Spell of the Moment

5th September 1997 at 01:00
Sue Palmer watches what happens in a literacy hour

Parsons Street Primary School, inner city Bristol, July 1


Louise Hopcraft gathers her class in the teaching corner for registers, birthday greetings and general chat about the day's events (it's sports day). There are 30 children, mostly Year 1 (five to six-year-olds) with a handful of seven-year-olds. Parsons Street has had problems with literacy standards in the past, so when a new headteacher arrived at the beginning of the academic year, the school put itself forward for inclusion in the Bristol Literacy Project.

Several of Louise's class are on the Special Educational Needs register, and one already has a statement and a full-time classroom helper. Another classroom helper is available to assist with the literacy hour.


Louise writes the date on her whiteboard and calls the class to order. Parsons Street discipline policy is to accentuate the positive: "Right, let me have a look. Who's sitting quietly? Oh, you're all so special I don't know who to choose." The lucky one takes the registers to the office, the others gaze expectantly at their teacher.


Louise pins an enlarged copy of a poem on the board.

"We read this yesterday from this book, Sports Poems, compiled by John Foster. Does anyone remember what a compilation is? What does a compiler do?"

Hands shoot up.

"He choosed what poems would be writed in that book."

"That's right." She repeats the answer in standard English for those ready to absorb such linguistic niceties, then re-reads the poem, pausing at the ends of lines for children to supply the missing words.

It's called "The Flying Reptiles Race" by Irene Yates and it starts: Five flying reptiles were just about to dine.

The dinner had arrived and it looked just fine.

then up jumped a bossy one and shouted with glee, 'I bet that I could beat you to the Far-Away Tree!'

The other reptiles laughed and they cried, 'No way!

We're the fastest in the land, we could beat you any day.' "It's a very quick poem isn't it? I had to read it quickly. Why was that?" "It was about a quick thing." "A fast race!"

"Yes, today's poem's about a race too, but it's a different sort of poem, with a different format."

"It's more like a story!" "It's got longer lines!"

"Are the rhymes the same?" asks Louise.

Glen suggests: "All of the end words rhyme." Craig goes further: "Dine and fine rhyme and glee and tree."


Louise reads the poem, discussing difficult words after each verse and inviting comments, especially predictions. As she reads, she points with a transparent ruler which obscures the text as little as possible.

The children enjoy savouring new words such as "glee" and quickly grasp the point. "Why do you think the poet says the other dinosaurs are foolish?" "Because he fooled them, he tricked them." "He had a plan."

"Yes," sums up Louise. "He had a good plan but he was devious, wasn't he?" 9.12

"Let's look closely. What's that little mark there by the word 'go'?" "A question mark?" "A clmation mark?" "It's speech marks!" "Well done. It's when he's speaking. What about this one?" "A comma."

"Good, what does a comma do?"

"It breaks up a sentence." "When you need a break." "To help you understand. " The comma is obviously a topic of interest at the moment. Next, children identify and discuss the functions of a full stop and an exclamation mark (first try: "an information mark").

James meanwhile is still brooding on the message of the poem.

"I know what he did, Miss. He cheated."

"Yes, James. He was a bit naughty."


"Can I just say well done to all these super people here who are listening so hard. It really is important when we're doing our speaking and listening to sit still and quiet."

Louise sticks up a chart with four sets of rhyming words from the poem randomly arrayed. "Can you find the one in red to match the one in purple?" This is a popular task. Kelly is selected to match land and sand.

"How did you know?"

Enthusiastic noises and a forest of hands. "Now, we have rules about shouting out. That's better."

"They've got the same sounds at the end!"

They move on to the other sets of words. Competition to answer means occasional Joyce Grenfell asides: "Richie, I don't want to hear that funny squeaking noise."

Then someone notices something.

"Fright's got right in it. But it's not write with your pencil because that's got a w."

Louise talks about the meaning of the two words and the significance of silent letters, and the children are rapt.


"Now those words were all rhyming partners. Can anyone think of a word that means two people who look exactly like each other?" "Twins!"

"Yes, and the sound today is tw, like the beginning of twins."

Twin is written up and children suggest other words with the same initial blend: tweet, twig, twenty, twelve. Louise invites them to spell words out as she writes them.

"Two," suggests Martin.

"Gosh, yes, but that one's a bit different. It's another silent w isn't it? I'll write it in a separate place. Well done."

The collection continues, always with explicit talk about meaning and orthography. Twix presents an opportunity to mention capital letters for special names, twice is celebrated for having ice inside it, then ice gets acclaim for its soft c. The children are still rapt.

9.27 "You are brilliant. Let's see you sitting up. You've really got to concentrate on what's on the board today."

Preparation for group work. Blue group has a passage to read and put in missing full stops and capital letters. They know what to do because they listened to the instructions yesterday when yellow group did it. Yellow group is to write sports poems, like red group did yesterday. Orange group is reading with Louise, green group is doing spellings, and red group has tw follow-up work, sticking tw pictures on a twig, and matching them with words.


"Let's check you all know what to do."

Children from each group reiterate the instructions.


Louise goes round getting each group started. Orange group waits in the teaching corner, browsing, but soon she's there doling out a set of books for the "guided reading" session.

They talk about cover and title, "Wind and Sun" (noticing that "and" is a joining word), then look through it, discussing what the story may be about. Then the children all begin to read the book aloud, while Louise distributes her attention between them, picking up miscues and guiding their reading.

Of all the techniques in this literacy hour, guided reading is the only one I find unconvincing. Even a gifted teacher such as Louise has difficulty attending to five readers at once - it's like spinning plates. The most successful moment is when a child is stumped and she asks the group, "If we get stuck on a word, what should we do?" The pooled response makes a lot of sense - more pooled teaching, listening to each other read while following in their own books, would surely get them further than simultaneous individual mumbling through the text.

The session finishes with discussion of the story.

9.49 Orange group goes off to write out a favourite line from the "Sun and Wind" and sticks it on a poster, while Louise checks the rest of the class.

Green group has finished spelling words and is happily doing jigsaws.

Blue group members filled in their capitals and full stops and are reading picture books.

Red group stolidly sticks words on their twigs.

Yellow group members have been writing their poems with help from the SEN assistant.

Louise looks at all their work, congratulating, affirming, helping with problems. According to literacy hour conventions, she shouldn't be doing this - it turns the session into a literacy hour-and-a-quarter - but she believes the children need her feedback and approbation. I agree - when you're five, and your teacher is the star in your firmament, you need her to tell you "Well done" in person.

9.58"Right - stop, look, listen." Louise puts a hand in the air, and gradually everyone else follows suit and awaits instructions.

"You've all done some nice work this morning. Let's get sorted out: write your names on your papers, games and scissors away, books in the book corner, chairs tucked in. Then sit on the carpet - oh, there's a group ready here - excellent!" 10.02

All are on the carpet except two gluers with a special dispensation to finish.

Normally this would be a plenary session, with children sharing details of what they've learned, but because today's sports day there's an early break. The children are dismissed and Louise goes to the staffroom for her coffee.

Breathless with admiration, I follow her. If the literacy hour encourages teaching of the kind I've seen this morning, I'm all for it.

Next week's 20-page Primary Update will include a TES guide to literacy projects

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