Will the literacy hour be fun or just a straighjacket?

Critics worry that the new lesson in reading and writing will be too prescriptive, but Diana Hinds finds that the children love it
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The Independent Culture
Learning to read is a highly delicate and complex process, which different children will accomplish in different ways and with varying degrees of success. Arguments about the best method of teaching reading have raged for so many years that it is unlikely that teachers and literacy specialists will ever reach agreement.

New Labour, nonetheless, would have us believe that it has finally cracked the reading debate. Its literacy hour which, from the beginning of this term, will figure every day in every primary school in the country, is the new reading panacea, the main plank in a national literacy strategy destined to get 80 per cent of 11-year-olds reading at their chronological age, or above, by the year 2002.

In case your primary-age child has not yet managed to give you a succinct account of this revolution in her reading life, this is what the Government intends her to be doing in her daily literacy hour:

l 15 minutes whole-class work on a shared book

l 15 minutes whole-class work on spelling and grammar

l 20 minutes in ability groups, working with or without the teacher

l a final 10-minute whole class "plenary", reviewing what has been learnt

The language work to be covered is spelt out in a hefty training pack - "the lunch box", schools call it - but it is left up to the teacher to plan the activities for each lesson.

Although brandished as a Labour initiative, the literacy hour is in fact closely modelled on the National Literacy Project first introduced by the Conservatives in 1996, as a pilot running in 13 authorities. These pilot schools have, therefore, had a head start on schools in other parts of the country which are now having to scrabble to get the literacy hour in place this term, with less training time and less support.

For many teachers, teaching the literacy hour will mean spending more time teaching the whole class from the front, as well as more time working intensively with a small group at at time - rather than simply patrolling a class of pupils working on their own.

They also will, according to architects of the strategy, no longer need to devote so much time to hearing children read individually - a task that many teachers, with 30 or more children to contend with, struggle to fit in, often finding only five or 10 minutes a week per child. The literacy hour technique of "guided reading" - new to many schools - where children read and discuss in a supervised group of five or six, is intended to replace individualised reading.

Whether or not this happens remains to be seen. Many primary teachers are, understandably, wedded to the one-to-one reading they have practised for years, whatever the difficulties, and say they will just have to find other times in the day for it. John Stannard, the director of the National Literacy Strategy, acknowledges that dropping one-to-one reading at school places the importance of one-to-one reading at home "in sharper focus". Children whose parents can support their reading at home will have an undeniable advantage over those whose parents do not.

One of the chief purposes of literacy hour, John Stannard says, is to ensure a continuity in literacy teaching between school and between classes.

But the downside of ensuring continuity is, of course, that you become prescriptive - and this has been one of the major criticism levelled against the literacy hour, even from its pilot days, particularly by commentators and educationalists.

"The framework is too prescriptive and the structure too rigid. It doesn't allow teachers to make professional judgements about how they organise their lessons and this is really denigrating," says Bethan Marshall, lecturer in education at King's college, London. She adds that the whole approach is "mechanistic", concentrating on the acquisition of skills possibly at the expense of stimulating children's enjoyment of reading.

Some teachers, however, have actually welcomed being told what to teach in such detail, saying it makes them feel more confident.

The National Union of Teachers, according to a spokesman, regards the literacy framework as "perfectly good professional development material", but believes the way the Government has imposed it on schools "is in danger of alienating some teachers".

Teachers should be given more of a voice nationally in the development and evaluation of literacy hour, the union says. They also should be allowed "to feel they have the professional confidence to implement parts of it which are relevant to them, and not others".

To what extent schools can choose whether to implement the literacy hour, and in what way, is a matter for debate. Officially, the national literacy strategy is voluntary which means schools don't have to participate - but John Stannard has said that schools which don't adopt it must have a teaching programme which is "demonstrably as effective, or better".

Some schools which already have high standards in literacy are unwilling to adopt the exact format of the literacy hour. Ruth Miskin, the head of Kobi Nazrul Primary school in east London, and partner of Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector of schools, says she is basically a supporter of the framework, but organises her literacy hour a little differently. She chooses, for instance, to deploy four trained classroom assistants in literacy hours with the younger children, rather than leaving them to work independently in groups, and with older children, teachers spend more time on whole- class work than the framework specifies.

How long literacy hour lasts will depend, perhaps, on teachers discovering sufficient flexibility in it as it evolves, to meet the needs of their own classes.

"The framework is an excellent starting point, but it's only going to work if teachers make it their own," says Sue Palmer, freelance teacher and literacy specialist. "Once it gets going, there must be a loosening up. If teachers don't feel they can make decisions, there is a danger of the hour becoming ossified, its ideas reduced to slogan and dogma."

Children starting this term in reception classes can expect to have literacy hour every school day for six years - a daunting thought. So far, at least, many seem to be enjoying it: children like structure and familiarity, and literacy hour, at its best, can be pacy, varied and challenging. Let's hope it stays that way.