Woven strands

6th October 2000 at 01:00
Slavishly following the literacy strategy framework will do more harm than good, warns Graham Frater

Hands on: pupils in schools where talking and listening lead into and out of reading and writing tend to make good progress NoWOVEN-6 The National Literacy Strategy has rapidly taken root in primary schools. It is soon to extend to key stage 3 in secondary schools, where the demands of subject teaching readily expose, and press hard on, any weakness with literacy. Among the pupils who are left behind - mostly boys - motivation, behaviour and attendance can fall off, with potentially lifelong consequences.

For secondary schools, the strategy's introduction in primary schools offers a clear lesson. In the past year, freelance survey work has taken me into some 32 primary schools to look at literacy teaching. The contrasts between two of those surveys were especially sharp.

One was a national survey of effective practice with boys in KS1 and 2; the other was on a topic of similar national concern. It investigated at KS2 a small sample of schools where the margin by which achievement in writing fell behind reading was, on average, 13 percentage points wider than the worrying national gap.

In the first survey, staff were confident about their own teaching; their planning ensured that attention to the strategy framework was anchored in practical language use, and both sexes made good progress. These highly effective schools constantly made connections between children's learning and their experiences. They were schools where talking and listening were lively and led into and out of reading and writing. Reading practice was not confined to the literacy hour. They were mostly in challenging urban areas, and they recognised that what they offer to their children must be notably rich and fertile.

Poorer progress in writing was common where staff were most anxious about covering the content of the framework's termly programme. These were not neglectful schools: without dispute, they could demonstrate their adherence to the framework, and their classroom management was often good. Rather, they were schools where staff were so compliant - with what they perceived as a diktat - that they treated the framework as somehow overriding the national curriculum.

The content of each of the framework's columns (word level, sentence level and text level) was carefully addressed in turn. And this may have been the cause of the problem. Thoroughness at word and sentence level left little time for text-level work: the reading and writing of stories, poems, plays, letters and so on. In short, schools where writing was weakest had under-emphasised the active language use that the national curriculum for English exists to promote.

In practice, too few benefits from their dominant word and sentence-level exercises surfaced in pupils' writing, and spelling was a widespread weakness. Together, word and sentence-level study had formed a separate stream of instrction from text level work. And the reading of interesting shared texts seldom influenced either writing practice or language study. Indeed, teachers often reported that, since the literacy strategy was introduced, their use of a class novel at KS2 had diminished sharply. Such approaches had lost sight of the mantra that prefaces each key stage of the national curriculum for English: "teaching should ensure that work in speaking and listening, reading and writing is integrated".

This was exactly the principle that seemed to underpin the contrasting successes of the schools in the other survey, those that were noticeably effective with boys. The framework is not a plan, or termly scheme of work, and fragmented practice is almost inevitable if it is treated as such. The key planning step is omitted from the framework, and should be signalled more clearly. It belongs not to the Secretary of State, nor to the officers of the QCA, the National Literacy Strategy, or Ofsted, but to teachers alone. It is the step that selects the rich language experiences that pupils will encounter in a term, and the related ways in which they will use language. For writing, this means first planning the genres that a class will experience, be taught, and will then practise in their assignments.

Such planning brings text-level work to the fore - purposeful reading and writing activities. It draws on the word and sentence levels:

* as auxiliaries

* as necessary

* on an informed judgment of the skills and progress in language use of the class and of individuals within it.

No matter how exactly the framework specifies the strands of a termly curriculum, if any of them is to take root, teachers must weave them together in the classroom. Should the strategy prevail over the national curriculum? Is there a conflict between them? I believe that the answer in both cases is no, but it is easy to see how misunderstandings might arise.

As far back as the Bullock report (A Language for Life, 1975), misunderstandings have arisen whenever national suggestions for language development have been published. The analytical lay-out essential for clarity about content is all too readily regarded as an instruction to teach every element separately. I cannot tell how many schools have fallen into this trap once again.

But it is easy to see how the increased pressures of accountability, inspection, and perhaps too of performance-related pay, might make a literal, and apparently compliant misreading of the strategy seem especially attractive. As the strategy reaches secondary schools, it is vital that the national curriculum's core message about integration in the classroom is reinforced more firmly than ever.

Graham Frater is a freelance adviser and a former HMI.These arguments are developed in Securing Boys' Literacy: A Survey of Effective Practice in Primary Schools (Basic Skills Agency), tel: 0870 600 2400, and in the November issue of Reading (UKRA)

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