Richer road to literacy

27th June 1997 at 01:00
Children's relish for language will be wasted unless we create a poetic environment for them to thrive in, says Roger Knight.

Children," says Dennis Carter, "are born with a natural poetic voice." A three-year-old draws his father on a pad, lifts the page, and seeing the imprint, calls it "a bruise of Daddy". This is metaphor: not (in national curriculum language) as a "poetic device" but as delighted understanding, intuitive and inventive. It is a native power and one of the foundations of literacy.

This view was the basis of the three-year Clwyd Poetry Project which Mr Carter directed. Conceived in 1992 in reaction against what he saw as the national curriculum's excessive stress on the "functional" aspects of English, the project attempted to show that we cannot separate linguistic growth from imaginative growth. That natural poetic voice, that native relish for language, will thrive only in the poetic environments which primary English classrooms ought to be. This is the rich road to literacy.

It is an unfashionable view. Current anxieties over standards of literacy result in calls for a more deliberate concentration on basic literacy skills: grammar, punctuation and spelling. Vital though these are, the key to their development lies in the quality of the context within which they are taught. Dennis Carter's report on the Clwyd project (The Power to Overwhelm) presents many fascinating accounts of children growing into literacy within poetic environments created by their teachers.

Children are shown tackling and, in their own writing, energized by texts of undeniable sophistication and difficulty: infants working with poems by Walter de la Mare, Charles Causley, Zbigniew Herbert and Georgi Djagarov (the choice is inspiringly cosmopolitan); older children working with Blake, Coleridge, Hopkins, Shakespeare and old English poems of exile such as The Wanderer. Often, the object was public performance. Visiting poets worked alongside teachers and children in the production of oratorios in response to the Welsh myths The Four Branches of the Mabinogi.

In a multi-disciplinary arts project, involving drama, dance and music-making, year 6 children explored visual imagery in Hamlet. The writers studied became "a motor force for the children's development as readers, writers and people", says the report. The year 6 pupil who wrote (in the character of Hamlet) of the trumpet announcing the entrance of Claudius and Gertrude: I feel lonely and sad,

there' s a trumpet playing a hard

and dark song in my mind

was responding to Hamlet's anguish at an intuitive level. But it is within the rich context of the teaching inspired by the project that this pupil's own "inner activity" was mobilised and his confidence in his own use of English strengthened.

The report on the project contains many splendid examples of children's writing that, while echoing the cadences and sometimes incorporating the words of adult poets, achieves a force of expression, a directness of perception typified in those lines.

Work of such quality suggests a key aim of the Clwyd Poetry Project - "to claim major status for poetry in the primary school" - has been achieved. That achievement is based on a fully articulated rationale which leaves no doubt about the contribution poetry may make to the development of literacy.

The rationale includes a persuasive case for some unfashionable elements (learning by heart and choral speaking - the latter neglected in England but active in Wales) and it underpins the report's wealth of immediately practical suggestions, both for projects in which poetry is the main focus and for projects in other areas of the curriculum. Hopkins' wonderful river poem Inversnaid, for instance, is shown to offer a variety of starting points not only for the study of language but for work in geography too. Equally pragmatically, poetry is shown to be a neglected means of increasing children's awareness of phonics.

The strength of the Clwyd Poetry Project is its grounding in a philosophy of language and aesthetics of a traditional kind. It took its place within a lineage that includes teachers and writers such as Majorie Hourd, David Holbrook, Ted Hughes and Jill Pirrie. The detailed work described in the report supplies teachers with standards not only for judging children's writing but for judging the sufficiency of their own ideas of what it is for. Repeatedly it puts in mind the primary definition of "literate": "acquainted with letters or literature".

Jill Pirrie has saidchildren grow into literacy, if at all, only "in the good company of other writers". The perennial anxiety over literacy "skills" leads to the neglect of this proven axiom. Good writing has only ever resulted from a conception of literacy which, while certainly embracing those skills, sees their mastery as dependent upon a much broader accomplishment.

How is "quality" to be achieved? Dennis Carter and Jill Pirrie are with Ted Hughes, who says: "You do not look at the words. You keep your eyes, your ears, your taste, your whole being on the thing you are turning into words." In this way we teach children to trust words and to believe in their own powers. This was clearly the foundation of the Clwyd project. Compare Hughes' advice with that given to candidates sitting the extension paper in this year's key stage 3 national curriculum test: "Concentrate on the quality of your writing. You will be asessed on your spelling, grammar and punctuation as well as the way you express yourself."

"Quality" for Hughes, in the writing of children and adults alike, is inconceivable without a disciplined focus on the experience ("what you are turning into words"). "Quality" in the test instruction is close to being identified with technical orthodoxy alone. National tests of the kind being piloted this year in grammar, spelling and punctuation will certainly not promote adventurous teaching of the quality encouraged in the Clwyd project. A narrow concentration on literacy "skills" may be the enemy of literacy.

The Clwyd Poetry Project had its origins in Dennis Carter's belief - amply borne out by his UK-wide survey of primary schools - that, under the l990 national curriculum order for English, poetry had been reduced to a fringe activity. The 1995 order in its turn "treats language as a tool and literature simply as material on which to hone it". Neither order encouraged teachers to see poetry as a contribution to the development of children's language and sensibilities.

Significantly, in the level descriptions for writing, "quality" is to be achieved almost exclusively through a command of prose syntax. They make no reference to pupils' use of imagery, rhyme or rhythm. Dennis Carter shows how such references might be incorporated into the present structure of national curriculum English.

Debate tends to centre on ways of meeting the requirements of the national curriculum - there are OFSTED inspectors to satisfy. The Clwyd project, in re-animating a neglected tradition of English teaching, supplies the perspective within which the requirements themselves must be critically evaluated. With a millennial revision of national curriculum English in prospect and with the grip of national testing likely to tighten around the daily teaching of the subject this is an alternative voice that demands to be heard.

The Power to Overwhelm by Dennis Carter is published by the Clwyd Poetry Project, Pounds 8.99 Roger Knight is a senior lecturer in education at the University of Leicester. He is editor of The Use of English (published by the English Association) and author of Valuing English: Reflections on the National Curriculum (David Fulton 1996)

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