Teaching, Learning and the National Literacy Strategy

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    Teaching, Learning and the NationalLiteracy StrategyJudith GrahamPublished online: 06 Jul 2006.

    To cite this article: Judith Graham (1998) Teaching, Learning and the National LiteracyStrategy, Changing English: Studies in Culture and Education, 5:2, 115-121, DOI:10.1080/1358684980050203

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  • Changing English, Vol. 5, No. 2, 1998 115

    Teaching, Learning and theNational Literacy StrategyJUDITH GRAHAM

    The DfEE's National Literacy Strategy, Framework for Teaching (NLS) believes inteaching. Its key sentence, which governs every one of its eight hundred oddinstructions to teachers, is 'Pupils must be taught'. In this it differs from theNational Curriculum which, whilst it also enjoins teachers to teach, works with awider and altogether gentler set of commandments: 'Pupils should be given ...';'pupils should be introduced to ...'; 'pupils should be given opportunities to ...';'pupils should be helped to ...'; pupils should be accumulating ...'; pupils shouldhave extensive experience of ...'. The NLS's fixation on direct teaching is restatedin the introduction to the Framework, on more than one occasion. No one candoubt the emphasis: 'The Literacy Hour is intended to promote literacy instruc-tion ... ' (p. 8); 'The Literacy Hour offers a structure of classroom management,designed to maximise the time teachers spend directly teaching their class' (p. 10);'The Literacy Hour is intended to be a time for the explicit teaching of reading andwriting' (p. 14).

    This shift in focus, which is essentially a shift from encouraging learning to directteaching, derived originally from a desire to emulate the intensive teaching methodsperceived as successful in countries such as South Korea. Literacy programmes inAustralia and New Zealand were also admired for their structure, although thedifferent contexts in which these approaches and programmes operated seem not tohave been fully considered. The shift was also propelled by the conviction that,whilst teachers were happily creating contexts for literacy learning, they were notteaching literacy. This has been a long-standing and widely held suspicion aboutteachers, exemplified by Margaret Donaldson: 'The notion has recently gained somecurrency that reading scarcely needs to be taught at all ... Some people have cometo believe that what has traditionally been known as teaching is seriously damagingin its effects' (Donaldson, 1989).

    At exactly the time when teachers were being accused (unjustly, I believe) ofopting out of teaching, along came research findings (such as those of Goswami >CBryant, 1990) demonstrating the importance of phonemic awareness in children'sdeveloping literacy. Although distorted by the time it reached the 'termly objectives'of the NLS, it is presumably this research to which the NLS obliquely refers in thestatement: 'Research evidence shows that pupils do not learn to distinguish betweenthe different sounds of words simply by being exposed to books' (p. 4). Thenegative view of teachers (have teachers really ever 'simply' exposed children tobooks? HMI reports never discovered such practice) and these research findingsgave just the impetus needed to put quantifiable teaching content into the 'word'level imperatives in the framework.

    1358-684X/98/020115-07 1998 The editors of Changing English

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  • 116 /. Graham

    The search for teaching content does not stop at phonics, however. Bothestablished and recent theories proposed by linguists, genre theorists and narratol-ogists have been selected and harnessed to provide content for the 'sentence' and'text' level work, so that we find, for instance, five-year-olds taught to use the term'sentence' (p. 22) (a concept notoriously challenging to linguists), eight-year-oldstaught to discuss the impact of adverbs on the meaning of sentences (p. 38) andeleven-year-olds taught to examine why legal language is necessarily highly for-malised (p. 53). Some, but not all, of these requirements are also present in theNational Curriculum, but there they appear in less specific detail and are lessprecisely tied to age. The focus on process that guides much of the NationalCurriculum (so that in KS2 Writing, for instance, there are requirements for pupilsto plan, draft, revise, proofread and present) is largely absent in the NLS, revealingthat much of the 'process' research that has been influential in shaping literacyteaching in the past has been ignored in favour of what close analysis of 'endproducts' can tell us.

