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Design for reading

Paired reading projects have become a familiar in the primary landscape over the past decade. But many have been short-lived and intermittent, raising interest and enthusiasm with temporary results, writes Bill Gillham.

How to build in paired-reading practice as a regular part of the school system? Although simple, the technique requires brief, but regular, individual support which must be well-organised. Many schools use peer-tutoring (older or more able pupils tutoring younger or less able ones) as a means of providing this individual help. But to work smoothly peer-tutoring needs careful preparation and training of the tutors. Given that, many schools have found that the longer-term support of targeted readers can be provided.

Our experience of working with the staff and pupils in St Rochs Primary in Glasgow followed a familiar pattern. Like many others we were surprised at the maturity and responsibility of the older (primary 7, age 11) children who tutored targeted younger children in primary 2. The organisation and the technique worked well, but it became clear that an extra dimension was needed to sustain motivation. Technique is not enough, nor even the sense of responsibility that peer tutoring engenders. The next stage in our project was fortuitous.

The Glasgow School of Art runs an artist in residence programme for Strathclyde schools, funded by the Strathclyde region arts initiative. It has been a remarkable success, culminating each year in an exhibition of the work of the participating schools in the Scotland Street School Museum in Glasgow. It wasn't difficult to see how the special skills and talents of undergraduate artists and designers could boost our paired-reading project, by involving the children in producing teaching materials. In the first year that we tried this the younger children produced their own word and letter-learning aids. Last term we were more ambitious.

During the past year two design students, Susan Roan and Frances McConochie, together with Wendy Eadie of the department of psychology at Strathclyde University, have helped the primary 7 tutors to write and illustrate eight- page, one-liner storybooks for use with the primary 2 children. The results are remarkable and have to be seen to be appreciated: words are not enough. True, the children's work has benefited from the professional production skills of the design students - but then that is true of professional writers and illustrators. These books are now in use as a nucleus of paired-readers produced by the same children who are acting as tutors. It would be idle to pretend that the process has been a simple one. Story ideas had to be developed: drama was helpful here. Stories had to be edited down. Illustrations went through the stages of experimenting with techniques and materials, producing roughs and finished artwork: some children could not sustain this. But all produced original work and most saw their efforts culminate in vivid and original storybooks.

We know that paired reading works short-term. But long-term effects are only achieved through long-term input. There are visible creative spin-offs for the children who have been involved in producing the books. But what the book-making project has added to reading support is something else: it has made it high-profile and high status. For intervention to really work creativity has to be added.

* Bill Gillham is senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Strathclyde

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