Nicky Murphy – a primary teacher who is working full-time with pupils at a secondary school – hands four sheets of stapled paper to her social subjects class, a group of four pupils who have been identified as needing her help.
It is an exciting task. The pupils at Craigroyston Community High are going to read a series of testimonies to figure out who was responsible for bringing the plague to Leith – an area of Edinburgh that borders their own – in the 1600s. At the top of the page, in large letters, is printed “CSI: Leith”, and about half of each page is taken up by generously spaced text.
Immediately, an S1 pupil says it’s “too much”. But Murphy (pictured, inset), who works on social subjects, literacy and numeracy at the school, reassures him, saying she will read a lot of the material aloud for them. The pupils can step in when they feel ready.
One boy, unprompted, starts to read. Immediately, Murphy encourages him to keep going. He has to sound out the vast majority of the words; his neighbour reads the next passage and is more fluent, but the reading is still stilted.
Pupils like these need to become fluent readers, says Murphy, otherwise by the time they finish a sentence, they have forgotten how it started.
Murphy, who taught in lower primary before coming to Craigroyston, uses strategies from her former role to develop the literacy skills of secondary pupils: phonics, sight vocabulary, blending words, context for understanding.
But there is also merit in just talking, she says, because that will improve children’s vocabulary.
“Children learn to speak, to read and then to spell,” Murphy explains. “You can teach a child to sound out words, but if they don’t know what that word means, they don’t understand what they have read. So they will say the word correctly but still be looking at you quizzically as if to say, ‘Is that right?’, because they haven’t heard it before.”
Sometimes progress is slow. But the school believes that, with Murphy’s patience and experience across the primary-secondary divide, these pupils have a better chance of gaining a foothold in classrooms, whereas in the past they might have floundered.