Off-the-shelf thinking;Reviews

25th June 1999 at 01:00
Stanley Thornes Primary Literacy. Reception teacher's book. Year 1 teacher's book. Year 2 teacher's book. Sound Start. Year 4 teacher's book; textbook; anthology; resources. Tel: 01242 267280

Nicholas Bielby on a literacy scheme that does your planning for you

At the heart of Primary Literacy are the teacher's books, with 180 fully worked-out literacy hour plans per year. If my students had produced such thorough and organised lesson plans, I would have been well pleased.

But here lies the rub. Does having the thinking and planning done for you reduce you to an "educational operative"? The most effective literacy teachers use few pre-packaged resources and do not buy into an off-the-shelf philosophy and approach.

At key stage 1, Primary Literacy incorporates the Sound Start materials in an overall programme, and phonics has its place in thedaily lesson plans. The resources file includes the rationale for this, which is good so far as it goes. But the phonics does not go far enough.

We need to be clear what phonics is about - especially when terms like "synthetic" and "analytic" phonics have appeared to confuse us.

Graphophonics refers to the whole range of ways that spellings relate to pronunciations, and phonics refers to teaching these relationships. Synthetic phonics refers specifically to rote-learning letter sounds, sounding-out-and blending routines (whereby "cuh-a-tuh" says "cat") and spelling according to each discrete sound heard in a word.

Analytic phonics refers to learning about, observing and inferring how spellings (letters and spelling patterns) represent elements in the pronunciation in words (thus, "cup" and "cat", and "cat" and "hat", respectively, share certain elements). In analytic phonics, this information is used to work out new words by analogy from known spelling patterns. Synthetic and analytic approaches are complementary, not conflicting, as some people would have you believe.

However, skilled readers leave synthetic phonics behind when they build up a fully-processed sight vocabulary of words and part-words (for example, "yacht", "inter-", "-ation"). The value of synthetic phonics is in how it contributes to its own demise.

Analytic phonics, through pattern-seeing and inference-making, develops the sight vocabulary of skilled readers. Adults tackle new words analytically (for example, by analogy with known spelling patterns) rather than synthetically. Nevertheless, at the initial learning stage, both approaches are needed and need to be co-ordinated in teaching.

Primary Literacy does not provide a balanced phonics. It is more analytical than synthetic. The scheme makes reading for meaning central, supported by phonics. But if it errs, at least it errs on the side of the angels!

At key stage 2, Primary Literacy provides 720 lesson plans and mirrors the national literacy strategy both in its virtues and its limitation. The NLS has been widely welcomed, although the literacy hour has been criticised for discouraging children from reading whole books and for teaching skills without showing how to apply them. It has also been accused of failing both ends of the ability spectrum and restricting professional teachers' room for manoeuvre. Primary Literacy could be accused of the same things, for example, where it claims "...all your planning is done for you" and that the plans provide "watertight support" (tantamount to saying "foolproof - for fools").

But it provides a very thorough-going, if somewhat pedestrian, approach. For example, the "plan a story" writing frame is stereotyped, yet has a place in supporting composition based on an engaging story opening from the anthology. The work on the Anne Frank unit asks children to syllable-hunt, but the Holocaust and Anne's death are by-passed.

The scheme follows the limitations and errors of the NLS in detail, for example, in asking children to count syllables in poems, when rhythm, in English poetry, is determined by stress. However, for teachers with imagination, the scheme could provide a good starting point - even if, sometimes, in the opposite direction!

If Stanley Thornes is right, and "one day all literacy schemes will be like this", it's a bit scary: supportive or totalitarian, take your pick. But, certainly, homogenising.

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