The whole source has more flavour

18th February 2005 at 00:00
Vikki Askew reviews a book which recommends extended use of real historical texts

History and Literacy in Year7: Building the lesson around the text By Christine Counsell

John Murray in association with the Historical Association pound;25

A new book by Christine Counsell is always welcometo history teachers. Her combination of fresh, practical ideas and clear thinking about the meaning of historical learning has helped transform our practice, especially in the crucial key stage 3 years.

Our expectations of what pupils may achieve, both in their conceptual grasp and in their ability to translate this into writing, have already been hugely increased by her work, for example Analytical and Discursive Writing (Historical Association, 1997).

In this new book, the first of a series of three on the KS3 years, she moves from writing to reading. She argues for the extended reading of "real" historical texts, both contemporary and by later historians. She challenges us to build such texts into our planning for pupils of all abilities, to move far away from the "bitty" approach of too many textbooks, as "a positive experience of tackling texts".

She urges us, too, to make ourselves familiar with the National Literacy Strategy at KS2 and 3, as this provides the skills pupils need to analyse and to model different types of text.

After a short introduction, five approaches to the use of text with Year 7 pupils are suggested. In the first, pupils are introduced to a whole literary text, one of Horace's satires, as a way into the social and cultural world of Horace. When planning activities designed to equip pupils with knowledge of the literary and historical context, she argues, such whole texts are more, not less, accessible than the extracts more usually provided.

The next example, on the death of Becket, uses sorting exercises to move pupils from narrative to causal analysis, using a variety of organising concepts to make pupils see how to use both evidential detail and wider issues to provide an explanation.

In the third activity, a work of historical fiction - Kevin Crossley-Holland's The Seeing Stone - is used to help pupils construct their own works of historical fiction, researching the period in which it is set.

The fourth activity explores the creation of narrative, seen here not as "mere" narrative but as a challenging and worthwhile historical skill in its own right, as well as exploring the concept of historical significance, through a study of the Children's Crusade.

The final activity takes the work of a particular historian, Eileen Power, Medieval Women, and uses this to help pupils discern how historians use evidence and create arguments. The activity gives them the opportunity, through an "Eileen Power kit", to try this for themselves.

There are suggested lesson sequences and photocopiable resources, and any one of the ideas could be adapted or applied to different topics.

Such a bald description can give little idea of the flavour of the work or of the excitement generated in pupils who have the chance to explore real historical issues in such depth.

This is a book for all teachers who have despaired at the "death by sources" approach, while being aware of the high quality of so much of the fiction written for children today. Here is a way to build real historical scholarship into our planning for Year 7, while making the strongest possible case for the contribution which history can make to the wider education and literacy of all pupils.

Vikki Askew is head of history at Leeds Grammar School

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