Theories behind the strategy

27th June 2003 at 01:00
Sue Palmer takes a look at some of the theories and practice behind the teaching of literacy

Raising Standards in Literacy Edited by Ros Fisher, Greg Brooks and Maureen Lewis Routledge Falmer, pound;16.99 (paperback); pound;55 (hardback)

Improving Literacy at KS2 and KS3 Edited by Andrew Goodwyn Paul Chapman Publishing, pound;17.99

Listening to Stephen Read: Multiple Perspectives on Literacy By Kathy Hall Open University Press pound;16.99 (paperback); pound;50 (hardback)

BUILT: Building Understandings in Literacy and Teaching By Kristina Love, Keith Pigdon, Graeme Baker, and Julie Hamston CD-Rom from University of MelbourneNATESee website for details: index.shtm

Two strands of concern run through this collection of books and the CD-Rom.

The first is the extent to which politicisation of education has led to nationally prescribed teaching practices in literacy. In England, the National Literacy Strategy, pursuing the holy grail of "raised standards" (that is, higher marks in key stage 2 and 3 tests), now provides not only government-approved teacher training, but also prescribed teaching methodology and resources (which are called "exemplification materials" but look suspiciously like scripted lessons). In other English-speaking countries similar "programmes" hold sway, and targets and standards drive literacy teaching.

The second is that, since all this prescription was devised, things have changed - and are likely to change more in coming years. The NLS is trapped in a mid-20th-century view of literacy: reading as a book-based activity, writing as pencil and paper work and, in primary education at least, oracy as an incidental add-on. Yet, for the children we teach, day-to-day literacy is largely screen-based, and much communication is visual - old-style literacy looks increasingly dated.

Raising Standards in Literacy, a collection of papers from a series of international research seminars, addresses the first strand of concern in detail, providing an even-handed assessment of the status quo. Its three sections focus on research into literacy, the nature of evidence (what exactly are these "standards" anyway?) and current trends in teaching practice. As well as many papers questioning the new orthodoxy, there are contributions from NLS supporters, including one of its major authors.

Chapters by experts from the US and Australia illustrate just how wide consensus about good literacy teaching has become.

The most interesting chapter is tucked in towards the end: a review of "Globalisation, literacy and curriculum practice" which examines the assumptions and practices of primary teachers in an "edge-city community" in Australia (it sounds very like a primary school near you) and the effects on pupils' progress when they go on to secondary school. It's not cheering.

Improving Literacy at KS2 and KS3 is all about primary-secondary transfer, seen mostly through the eyes of secondary teachers, but with some interesting contributions from middle-school staff who know the territory well. This book sees the NLS's influence on primary practice as generally benign, but takes a more jaundiced view of the implications for secondary teaching, especially in its central chapter "Evidence from experienced practitioners".

There are, however, many useful suggestions for reshaping and adapting parts of the strategy, including chapters on classroom literacy and everyday life and literacy and drama which consider ways of relating learning to the wider culture beyond school, including screen-based literacy. There is also a review of the language-across-the-curriculum movement and a chapter on subject literacies which has left me with an abiding admiration for geography teachers as lone voices of dissent.

Listening to Stephen Read is a fascinating book. The author records a specific reading event (eight-year-old Stephen staggering haltingly through Bear by Mick Inkpen) and invites six literacy experts to analyse his performance and suggest the best way forward. She then analyses the experts' perspectives, defining them as psycho-linguistic, cognitive-psychological, socio-cultural or socio-political.

The first two are rooted in different aspects of 20th century book-based literacy (indeed, one of the cognitive-psychological theorists is director of training for the NLS); the second pair challenge these perspectives in various ways. Throughout the book, however, I wished I could actually watch the video of Stephen reading which the experts analysed. In fact, I wanted a CD-Rom not a book.

BUILT, an Australian course for teachers in language and learning, is a CD-Rom, and illustrates how useful it is to see and hear language in context as well as reading about it. Its four units first explain the theory of language analysis and the teaching model, then take you through their application to oracy, writing and reading, with video illustration throughout.

Despite these "new-literacy" clothes, however, the pedagogic techniques illustrated on BUILT are similar to those promoted by the NLS - not surprisingly, since the strategy is greatly underpinned by Australian research and practice. One again wonders at the general international consensus on literacy teaching, particularly the reliance on prescribed teaching sequences and the tendency to drown pupils in technical terminology. There is, however, a refreshing breadth in the video material in terms of texts.

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