    At this point it would be useful to take stock of the quite extraordinary impactthat an initial reading of the NLS framework produces. It is hard not to beimpressed by the sheer volume of collected knowledge that has been amassed hereand moulded into a curriculum for 4 to 11-year-olds. Several thoughts come tomind, starting from the basic: 'How did anyone ever learn to read and write beforethey knew all of this?'. This thought is rapidly followed by: 'What evidence do theyhave that all this works?', 'Can I become the expert in phonic analysis, linguistics,grammar, genre theory, narratology that would enable me to teach all this?' and,hard on this is the anxious thought: 'Assuming that I can conquer all of this, howdo I make it accessible to my class?' This last question brings us back to the wholedirection of the NLS, which is to do with teaching. Importantly, however, we nowrealise that the assurance given by the NLS that at last teachers will know whatshould be taught in the literacy hour is a hollow assurance, because there is noillumination on just how these facts are to be taught or how they will come to belearned. As a manoeuvre, the NLS has all the cunning of any strategy that leavesopen the opportunity to denounce the implementor when the scheme fails.

    Will it fail? On one level, of course, it will not be allowed to fail. Tests will testwhat is taught, teachers will not want their children to fail the tests, so will do theirbest to prepare their classes, and test results will prove a rise in standards. But realliteracy? The jettisoning of understandings, developed in the last twenty or thirtyyears, of the conditions in which literacy is acquired rather than taught (under-standings that are reflected in part in the National Curriculum), means, I think, thatwe should steel ourselves for a fall in real literacy levels such as has often beenprophesied but never actually witnessed. Small children are going to be inundatedwith technical terms and analytic explanations that will unnecessarily complicatetheir reading and writing; older children will be spending time every day onmaterial they have grown out of or which is irrelevant.

    Three examples of current practices will make my point. I am watching a studenttrying, conscientiously, to implement the literacy hour with a Year 1 class. Sheholds up the story book. 'Now who can tell me how this book starts?' she asks.'Once upon a time,' they chorus. I am really pleased by her question and theiranswerbut not for long. That was not what she had in mind at all. 'No,' she says.'Look at the first word.' 'Once,' they say. 'No, what does the story start with?' she

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  • Teaching, Learning and the National Literacy Strategy 117

    repeats. 'O,' they say. 'No,' she says. 'I'll have to tell you. It's a capital letter. Everystory starts with a capital letter.' Not surprisingly, because she went on like this,the student had a disaffected class within minutes and any interest in the story wasextinguished. This student believes she is implementing the literacy hourwhichshe isto the letter. She believes she is teaching readingwhich she is not.

    My second example is perhaps more worryingat least my student has time tomend her ways. An experienced teacher is implementing the literacy hour at KS2.She is using a big book, despite the fact that all her class reads well. She has been'trained'; she will only read the first page as there is so much to analyse (as ofcourse there is: any linguist could write a book on one page of text). In any case,the book must last until Friday. Any curiosity aroused in the class by the openingpage will have to wait because she needs to ask them what is the effect of the authorhaving put the word 'stealthily' at the beginning of his sentence rather than at theend. The children's ideas are interesting but not what she had in mind; I find herexplanations incomprehensible, and the class does not look convinced either. (Howgood are any of us at lucid explanations of formidably subtle effects?) There arechildren in this class who are reading independently books such as Philip Pullman'sNorthern Lights and writing poetry which they work on tirelessly. Are we reallypromoting their literacy by dwelling on the fine grain of texts which are chosen lessfor their power to create readers than for their yielding copy for low-level analysis?

