Is the new national literacy strategy too prescriptive, in particular for mixed ability classrooms? Jeff Hynds, in his discussion in this issue of BfK of the literacy hour thinks it is and points in particular to the nonchalant and non-specific way (amidst so much specificity) that the books required in order to implement the strategy are referred to: ‘There is no mention of particular books or authors, or any discussion of the vitally important relationship between quality of text and quality of literacy teaching.’ BfK will continue to provide readers with just this kind of information about books.
Meanwhile BfK reviewer and teacher, Jill Bennett writes in alarm (see Letters) about the way that schools had to rush to spend their £1,000 government book allowance before the end of March, with insufficient time to think about what might best serve their students or find out what is available. The rush also meant that publishers had no time to reprint some of the titles that were most in demand.
Certainly the literacy hour tells teachers what to teach and how to teach it (aside from specifying which books to use). Education consultant Jim Sweetman, writing in the Times Educational Supplement (30.1.98) argues that the strategy makes objectives into imperatives with an ‘element of regulation and duress’. He continues: ‘It has been made unnecessarily detailed and overtly directive so that lazy, incompetent teachers cannot subvert it and their classroom practice will be changed as a result. That immediately disenfranchises and alienates all those creative, hard-working professionals who the education system depends on…’ Others have pointed to a need for teachers to develop phonological awareness so that they understand the theoretical basis of the literacy hour (which cites 11 elements to consider in dealing with phonemes) or have pleaded for the development of learning readiness not to be discounted. The National Association for Primary Education has claimed that the national literacy strategy is unworkable in mixed ability classrooms.
How reading should be taught has always been a contentious issue and BfK has commented before on the lack of a common agenda to build a literate nation. It is, however, the case that schools able to show that their approach is ‘at least as effective’ as the national literacy strategy are not obliged to adopt it. It is also the case that literacy standards in the UK are well behind those of some of our European neighbours. A national strategy to tackle this, for all its faults, provides that common agenda.