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The branches of knowledge

Tree diagrams are part of a scheme that can help pupils organise their writing and improve literacy in all subjects, writes Diana Hinds

In a history lesson on slavery, 11-year-olds at Walford High School in Northolt, Middlesex, are learning how to make their first "tree" diagram. They read through the printed sheet in front of them as a class, then go through it again in pairs to decide on its main themes before embarking on their "tree". With "slavery" as its trunk, the two main branches, the pupils agree, will be "becoming a slave" and "gaining freedom", with lesser branches and twigs exploring both ideas in more detail.

It sounds obvious, and something most teachers would know about and use. But the tree diagram is just one of an intensive range of strategies to help pupils understand what they read and organise what they write.

Stepping Out is the grown-up cousin of First Steps, the primary literacy project developed in Australia and rapidly gaining popularity in the United Kingdom. It shares with First Steps an emphasis on explicit teaching, breaking learning down into manageable pieces, so pupils know what is expected of them, and teachers can better support them at every stage.

"Secondary pupils have most difficulty understanding a piece of text and then translating that into their own writing," says Dave Webb, as his history pupils get going with their slavery "trees". The kinds of diagram he is encouraging staff to use, he says, "make pupils look and think in a more analytic way - something they don't seem used to from primary school. It helps with structure, and seems to be having a positive effect."

Literacy can be a bete noire for secondary school teachers, who have no training in the rudiments of reading and writing, and often assume, wrongly, that pupils will be reasonably fluent in both by the time they leave primary school. Not knowing how best to help them, and under pressure to cover a heavy syllabus, they may simply hope, against all odds, that the English department alone will bring pupils' literacy up to scratch.

But improving literacy is a job for the whole school, maintains Judy Larsen, a headteacher in Australia and one of the architects of Stepping Out. The demands of a geography essay, for instance, will be different to those of an English or a science essay. If teachers have a clearer understanding of what they are asking pupils to do - breaking the process down into initial reading, extracting information, note-making, summarising, restructuring and reorganising into their own words - they will be better placed to see where pupils are going wrong.

Diagrams feature heavily in the Stepping Out programme - a technical panoply of trees, spiders, flow charts, retrieval charts, time lines and structured overviews. But pupils like them, and use them to make sense of the information in reference books (often confusingly presented), and to organise their own arguments. A well-structured diagram invariably leads to a more fluent piece of writing. With regular use, the diagrams should improve pupils' analytic and organisational skills.

Stepping Out also encourages work in pairs and small groups, involving pupils and challenging their understanding. And because the programme is whole-school and cross-curricular, staff are encouraged to watch each other teach and discuss possible approaches to shared problems.

Walford became the first school in the UK to sample Stepping Out when its newly-appointed headteacher, Monica Cotterell, introduced the programme last September. She had seen it in action in Ms Larsen's school in Perth (it proved so successful that it has been adopted across Western Australia), while studying for an MBA.

When Ms Larsen later came to England to research an educational thesis, it seemed too good an opportunity to miss, and Ms Cotterell persuaded her to help implement the programme at Walford High.

"I applaud the Government's initiative to improve literacy in the primary sector. But with our high proportion of students with limited literacy skills, and a low league table position, I decided I couldn't wait until the year 2002 for the improvements to reach Walford," says Ms Cotterell.

So since last term, every few weeks Walford's 55 teachers have sat down for a two or three-hour session with Ms Larsen, looking at aspects of speaking, listening, reading and writing.

With no Government funding as yet, money for Stepping Out has been eked out of the school budget. But Ms Cotterell, together with Ealing Education Authority, has put in a bid to the Department for Education and Employment, and she plans to approach local businesses.

Initially sceptical of another initiative, staff have come to welcome the practical thrust of the scheme. Although it is technically being piloted in Year 7, they are finding many applications throughout the school.

"We have never had this kind of forum to talk about what we do. And the cross-fertilisation has been useful," says Barbara Korzeniowska, English teacher. "It helps the children, too. They can't dismiss it as one teacher's nutty idea when they see 10 teachers doing the same thing."

For details on 'Stepping Out', contact Monica Cotterell on 0181 841 4511

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