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12 March 1999

The reading scheme that died

Francis Beckett finds a better option than the literacy hour ministers have forced on schools

By Francis Beckett

Every school day since September, practically every child in the country between the ages of five and 11 has taken part in the most far-reaching experiment in centralised direction of education that Britain has ever seen. During the literacy hour everything that the teacher does, and the exact time that he or she spends doing it, is laid down in a mammoth document provided to every class teacher, whose demands require at least three hours’ preparation each week.

There has not been time for the results to feed through into Standard Assessment Tests, so the only people who can have any idea if it works are the teachers. And a recent survey by one of their unions, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, suggests that they agree that it helps the majority of children. But eight out of ten thought it was not helping pupils with special needs, and six out of ten thought it was not helping gifted children. Unofficially, it is said that educational policy-makers have reached the same conclusion.

Yet the first objective of a literacy initiative must surely be to eliminate illiteracy – to help those children who are, in the jargon, severely reading-disabled. So what is wrong? My nine-year-old daughter, Naomi, who often enjoys reading, says the literacy hour is the most boring part of the school day. I went to observe.

The hour is divided into four sections: three periods of whole-class teaching and one 20-minute period of group and independent work. The prescribed texts for Naomi’s year five class (nine year olds) were Persephone Rising and Persephone and the Pomegranate Seeds, and these were printed in a huge book propped up in front of the carpet where the children sat. One child read a paragraph, and the class discussed it. Then a sentence was placed in front of them with the nouns underlined. The sentence was used for a series of exercises designed to help them understand parts of speech and sentence structure, before the class was divided into ability groups and each group did different work.

In a year three class (seven year olds) the pattern was similar. The book was Aesop’s Fables, and only a sentence or two could be read and discussed in the 20 minutes allotted. Then they spent 10 minutes on silent letters. “I’ve cut my k-nobbly k-nee with a k-nife,” said the teacher, and got the biggest laugh of the hour. Things were going so well that the children wanted to carry on, but the rubric required a move to 20 minutes of group work before another ten minutes of whole-class teaching.

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It seemed to go down better in year three than year five, and the head teacher confirmed that it worked better with younger children. The year three teacher, who is also the school’s literacy expert, told me: “I worry that when they get to year five they will start saying, ‘oh no, not literacy hour again’.”

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She was enthusiastic about the literacy hour, but found it far too prescriptive. She did not like having always to put the children in ability groups. She had a classroom assistant and wanted her to take children who struggled with reading outside for a special session, but the rubric does not allow this: every child must be present during the 40 minutes of whole-class teaching. So the assistant just watches the teacher at work, which is a waste of her time.

As it happened, the teacher had also been trained in another, and very different, method of raising literacy standards, called reading recovery. This, she said, really did work for children who were struggling. “They come back into the classroom able to read, and they are so much happier and more confident, it’s wonderful to see,” she said, and I have heard the same from every other reading recovery teacher I have spoken to.

Reading recovery is aimed specifically at children who are having problems. All the evidence shows that it works, even that it conquers dyslexia. Yet of 1,700 trained reading recovery teachers, 800 are not being used, no government money is going into it, and only 25 LEAs are using it.

Why? Because reading recovery is expensive. The programme, developed at Auckland University by Professor Marie Clay, detects reading difficulties at the age of six. Poor readers then receive individual tuition for half an hour every day for up to 20 weeks from a specially trained teacher. The literacy hour just loads a few hours’ extra work on teachers we already have.

The fate of reading recovery in Britain was therefore depressingly predictable. It proved itself in New Zealand and in parts of Australia, Canada and the USA, as well as in a few UK schools. So, during the 1992 election, both Conservative and Labour promised to fund it nationally in Britain. The Conservatives provided a £10 million three-year trial in 20 inner-city LEAs. It performed well in these trials. But when the three years were up, there was no more government money. A very few LEAs could afford to fund it. The rest of the country has to make do with the literacy hour.

Professor Clay once told me that Britain was behind New Zealand in reading because people were divided into two armed camps on the teaching methods – one called phonics and the other called real books. Phonics was identified with the political right, real books with the left. In New Zealand, she said, everyone knew that you needed both.

The government literature on the literacy hour is strong on phonics, as well as that other trendy right-wing dogma, whole-class teaching. The government adviser Michael Barber is apparently demanding urgent action after discovering that in almost half the literacy hours seen by inspectors, no phonics teaching took place. So far as we know, he is not demanding more money and more teachers to fight illiteracy. Which is a pity.