Time to police the literacy hour?;Briefing;Governors

8th January 1999 at 00:00
The Government suggests that every primary school should have a literacy governor. Prue Goodwin has some ideas about what they should do.

The present National Literacy Strategy (NLS) is a national initiative to raise standards. As it involves change in primary classrooms and all change can be threatening, it is understandable that some teachers are anxious about the new expectations.

Currently, at the Reading and Language Information Centre, I am running courses for literacy governors and, during these sessions, colleagues have revealed that they too are unsure about what is expected of them. Should they be helping in classrooms? Should they be "policing" the literacy hour?

According to the recent booklet from the National Literacy Trust, the principal duties of the literacy governor are to monitor progress and report to the governing body. To do this, it is suggested that governors should try to attend INSET courses, meet with the language co-ordinator, observe the literacy hour and put literacy on the agenda at governors meetings. These are all sensible suggestions, but rather daunting if you start out with only a brief knowledge of literacy development, teaching or the NLS.

Far from being trendy and untested, the teaching methods advocated by the NLS have been used in schools for years. For schools that have not moved on from old-fashioned, so-called "traditional" approaches, however, they may seem revolutionary.

The greatest change will be in the emphasis on social interaction. The Framework describes good teaching as being "discursive and interactive" - that is, involved in purposeful talk. All the teaching methods promoted - for instance, shared reading or guided writing - are founded on the importance of talking about what you are learning.

Having to implement these methods may mean a complete change of practice for some schools. Whole-class and group work will require far more active teaching; the text-centred approach will mean that excellent children's books should feature in pupils' literacy experiences every day. There is no shortage of suitable books.

What is the role of the literacy governor in all this? We must remember that literacy and literacy teaching are not as straightforward as they appear. Being able to read and write does not automatically make us knowledgeable about literacy development, just as being able to drive does not make anyone a car mechanic. To get a clearer picture of what's involved, it will help for governors to become familiar with the Framework for teaching, the national curriculum for English and the school literacy policy.

We should be aware of the anxiety that some teachers are feeling. The NLS may be an excellent idea but it is just the latest in a series of "excellent" ideas for improving standards that have taken place over the past 10 years. Primary teachers have successfully implemented the national curriculum, tests, baseline assessment and many other initiatives. I have complete faith that they will do the same with the literacy hour.

Hints for literacy governors:

* If intending to visit a literacy hour in action, do not forget the possible apprehension caused by having another adult watching. Offer to contribute to the lesson in some way; for example, by working with a group or joining in a discussion.

* Be aware of the impact of the NLS in terms of changing practice. Even where teachers welcome the literacy hour and are highly motivated, it will take time to establish smooth-running sessions: new approaches are not likely to work perfectly the first few times. Teachers will need several months to try things out and to adapt them appropriately.

* Although many schools have already offered parents an evening to explain the NLS, be aware of possible parental concerns over changes in practice. For example, there may be genuine worries when teachers stop "hearing readers" regularly. A governor can act as a buffer between anxious parents and teachers who are still familiarising themselves with different procedures.

* Be supportive of the school management team, who are coping with the same challenges as everyone else while also having to deliver the NLS training package. Few headteachers or language co-ordinators are experienced at delivering INSET.

* Remember, the purpose of the literacy hour is to teach literacy effectively, not to fulfil a rigidly-timed routine. You will be able to tell if the NLS is working when children in your school aresuccessfully learning to read - and are loving it.

'A Literacy Guide for School Governors' is available price pound;5 plus 50p postage from the National Literacy Trust, Swire House, 59 Buckingham Gate, London SW1E 6AJ Prue Goodwin is director of inservice training at the Reading and Language Information Centre, University of Reading

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