When Susan Thomson, deputy head of Riccarton Primary School, Edinburgh, and Janet Hunter, the school's learning support teacher, heard at a conference about an early intervention programme for learning problems, they knew it was what they wanted for their school.
"But the programme was for Primary 3 (Year 2 in England and Wales). We wanted to do it far earlier - in Primary 1 (Reception). And we specially wanted to tackle phonological awareness - we were fast beginning to realise that it's a necessary precursor to all reading and spelling skills," they say.
Research into the steady deterioration of young children's listening skills (see TES2, page 11) suggests their instincts were correct, and the sooner children can be introduced to phonological awareness activities the better. In the absence of any organised intervention for pre-school children, infant practice will have to adjust to cope with a changing culture.
The teachers of Riccarton Primary started from scratch to formulate a programme. Susan and Janet teamed up with four colleagues - three teachers and a speech and language therapist, Lesley Baillie. "We needed the expertise of someone who knew about children's language development - someone who'd worked with children on language disorders."
Their aim was to produce something clear, practical and easy to understand, which any teacher - however inexperienced - would immediately see the point of doing. This involved first reviewing all the strengths of their current teaching practice, then defining how they could focus and extend that practice to develop children's sensitivity to the sounds of language. They soon found themselves wading through a mass of educational research.
"It wasn't easy to turn all the jargon into simple language, and systematise all the activities," says Susan Thomson. "We were having to work on it at lunchtimes and in the holidays. But it was really heartening to find how much we were all thinking the same way. Teaching can be such an isolating job - we got a lot of reassurance out of just talking to each other and realising we were all doing the right things."
The programme was introduced at Riccarton over the 1995-96 school year, and assessment after two terms suggested that children would need further, more highly structured support. Lesley Baillie provided this during the summer term, helped by an experienced nursery nurse. This session Susan Thomson took over the group, though it's been more difficult since the school's highly supportive headteacher moved away and she's taken on the acting headship. But most ofthe children are making good progress: only two seem likely to go on having major difficulties.
This year the whole-class programme has gone well, and it's hoped the assessment due at the beginning of the third term will show fewer children needing further support. But the Riccarton scheme is not just about identifying children with problems. As the visual media proliferate, and all children come to school less attuned to sound than earlier generations, training in phonological awareness assumes importance for everyone. "We're convinced that an early intervention programme like this helps all children - it shows the ones who need more help, but it also makes the good children even better. Everyone benefits."
Sue Palmer is a former primary head, now a freelance writer and lecturer. For details of her roadshows on language teaching send SAE to 11 St George's Road, Truro, Cornwall TR1 3JE.