While the National Literacy Project has been introduced with the help of substantial funding and a fanfare of publicity, pupils in four primary schools in Sheffield have been quietly achieving remarkable results using only one computer in a classroom.
The project arose from a course called "Computers can help make reading easier", which was linked to the Sheffield Year of Reading initiative (1996-97). Four teachers on the course made an in-depth study of the role of the computer in developing reading, and it was so successful that they are offering to share their experience with other schools.
The project aimed to see how daily use of a computer can enhance reading through autonomous learning combined with the "3Rs": rigour, routine and reinforcement. It also aimed to identify effective software and learning methods for pupils at key stages 1 and 2.
The national curriculum requires that in English pupils should be encouraged to use a range of sources of information, including encyclopedias, newspapers and IT reference materials, and that not all of these, even at primary level, should be designed for children.
The national curriculum states that in IT pupils should have the chance to handle equipment and software and use these to explore and solve problems. The reading project seemed suited to these requirements.
Two children from each of four Sheffield primary schools worked in pairs on specific reading and writing activities to develop their phonic skills, spelling, use of dictionaries, vocabulary and visual memory. The results were remarkable not only for the advancement they brought in reading standards, but also for ancillary benefits, such as raising the pupils' confidence and self-esteem and generating such enthusiasm that other pupils wanted to take part in the project.
The schools were not chosen because of any exceptional involvement in IT or achievement in reading. Bracken Hill is in the middle of a large estate, with many pupils on the special needs register for behavioural andor learning difficulties. Hunter's Bar Infants School has a mixed catchment area and a broad ability range. Mossbrook is a special school for pupils with severe and moderate learning difficulties. Only Norton Free, a small school in a middle-class area, has no great problems with reading.
Two children were chosen from each school on the basis of some difficulty they had. In one, both were eager to learn but were falling behind because of poor reading skills. Their IT competence and reading abilities were similar, so neither was thought likely to dominate the other. In another school, the two were the poorest readers in the class and lacked confidence. In a third, one pupil was almost two years behind his chronological reading age and the other, barely two months behind.
At the special school, other factors came into play. One child enjoyed working at the computer but lacked social skills. She had problems with pencil control but could use a mouse. The other was at a standstill in his reading progress. It was hoped that these children, for whom conventional methods seemed to promise so little, would respond to a different approach.
The teachers chose the software and made reinforcement activity materials. No particular constraints were applied to the choice of programs, which included the Oxford Reading Tree Talking Stories (Year 3), The Talking Animated Alphabet (ReceptionYear 1), both from Sherston, and Spywatch (Year 5), from Logotron. The special school used Rosie and Jim Talking Activities (Sherston). The choice seemed not to matter in terms of results, and each was successful in its own way.
Before the project began the advisory teacher for English visited each school, introduced the program to the children and tested their reading ability. It was understood that the "3Rs" were essential.
* Routine: Half an hour each day (15 minutes on the computer and 15 minutes of follow-up work) was set aside for the project. In no time, the children would go to the computer without prompting and load their work on the "special" project.
* Rigour: A course of action was agreed with the pupils, resources were provided, and a place and time were assigned. The expectation of success was there and they set about achieving it, with deliberately minimal intervention by their teachers. The scheme was enforced, and the children progressed quickly.
* Reinforcement: Each pupil understood that there was work to be done away from the computer. This was vital. Preparation for this follow-up work was the most difficult part for the teacher, since it meant providing linked activities five times a week for ten weeks. The pupils recorded their own progress.
At the end of the ten weeks, there were differences in the children, in attitude to reading, writing and motivation. Although gratifying, these improvements were not enough, so each pupil was re-tested. In this way, the success of this scheme was demonstrated. One Year 5 boy increased his reading age by a year in the ten weeks.
Teachers wishing to try a similar approach do not need any special facilities beyond what ought to be in any classroom - a mouse-drive computer and software. More important, it seems, is the organisation of the learning programme, and in particular the raising of self-esteem through success in learning.
So when you are next told that children learn best when they sit in rows absorbing the traditional talk-and-chalk form of teaching, or that the answer lies in better provision or in a national reading scheme, think of the success achieved by modest methods in these Sheffield schools, and try it yourself.
For details of the Sheffield project, contact Marg Lester at Bannerdale Curriculum Centre, Bannerdale Road, Sheffield S7 2EW
Marg Lester is a curriculum adviser for IT with Sheffield Local Education Authority