What's the story? Literacy and glory

11th March 2005 at 00:00
Children will read and write much better if we take things more slowly

So we now know that around a quarter of your pupils will wave goodbye to you in July still unable to read and write proficiently after seven years of your professional expertise.

If Year 6 pupils were cars, the workers producing them would fast find themselves outside the factory gates and, after a mention on News At Ten, forgotten.

Before you all call for my head or, worse still, for my three typing fingers, let me say that in this case the workers can justifiably blame their tools. It is the system that limits literacy.

My middle child, a Y6 in a state primary, sat an entrance exam in January.

He was delighted to have been asked to write a story, a whole story, with no guideline except a nicely vague title, "Alone At Night". He told everyone who asked him how he had got on - his grandparents, his aunt, his half-siblings - exactly the same thing: he had been asked to write a story.

Why was he so pleased? Because it hardly ever happens. He remembers one in Y3 and one earlier this year, but generally he and his classmates get to write bits of things or to describe cartoon strips as in the Sats.

Sometimes they are given a clutch of adjectives and told to make them fit a particular object or incident. Writing has been reduced to a series of arid exercises that no child is likely to enjoy.

And part of the problem is grammar (I start this paragraph with "and" to prove I'm not a pedant). Now, I like grammar. I find it useful and I have never followed the argument that it and imagination are mutually exclusive.

I think it should be taught, but in an appropriate way.

Three years ago, when my eldest child was in Y5, she came home with a worksheet on the passive and active voice. The worksheet was wrong, as it happens. A lot of this stuff is hastily produced to fit some panic-inducing little governmental diktat, a symptom of the fact that no one in primary education has been able to take a really deep breath for a long time.

Still, that is not the point. What were these 10-year-olds supposed to get out of information on the active and passive voice? When they are older, the linguists among them will meet such things and realise grammar is the key to a puzzle they will enjoy cracking.

In primary school, the time would be better spent teaching them to distinguish between full-stops and commas, and encouraging them to write.

Anything more than the basics at that age is suffocation by syntax.

Children and teachers alike are sinking under the structure of the curriculum. Literacy has become a series of snatched tasks, instead of something to be nurtured by confident teachers, a decent reading scheme or two and lots of books. Of course, such things take time, and confident teachers are now an endangered species.

Today's children need a slow and steady approach more than ever, because so much of their early lives is no-chew consumption and it makes them dull, dull, dull.

Put in nurseries or put in front of the television for hours, they lack the one-to-one communication that makes them effective talkers, let alone readers. Children are coming into primary school with fewer and fewer verbal skills. How can they then learn to love words if they come to them in tick-task form and if they do not get the satisfaction of writing a story even once a week?

No doubt the Government will soon come up with a literacy pledge and an initiative. Oh goody. I wonder what it will be?

General attention deficit in secondary school is being addressed by template lessons, highly-planned sessions which move at speed, chopping and changing like the crazy camera angles of Saturday morning television.

The idea is that the faster you move, the less risk you run of pupil boredom. As any reader of Little Black Sambo knows, all you achieve by that is eventual meltdown. But that is what happens in education every time a nearly-new idea fails and is replaced by something whizzier still.

These poor literacy figures are a chance for primary heads to teach ministers a lesson. Not to swing back to just-let-it-happen creativity, but to say, "Hang on, let's stop cramming everything in. We have stories to write and a few rules of clear expression to learn. Slowly does it."

The conference season will soon be here. Is there a voice in primary education that can say that to an education secretary, whose response to Tomlinson shows at least that she does not believe in newfangling for its own sake?

The pupils will not be bored for too long. They will learn to slow down and explore. Their teachers will no longer face a conveyor belt crammed with too many parts going by too fast.

Some things are best done slowly and thoroughly. Ask a cook. Ask an artist.

Ask a lover. But do not ask the architects of this curriculum.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today