Literacy and numeracy should not be seen narrowly as "things" to be acquired by children. Rather, teachers should regard them as tools that can enhance pupils' thinking and develop their minds, says Professor Terezinha Nunes of London University's Institute of Education.
Her timely work on literacy and numeracy looks beyond the basics rather than seeking to go "back to basics". In her inaugural professorial lecture, she argues for a different approach to reading, writing and arithmetic.
She draws on studies of bilingual children to show how alphabets can be taught so that they help children's understanding of how the language works and give a framework for learning a second language. Children learning English and Hebrew, languages with different alphabets, used the same thought processes across the two languages to work out sounds and spelling. In other studies, bilingual children are shown to be better readers and spellers than children who speak only one language.
But it is as "the source of new possibilities" that literacy as a tool is most powerful, allowing the reader to access resources, networks and connections that they would otherwise not have the key to.
Similarly, to regard numeracy as only a matter of learning numbers and sums is to reduce it to its most basic function. Teaching children "simple rules and recipes" doesn't allow them to relate their knowledge of numbers to different tasks. For example, when asked a question such as: "what do you get if you add orange concentrate to water, where 80 per cent of the mixture is concentrate, and then add a mixture with 20 per cent concentrate?", many children expect the answer to be 80 per cent plus 20 per cent. Their view of how numbers work is too simple.
A copy of Nunes' lecture, Developing Children's Minds Through Literacy and Numeracy, is available from the Institute of Education, University of London, priced pound;3. Telephone 0171-580 1122.
Surveys, studies and reports examined by Reva Klein