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Catch 'em young;Literacy

Sue Palmer explains how to stop weak Year 2 readers and writers slipping through the net.

He finds sitting still near impossible. His vocabulary and language skills are poor and his concentration span short, so he becomes an expert in work-avoidance strategies - fiddling with pencils or distracting his friends. He often asks for help, but doesn't seem to listen when you give it. When you set a writing task, he'll start enthusiastically, but soon trail away - hand-writing down the drain, spelling appalling, the point of the exercise apparently forgotten.

Most teachers know him (or her) well: the child who somehow doesn't quite take off in literacy learning, who, while having no severe or specific learning difficulties, fails to thrive as a reader or a writer.

In the Year 2 English SATs this child achieves a level 2C - the bottom end of average. And research suggests he or she will continue to fall behind, failing to reach the "national average" by the key stage 2 tests, part of that "long tail of underachievement" that has bedevilled the English education system for so long.

As the Education Minister's job depends on raising 80 per cent of our children to an "average" standard, the problem of 2C children exercises many minds. From Michael Barber and Chris Woodhead to the gurus in local education authorities, everyone is looking for ways of dealing with them.

The above sketch of a 2C child was compiled from discussion with 24 primary teachers in Richmond LEA in south-west London. It's a general picture, of course, and the teachers mentioned many other traits - immaturity, over-reliance on one reading strategy, a preoccupation with quantity of written work rather than quality - screeds of ill-spelled, unpunctuated, illegible ramblings.

Home background clearly plays a part - the effects of poverty, lack of support, too much "babying" or unrealistic expectations. But everyone agreed all 2Cs had one thing in common by the end of key stage 1 - low self-esteem. And destined to get lower as the years go by.

But children's chances of improving to reach an "average" level of attainment can be boosted. Here's how: Tips for the Early Years * Because poor language skills and concentration seem to underlie so many 2C characteristics, early attention to language and listening is a main concern. But above all, the child's self-belief must be kept intact, to stop that cycle of failure and low self-esteem before it begins.

* Parents of babies and pre-schoolers should be told the importance of talking to children, and encouraging listening skills and awareness of language sounds through nursery rhymes, songs, repetitive verbal games and other interactive language play.

* Ask nursery or pre-school groups to focus on developing language and listening skills through opportunities for one-to-one conversations with adults and structured activities to develop phonological awareness.

* In reception, don't let literacy and numeracy hours squeeze out play and structured, child-friendly activities to develop social skills, motor control, language and listening.

Tips for Year 1 * Cover literacy hour objectives in ways appropriate to children's age and interests. Let those with poor pencil-control use concrete materials for word and sentence level work (plastic letters, Firstages sentence-building) and practise letter-formation through large scale movements (sky-writing, for example).

* Aim for early identification of and intervention for poor phonological awareness and motor control. Co-ordinate baseline and other assessment procedures and always link to provision of appropriate support. Screen again at the end of reception for children still unable to match sounds to letters.

* Provide an early intervention programme in Year 1, preferably with one-to-one support (such as the SIDNEY system from Hampshire).

* When setting literacy hour work through key stage 1, give low-ability group children longer to consolidate skills than their peers. Target group work to their needs, even if assignments aren't always directly related to shared teaching (perhaps use a structured teaching system for all or part of group time - for instance, Phonological Awareness Training programme materials for phonicsspelling).

* Set clear, achievable targets and tell children what they are. Give concise, specific directions for independent work, including guidance on desired outcome. ("I want you to write half a page, and I'll look to see if you've split it into sentences, with full stops and capital letters.") * Provide guided writing as well as guided reading sessions.

* Don't forget spoken language activities, drama and role-play to develop vocabulary, language, social skills and self-confidence.

The SIDNEY programme for Year 1: details from Pauline Bentote, Havant Education Office, River Way, Havant, PO9 2EL. Tel: 01705 441442l Firstages in Literacy (sight words and sentence-building) Marjorie McLeod, tel: 01782 629648l PAT (Phonological Awareness Training programme) Jo Wilson (Educational Psychology Publishing, tel: 01296 382868).

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