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The best of a mixed bunch

Elaine Williams reports on Lincolnshire's resourceful, cost-cutting, homemade literacy support scheme.

Rachel Lunt was greatly relieved when, by the end of the last academic year, her five weakest readers and writers were attempting story projects all by themselves.

At the start of the year they had lacked confidence and became fidgety every time they were asked to write something. She said: "They were constantly asking how do you spell this and that. But now they are much more independent. They have strategies for working out their own difficulties and look for things like letter patterns and phonic cues themselves. What is more, they are much less stressed out in school."

Rachel is a Year 2 teacher at Redwood county primary school in Lincoln, one of Lincolnshire's 54 schools which are currently involved in the county's reading support service called Our Way of Learning (OWL).

Many counties like Lincolnshire did not benefit from Government grants awarded in 1991 to urban local education authorities where reading standards were causing concern. These grants were to fund training for teachers in the New Zealand Reading Recovery programme.

So Lincolnshire decided to set up its own scheme, focusing on Reading Recovery-style methods, but blending in a variety of approaches which contribute to good practice. The Our Way of Learning scheme involves a structured reading team of four specialist teachers, employed by the county council, who go into a school for a week and train-up non-teaching staff and volunteers to work with weak readers.

The scheme was initiated by Barbara Hodgeson, the team leader of Lincolnshire Learning Support Service, who became interested in the highly structured Reading Recovery philosophy, pioneered by New Zealander Dame Marie Clay, and designed to help six-year-olds who had trouble learning to read. After attending a lecture by Dame Marie in London, Hodgeson went to New Zealand for one month in 1993 to sit in on as many Reading Recovery lessons as possible.

Once in New Zealand she also discovered that although Dame Marie's approach, with the help of Government funding, was used to help 20 per cent of six-year-olds attending New Zealand schools, the Whole Language Evaluation work of Jill Eggleton, which advances reading, writing and spelling skills simultaneously, was also used.

While the OWL scheme draws on the work of both Clay and Eggleton it also includes phonics, "Look and Say", ordinary books, and the work of the Wiltshire Remedial Advisory Service for diagnostic procedures. Barbara Hodgeson said: "We wanted to create a scheme that wasn't just Reading Recovery but which involved the best practice of many schemes. Lots of schemes need big changes: we wanted a system for Lincolnshire schools that could be implemented within everyday practice at no extra cost."

OWL, which is a free service to schools, is now fully booked until next summer. Some county schools claim that the scheme has saved some children from being statemented, and has brought their reading and writing ability up to acceptable levels.

The OWL team trains heads and teachers who wish to supervise the scheme in their schools, but it is also aimed principally at non-teaching assistants, parents and other volunteers who can provide the daily one-to-one attention that weaker readers are usually given.

Before the training sessions start the team sets up a contract with the school's head of special needs, tailored to the school's requirements, and involving the assessment of selected children from Year 2 upwards. During the training week, OWL trainers take lessons for the first four mornings with trainees watching, and on the Friday morning trainees take the lesson themselves. Parents are informed and invited to watch the lessons. The team also provides a related service, which introduces shared spelling and paired reading, and grades the school's books into readability levels.

The idea is that classroom assistants and volunteers will devote half an hour a day to a child for about six weeks, during registration or before lunch. The OWL team returns every half-term to monitor progress.

Barbara Hodgeson said: "We are advising schools to build the scheme on what's available. Even during the short space of the training week we have managed to turn children round. During break-time at one school, a little girl put her arms around me and said 'I can read! I can read!' I think the input of a whole team into a school is important. It seems special to the children, and you can make a big impact. If only one person came in they would seem to them like just another remedial teacher."

Although the team aims to focus on children in Year 2, before they become discouraged or are left too far behind, it also takes on older children. "You can have an emergent reader aged 11," Barbara said. "We just slot them into place. The important thing is having the individual attention."

During the highly schematic lessons, children use a white board to write down regularly-used words such as "look" and "like" that they have been working on; they read familiar books that have been read in previous lessons; they re-read yesterday's book while the teacher takes a running record and looks at errors; then they write their own story, or news or a sentence from the story they have just read, and are then encouraged by their teacher to hear the sound in the words they are writing and to say the letters. The teacher then writes the story on a long strip which is cut up and put in order by the children who re-read it several times and take it home in an envelope. A new book is introduced which the children and teacher go through together, talking about difficult words. The child takes this new book home to read along with another from the OWL box.

The OWL pack provides a background to the philosophy of Reading Recovery and to detailed assessment procedures, while also providing general advice for classroom practice. "It is a realistic, practical, hands-on in-service, " Barbara Hodgeson said, "and it is a means of encouraging good practice. " Schools can also buy in resources that the OWL team has built up such as attractive phonic material, reading games and books Claire Skinner is the teacher in charge of OWL at Redwood primary school. She said: "I want to get as many people as I can trained to teach the scheme. Every child I've known who has been through it so far has made considerable improvement. We want to try to iron out our special needs problems before children get into key stage 2. You have to try to give children every opportunity to improve rather than letting them slip through."

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