    My third example comes from a scheme of work on Rose Blanche, a picture booksuitable for older readers with a text by Ian McEwan, based on a story byChristopher Gallaz and illustrated by Roberto Innocenti. The poignant story is ofa young girl who helps Jewish children imprisoned in a concentration camp nearher home. At the end, as the liberating troops enter their town, she becomesseparated from her mother. In the confusion a shot rings out and Rose Blanche isnever found. On to this sad, beautiful book, the (experienced and hithertorespected) teacher heaps all manner of sentence and word level work. So, we areinvited to consider the ways in which sentences are begun and formed by therelationship between main and subordinate clauses, and then we are allowed toidentify how particular punctuation marks are used to shape the meaning ofsentences and paragraphs. There are some sensitive ideas for text level work, butthe book will have crumbled to dust long before they are reached.

    Mercifully, we have teachers in schools, parents at home and intelligent, thinkingstudents in training who understand the processes by which children becomeliterate. They will continue to create climates for literacy acquisition. But it is arisky moment, nevertheless, as these gloomy examples indicate, and all of us arevulnerable to being infected by counter-productive, mechanical tasks as it is thosethat are officially endorsed.

    It is time to elaborate on that 'climate for literacy acquisition'. Of all the areasthat teachers and parents should relinquish least willingly^ reading aloud to childrenshould top the bill. It is quite astounding that reading aloud to children is not partof the NLS. Admittedly, it is awkward to fit it in under the mantra 'Pupils shouldbe taught', but it could have been included as a high priority in the introduction.What do we have there instead? Right at the end, there is a cautious 'additionaltime may be needed (outside the literacy hour) for continuing the practice ofreading to the class'. Not 'will' be needed, only 'may'. No guidance given, nosuggestion that it is critically important. Surely then, reading aloud to children is a

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  • 118 / . Graham

    central ingredient and taken for granted in the daily fifteen minutes allotted towhole class shared reading and writing? But, once again, there is no suggestion thatgiving yourself up to a secondary world created by a book is an essential part ofbecoming a reader or that having a personal response to what you have heard ispart of the process. Even though we have got another fifteen minutes later on whichis ear-marked for word and sentence level work, that fifteen minutes' shared readingis to be used at KS1 'to read with the class, focusing on comprehension and onspecific features, e.g. word-building and spelling patterns, punctuation, the layoutand purpose, the structure and organisation of sentences' and at KS2 'for teachingand reinforcing grammar, punctuation and vocabulary work' (p. 11). It is clearlynot the intention that this period be used for anything like a traditional story-time.And to suggest rather unemphatically that this might appear at another time in theday, when in fact not much of the day will be left after the numeracy hour isinstituted next year, is shifty if not shoddy. The message is clear: reading aloud tochildren is not direct teaching and therefore it no longer counts.

    Of all the research that the anonymous compilers of the NLS might haveconsulted, the research on the value of reading aloud to children is the mostcopious, the most sustained over time, the most incontrovertible. William Tealewrites: 'the belief that the practice of reading to young children is beneficial isaccepted by researchers as well as by the educational community and, to a largedegree, by the general public' (Goelman, Oberg & Smith, 1984). Teale refers in hischapter to no fewer than sixty-five studies in which reading aloud to children isregarded as contributing directly to reading development. It is worth enjoying thewords of Edmund Huey, one of the earliest writers to whom Teale refers:'The child should long continue to hear far more reading than he does for himself.The ear not the eye is the nearest gateway to the child-soul ... There is no academyon earth that can compare with the practice [of reading good things aloud tochildren]' (1908, p. 334). Nigel Hall looks at some of the same and several furtherstudies and voices the same consensus: 'There is almost universal agreement thatlistening to stories is good for children who will be or are learning to read' (Hall,1987, p. 30). Both Teale and Hall are particularly interested in parents reading tochildren, but Stephen Krashen summarises a large body of research which indicatesclearly that children read more when they listen to and discuss stories in school, andshows that even college students read more and 'better' books when they are readto. 'Gains were statistically significant after only 13 weeks of being read to for onehour a week' (Krashen, 1993, p. 39).

