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Budding bookworms

Sue Palmer heralds a new early literacy initiative

Get ready to catch 'em young. The gurus of the National Literacy Strategy are now urging schools to identify children with literacy problems as early as possible, and to provide help before they fall behind their classmates.

While current Government-sponsored intervention strategies - Additional Literacy Support (ALS) for Years 3 and 4, and catch-up materials for key stage 3 - have been well received, it is increasingly clear that by the time pupils receive this help, rather too much reading failure has happened. That "long tail of underachievement" sets in very early.

So at Easter the Strategy will begin rolling out an Early Literacy Support programme (ELS), designed to identify children needing extra help during Year 1 term 1 - as soon as formal education begins - and provide intensive targeted support during Year 1 term 2. Like ALS, this support will be provided by specially-trained teaching assistants, who will also assist the Year 1 teacher in screening children throughout the first term, to decide who should receive the extra lessons.

There will be funding for all English primary schools to send one Year 1 teacher and one teaching assistant to three days' in-service training, provided by the Strategy consultants. The first day's training (for which schools will receive additional funding to send one reception teacher if they wish) concentrates on "quality first teaching" - the kinds of practice that have been found most productive in helping all children make good progress in literacy. The second day focuses on observational screening procedures, covering pupils' performance in phonics, reading, writing, speaking and listening. The third day covers the intervention programme: 60 scripted lessons each 20 minutes long (additional to the literacy hour), for daily use with groups of up to six children by the classroom assistant over the whole of the secnd term.

Materials for these structured lessons will also be available free to any school that decides to implement ELS. Kevan Collins, the Strategy regional director with responsibility for ELS, advises teachers to give every child causing concern a chance to try the programme, no matter how far he or she seems to be behind: "You've got to allow yourself to be surprised."

Experience shows that results often are surprising, and the hope is that, after a term's targeted specialised help, most children will be on track, able to progress at an average pace. It will not work for all pupils, but the programme should help identify those with significant special educational needs - children who will probably need long-term one-to-one support - and those who might benefit from further targeted ELS support for another term or two.

The ELS pilots, and other early intervention programmes such as the SIDNEY system in Hampshire, have indicated that screening and intervention in Year 1 can save a significant number of children from the misery of long-term difficulties with literacy. If good results can be achieved on a wider scale, the benefits throughout the education system could be enormous: improved literacy skills leading to a general raising of educational standards, a reduction in special education provision, and improvements in pupils' self-esteem and behaviour.

However, the initiative's success will largely depend on the teaching assistants recruited to deliver the programme. Even with scripted lesson plans, dealing with a small group of five-year-olds can be demanding, and the children will often have problems with concentration, listening skills and language development. A commitment to recruiting teaching assistants of the highest quality and to training and teacher-assistant liaison must be a high priority.

Sue Palmer was formerly a primary headteacher and is now a writer and INSET trainer

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