Implementation of the National Literacy Strategy in England: Indications of Change

By Fisher, Ros; Lewis, Maureen et al. | Childhood Education, September 15, 2000 | Go to article overview

Implementation of the National Literacy Strategy in England: Indications of Change


Fisher, Ros, Lewis, Maureen, Davis, Bernie, Childhood Education


Soon after the 1997 election in the United Kingdom, the newly elected Labour Government set a target mandating that 80 percent of 11-year-olds should achieve certain standards in English proficiency on the National Curriculum tests by 2002. In order to reach these "ambitious targets," the Labour Government introduced a National Literacy Strategy (NLS), which, although not statutory, was adopted in September 1998 by most English primary (ages 4-11) schools.

The Strategy provides a framework of pre-specified objectives for each semester's teaching in text, sentence, and word level work that is delivered via a structured hour-long session, known as the literacy hour. This involves shared reading and writing with the whole class (15 minutes), structured grammar and phonic work with the whole class (15 minutes), 20 minutes during which one group works on guided reading or writing with the teacher while the rest of the class works independently, and a 10-minute plenary with the whole class. It involves explicit teaching throughout the hour, in contrast to much of the British primary school practice, in which literacy teaching has been largely individualized.

Prior to the NLS, normal practice varied from school to school. Typically, however, the teacher would initially offer instructions, after which the children would begin working on individual writing assignments. The teacher then would move around the room monitoring individuals' work. Often, phonics and other skills were taught through the use of worksheets. In addition, children would have an individual reading book from which they read aloud with the teacher or other adult. This approach's effectiveness depended very much on the quality of interaction between teacher and child, and was inefficient in terms of teacher time, especially in classes of 30 to 35 pupils. Much of the time spent on teaching literacy took place in the context of other subjects, such as developing research skills when locating information in history books. While this method was effective when done well, it sometimes resulted in a flurry of activity yet little learning, and left some educators wondering whether pupils were learning history or merely how to use reference materials.

Although many educators question the wholesale and indiscriminate implementation and prescriptive nature of the Literacy Strategy, they recognize that most of the teaching strategies employed are based on sound education principles. The Framework of Objectives, in particular, gave rise to criticism for being over-directed. On the whole, however, teachers have welcomed the increased focus on literacy and the structure. One teacher commented, "The National Curriculum document was far too open-ended and therefore difficult to implement. This is much tighter, and therefore of more value" (Fisher & Lewis, 1998, p. 25).

A typical literacy hour involves a 15-minute whole-class session, in which the teacher reads a book, or an excerpt, from an enlarged text. Children follow the text while the teacher reads and draws attention to features of the text. This method is based on ideas developed in New Zealand by Don Holdaway (1979). The aspects of text are selected based on objectives for that year group, in that semester. For example, students may be asked to identify the point of view from which a story is told and how this affects the reader's response. Alternatively, the teacher may model some aspect of text construction in a shared writing activity.

In the second 15 minutes of the whole-class time, the teacher works with the pupils on word (phonics, spelling, or vocabulary) or sentence (grammar and punctuation) objectives, again as given in the framework. Usually, although not always, these aspects of literacy are taken from the text used in the first part of the hour. The teacher spends the next 20 minutes working with a group, or groups, of children (differentiated groups of six to eight children) on a specific aspect of literacy. …

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