    If we move to individual experience and memories, the evidence is no lesspersuasive. Doris Lessing maintains:

    I was lucky that my parents read to my brother and me. I believe nothinghas the impact of stories read or told. I remember the atmosphere of thoseevenings, and all the stories, some of them long-running domestic epics,made up by my mother, about the adventures of mice or our cats anddogs, or the little monkeys that lived around us in the bush and sometimesleapt around in the rafters under the thatch. Parents who read to theirchildren or who make up stories are giving them the finest gift in theworld. (A. Fraser, 1992, p. 44)

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  • Teaching, Learning and the National Literacy Strategy 119

    The poet Roger McGough is also under no illusion that his early listeningexperiences were of the essence:

    My mother ... loved books and was a firm believer in the potency ofwords to charm, to heal and to educate. It was she who would put me onto a merry-go-round of nursery rhymes and simple prayers, then take meoff, dizzy with words. Though books were scarce in those early yearsmother made sure I listened to a bedtime story every night. (Fraser, 1992,p. 138)

    Amongst recent writers who have passionately defended the role of reading aloudis the French writer Daniel Pennac, whose hybrid of a book swept to best-sellerdomin its country of origin. In France, the sort of inquisitorial teaching which the NLSespouses (though the NLS calls it 'interactive' rather than inquisitorial) has beenthe model for older children for decades and is held responsible for the 57% of thepopulation thought to avoid reading after leaving school. Pennac persuades us ofthe importance both of home reading:

    We taught him (the narrator's son) everything about books during theperiod when he couldn't yet read. We opened him to the infinite diversityof things imaginary, initiated him into the joys of static travel, endowedhim with ubiquity, delivered him from Chronos, plunged him into thefabulously populated solitude which is a reader's. (1994, p. 9)

    and of reading to school children:

    The voice of the teacher has certainly helped them to get back togetherwith books. He has spared them the effort of deciphering, by drawingsituations clearly, establishing settings, embodying characters, under-lining themes, stressing nuances. He's acted like a photographic developer,bringing out the picture as clearly as possible. (1992, p. 117)

    That reading aloud to children is of major importance in the acquisition andmaintenance of literacy should no longer need to be argued. It is everywhere welook, demonstrated by academics, teachers, writers, parents, researchers and ordi-nary readers. We are convinced of the importance of reading aloud because it soobviously models the activity: revealing to children what is between the covers ofa book; convincing them that it is something they want. Offer it to them repeatedlyand then, as with so much learning, children begin to take over the task themselves,and the parent or teacher can 'tiptoe away'. This is how it is on the continent when'skills' teaching is delayed until six or seven years of age, by which time a rich dietof story has taught everything important about books to children in the periodwhen they could not read for themselves. We should not need to revisit this scenebut, extraordinarily, research and common sense appear to have been rejected atthis point in literacy education in this country.

    However, wisdom and common sense have not deserted most teachers. At a veryrecent workshop on the benefits of reading aloud, a group came up with thefollowing ten reasons for 'teaching children the tune', a felicitous phrase we owe toMargaret Meek and to Myra Barrs (Kimberley, Meek & Miller, 1992, p. 20).

    1. Reading aloud teaches children to want to read. It shows them their readingfutures.

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  • 120 ]. Graham

    2. Children can listen to someone reading or telling a story for a long time. Thewords of a story weave a spell that they hesitate to interrupt. They get to heara whole story and so have the satisfaction of hearing the story rounded off. Thecompleteness and the pleasure of the experience means that they often requestthe same story again and again.

    3. Through hearing a fluent reader reading aloud a child can hear the particulartune of continuous written text. The language of written text is not the sameas in spoken conversation: new words, new rhythms, longer sentences, rhetori-cal effects such as repetition, alliteration. Access to all this must initially bethrough listening.

    4. Children begin to appreciate that the words in the book stay the same so thatthey can have the story again and again. This stability, not so evident in spokenconversation, is very appealing.

    5. Children can inspect and comment on the pictures of a picture book whilst thevoice-over continues. If pictures extend or counterpoint the written text,children's contributions help them become equal constructors of meaning withall that that signifies for bonding with the book.

