It seems that almost every time I go on Facebook or Twitter or read the paper, I come across yet another utterly depressing story about the way in which government demands for the teaching of literacy, grammar and spelling is making our children miserable. Recently I've been trying to think not only about why that is but what could be done about it.
When the National Curriculum was brought in to standardise teaching across our schools, experts were given the task of determining what should be known/taught at every stage in every subject. In maths, from what I can gather, the careful development of a curriculum with sensible, logical stages of progress through the subject has not significantly changed what children learn at each age - my children did much the same kind of maths in Year 6 that I did: fractions, decimals, percentages, times tables, word problems. No one tried to cram differentiation or algebra into the year 5 syllabus, with a side-swipe at trigonometry in year 6.
Yet in English (or 'literacy' as it became known) the experts seemed incapable of holding back anything. Let's have six year-olds discussing 'genre'. Let's talk about settings, character, motivation. Let's discuss persuasive language, context, audiences - non-fiction as a genre versus the kind of writing we see in advertising or newspapers. Never mind that these used to be secondary English, even GCSE or A level concepts. There's no reason why seven-year-olds shouldn't come to terms with a version of these ideas, too.
And then along came Michael Gove. As well as all this English literature stuff, he wanted to make sure children understood grammar and could spell. Not instead, because we can't ever throw out anything once it's been included in the curriculum - that would be dumbing down. So as well as genre and character, eleven-year-olds now have to be able to identify and use the subjunctive, subordinating conjunctions, adverbial phrases, modal verbs and determiners, the passive voice... Again, this is something that even my parents, educated in the era of formal English grammar, learnt at secondary school, not primary.
Pouring advanced literature analysis and advanced grammar into the pot of primary English DISPLACES important things that those later developments rest on. Just like teaching algebra at age nine would displace actually learning how tens and units operate in our number system, hence making algebra meaningless and almost impossible to understand.
So here is my suggestion for what the literacy curriculum should look like for primary children. It is deliberately light on content - because teachers should be free to add whatever they want to, to inspire and encourage their children's reading and creativity. And it seems to me that the current National Curriculum guidelines for years 1/2/3/4/5/6 can be almost entirely shifted to year 7, 8 and 9 - where children will race through the concepts because they are more mature, better able to access the ideas, and will have a much better grounding in real literacy.
Year 1: At least one hour a day should be spent reading to children from a wide range of picture books, fairy tales, poems and simple non-fiction books. By the end of the year, all children should be able to pick out a favourite book from a set of available picture books, make a good attempt to tell the story, and explain why they have chosen it and what they like about it.
Year 2: The same; but children should be beginning to read books to themselves in quiet reading times, as well as being read to regularly. By the end of the year, they should be able to pick several favourite books, and write or give verbally short recommendations of these for other children. They should know a number of fairy tales and be able to choose one to re-tell. There is no requirement for grammar or spelling.
Year 3: the same, with further time spent in quiet reading. Groups of children of similar reading ability should come together to share the reading of am appropriate book (including fiction, non-fiction, plays and poetry) once per half-term, and choose a way to present or retell that book or some part of it to the rest of the class through drama, writing, art or music, either live or filmed/recorded. Children should read, copy and illustrate at least one short poem of their choice each half term. They should be given a full afternoon to write a story on a subject of their choice every fortnight. Teachers should be encouraging children to use full sentences and punctuate with capital letters, commas and full stops.
Year 4: the same, with the continuation of 'sharing' books and writing stories. Children should learn by heart one short poem of their choice each half term, and write and illustrate one of their own. At the end of the year, children should choose one favourite author, research the books they have written, and write a short report on them. They should be familiar with simple punctuation (commas, full stops, capitals) and the spelling of standard short words.
Year 5: a continuation of the class teacher reading for an hour and of periods of quiet self-directed reading. The afternoon a fortnight to write their own stories should be expanded to two consecutive afternoons to produce a more substantial piece of writing, which can be non-fiction or drama as well as fiction. They should continue to learn a poem per half term and write one of their own. Shared reading groups will still be encouraged to present the books they have read to the class through some form of talk, drama or written review. Classes should watch appropriate films together at least once a half-term, discuss them as stories, and write short reviews. They should be taught how to write formal letters, how to punctuate speech, questions, exclamations, and understand the purpose of paragraphs.
Year 6: should still be read to for an hour a day. Should still write stories of their choice, learn poetry, write poetry, share books though drama, music, film, writing, art and verbal presentations. They should alternate writing stories with writing short non-fiction illustrated texts on a subject of their choice, and should begin to use sub-headings and paragraphs to organise their work. They should look at appropriate examples of non-fiction texts and be encouraged to experiment with boxes, different font sizes, typefaces and layouts. They should be encouraged to vary sentence structures and be able to punctuate more complex sentences but will not be expected to understand the use of semi-colons or colons.
So there you are. All I need now is to get myself elected as Dictator with Special Responsibility for School Literacy. That shouldn't be too hard, should it?
Cecilia Busby writes humorous fantasy adventures for ages 7-12 as C.J. Busby. Her latest book, The Amber Crown, was published in March by Templar.
"Great fun - made me chortle!" (Diana Wynne Jones on Frogspell)
"A rift-hoping romp with great wit, charm and pace" (Frances Hardinge on Deep Amber)