn against making a fetish of the Big Book and insist that if children are to write well, then first and foremost they need to find writing exciting.

More details of this project will be given at the United Kingdom Reading Association conference in Chester, on July 24.For further details contact: Dr Richard Fox, School of Education, Exeter University, Heavitree Road, Exeter, EX1 2LU.

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