    6. Children start to speak the text with the rhythm, pitch and intonation that theyhave heard. They imitate and play at being readers. In addition, they pick upwhole phrase structures which they reproduce. (They do the same with whatthey have been exposed to several times on TV.) This 'reading-like behaviour'is part of the repertoire of early fluent readers.

    7. The intonation patterns children pick up by listening to someone readingbecome internalised and support silent reading later on.

    8. Learning how to write is certainly connected to the tunes in the head,accumulated from listening to fluent reading aloud.

    9. A far greater repertoire of quality texts can be acquired through listening thanthrough early hesitant reading.

    10. All the above may be equally true for non-narrative as for narrative text. Allthe above is particularly true for EAL children and for children with specialeducational needs.

    Perhaps, if teachers know all this, we have nothing to fear. They also know aboutthe importance of telling as well as reading stories aloud to children; of givingchildren opportunities to browse; of children choosing books with and withoutguidance for private reading in and out of school. They particularly know aboutpicture books and they know that at all stages the picture book can teach literaryconventions, carry the culture, inform, build up knowledge of story grammar,delight, lay down images to live with, promote readerly satisfaction, be deliciouslysubversive and intensely affecting. They know that children start to write withcommitment and sustain their writing at length and to completion when they arerespected as authors and are not just practising techniques and focused worriedlyon transcription. Any one of these items could be examined in the same way as Ihave approached the question of reading aloud. The NLS appears to have forgottenall of this in its obsession with direct instruction.

    Why should this be so? My only explanation is that in the excitement of newdiscoveries in the areas of phonics, grammar, narrative structure, genre anddiscourse analysis, the writers of the NLS have convinced themselves that this new

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  • Teaching, Learning and the National Literacy Strategy 121

    information must be essential for the task of learning to read and write. Because wehave worked out the rules, they say to themselves, we can lay them down exactlyand in great detail, then teachers can drill them into their pupils and they willbecome a permanent part of children's competence.

    But learning is not like that and language learning in particular is not like that.Transmission is not the name of the game, however informed the teacher. The firstquestion asked by the teacher above, 'How did anyone ever learn to read and writebefore they knew all of this?' is easily answered. Children learn to read and write,not by dissecting and analysing the processes prematurely, but when people aroundthem indicate the benefits, joys, meaning and purposes of reading and writing andsupport the easy acquisition of them. We are in danger of asking teachers to replacea natural and enjoyable process with something abstract, inappropriate and impos-sibly cumbersome. We must hope that teachers continue to use their best instinctsand professional judgement in these times of increased central control.

    REFERENCES

    DfE (1995) English in the National Curriculum (London, HMSO).DfEE (1998) The National Literacy Strategy (London, DfEE).DONALDSON, M. (1989) Sense and Sensibility (Reading, Reading and Language Information Centre, University of

    Reading School of Education).FRASFR, A. (Ed.) (1992) The Pleasure of Reading (London, Bloomsbury).GOELMAN, H., OBERG, A. & SMITH, F. (1984) Awakening to Literacy (Exeter, New Hampshire, Heinemann

    Educational Books).GOSWAMI, U.C. & BRYANT, P. (1990) Phonological Skills and Learning to Read (Hove, Lawrence Erlbaum

    Associates).HALL, N. (1987) The Emergence of Literacy (Sevcnoaks, Edward Arnold (Hodder & Stoughton)).HUEY, E. (1968, first published in 1908) The Psychology and Pedagogy of Reading (Cambridge, MA, MIT Press).KIMBERLEY, K., MEEK, M. & MILLER, J. (1992) New Readings: contributions to an understanding of literacy

    (London, A. & C. Black).KRASHEN, S. (1993) The Power of Reading. Insights from the Research (Englewood, Colorado, Libraries Unlimited).PENNAC, D. (1994) Reads like a Novel (London, Quartet Books).

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