Primary English: Teaching Theory and Practice: 2nd edition

Author(s) Medwell, Jane; Wray, David; Minns, Hilary; Griffiths, Vivienne and Coates, Elizabeth
Publisher Exeter: Learning Matters
Published 2002
ISBN 1903300541
Reviewed by James McGonigal
University of Glasgow
Review published 1 December 2004

National curriculum development programmes, particularly when they are "assessment driven", and perhaps even more particularly when they deal with the contentious area of children's literacy, can be a mixed blessing. This book is one of the more benign aspects of the National Literacy Strategy and its framework for teaching. Like some of its video materials that model the strategies, behaviours and attitudes that effective teachers use to help their children to become confidently literate, so this book codifies and exemplifies approaches to the teaching of reading, writing, speaking and listening, and the assessment of these, that beginning teachers can use to continue the work of more experienced colleagues.

Like its partner books in the series, it offers overviews of current thinking, research briefings, practical and collaborative tasks that explore the key issues from a different angle, chapter summaries and quick guides to further reading. All this is recent, relevant, helpful. I suppose that I tend to skip happily over the links also made to attaining the various benchmarks for Qualified Teacher Status in a way that its student readers won't. That is one of the less obviously benign dimensions of current teacher education, but it provides a clear context for all this professional effort, and in some ways reminds us of the importance and difficulty of the work of teaching, and of teacher development.

Looking at another country's approach to this work, I can appreciate the similarities and the differences. From a smaller and less variable system (I was going to say more centralised, but teachers in England may think that this could not be possible) I am somewhat in awe of the efforts involved in synthesising so many aspects of good practice, and attempting to generalise these across such a range of schools and local authorities. In my own institution, we certainly share the conceptual framework of this book's approach to literacy learning, and indeed have learned from it.

Because it syncretises so much diverse material, it is an excellent starting point for student reflection before and after school experience, as well as being a useful "how to" handbook to use in lesson preparation. Tutors and school mentors, especially when their own subject expertise is not primarily in language, can use it to engage in focused talk with students about school policies and classroom events.

This need for discussion is worth emphasising, as there is the danger in any thorough codification of a complex issue that it actually cuts down on thought, becoming prescriptive rather than descriptive in the mind of the reader, especially a student reader under pressure to meet performance targets, as well as to perform well in the tricky act of teaching.

However, this book is written by a team who must themselves be aware of that danger. They have brought to this work not only an impressive combination of craft skill and conceptual background, but a generosity in sharing this with other teachers in a way that highlights the essential humanity of literacy learning, which must be collaborative and co-operative if it is to engage children in developing their awareness of how words, amazingly, work.