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An ear for words

Not all pupils learn to read easily. Some struggle for various reasons, but an early literacy programme being implemented in East Ayrshire is helping them catch up with their classmates - and it's a lot cheaper than the standard Reading Recovery approach. Photograph by Gail Prentice

Teachers care. It's not something they dwell on, particularly in the robust atmosphere of the staffroom. But you can see it in their eyes when they talk about youngsters who have done something that was once way beyond them.

"A boy has been failing since he started school," says Una Barrie, who teaches at Crossroads Primary, East Ayrshire. "He never read a book. Then this afternoon he volunteered to read aloud a text we'd been working with in class. He did it so well. He read with expression. He could never have done that before... "

She swallows, and Strathclyde University lecturer Anne Neil, an expert in early literacy, steps in to provide some background. "He hadn't been asked to read aloud until he knew he could do it without failing. The teacher gets the kids to look at the characters, the setting, the plot development.

She gets them to talk together. Only then will she ask them to read aloud - because she knows they are going to be successful."

"And they know they are going to be successful," Ms Barrie resumes. "That wee boy's hand went up first. He knew the story; he knew the characters; he had the background knowledge. He knew he could read it."

It's the kind of confidence that grows from practice, understanding and reading skills. But many youngsters don't acquire these in their first year at school, and from then on learning is a losing battle for them.

"This is not about poor teaching," says Ms Neil. "It's about a substantial minority of children who need extra help for various reasons, and who are going to fail throughout school without it."

The first Scottish teacher to gain a master's degree in Reading Recovery from the University of London, Ms Neil went on to deliver the programme to North Lanarkshire teachers before taking up a post at Strathclyde University. For three years East Ayrshire has been using her knowledge and experience in early literacy staff development.

Reading Recovery is a proven approach to early literacy, which has attracted considerable government funding in England. This is now under threat, with schools reporting "increasing difficulty in their ability to fund the programme". (Select Committee on Education and Skills. 2005.

Teaching Children to Read.) Six English authorities have withdrawn because of funding problems.

"I have a lot of praise for the copyrighted reading recovery course," says Ms Neil. "In Britain, this operates under the central control of the University of London. Participating tutors and teachers benefit from the international family that is reading recovery. But it's not without its drawbacks."

A pound;2,000 price tag for each child is the big one. Compared to the cost of a lost life, this is loose change. But with local and national educational initiatives competing for limited pots of money, it is an immediate expense that is often hard to justify. Lack of accreditation, an inflexible structure and a focus on the English curriculum also limit the attractions of the London course to Scottish teachers.

In contrast, the Strathclyde University staff development delivered by Ms Neil takes the form of accredited modules aimed specifically at the Scottish curriculum. These let teachers participate in a variety of school circumstances and "at a cost we can all live with".

On a blustery evening, the Strathclyde lecturer is delivering the sixth session of the teachers' course in a school on the outskirts of Kilmarnock.

"Up to now we've been assessing a child's reading. Now we're going to look at how to use that in teaching," she says.

The class looks pleased. The programme has been tough to put into practice so far, because it has demanded something that goes against the grain of teachers' instincts: observe, don't teach.

While building a relationship with chosen children in regular one-to-one sessions, the teachers have been unobtrusively using a battery of systematic tests to diagnose their reading difficulties. The next stage was also a challenge. Called roaming around the known, it consisted of working with simple texts well within each child's scope.

"It is hard not to teach anything new," says Anne Marie Kean from Dalrymple Primary.

"It is essential though," Ms Neil says. "You're trying to build a relationship and give them confidence. If you keep upping the ante at the start, you won't make any progress. You have to let them feel good about what they know.

"It's also about learning more about that particular child's difficulties.

You've got the results of the objective tests. Now you're working with the child in a relaxed atmosphere. Does he or she know more than you thought? Is his or her knowledge not as secure as it seemed?"

Underlying this approach to closing the gap is the fact that children struggle with literacy for many reasons. Some can't hear separate words in a sentence or sounds in a word. Others have slow language development. One child is unsure about print direction. Another has poor motor development and can't match words and speech. There are children who make slow progress with enthusiasm, and others who work fast but make many mistakes.

Ms Neil uses video clips of sessions to illustrate her methods. Leanne stands out. "This girl had a great teacher," she says. "It was one of those classrooms you want to be in, with walls full of colour and the kids interacting." But after a year at school, Leanne could barely read or write, as the tests clearly showed.

"No amount of synthetic or analytic phonics is going to help her," Ms Neil says, as she shows the seemingly random collection of letters Leanne produced on her first test. "Because she can't hear the phonemes.

"Research shows that is the last part of spoken language children can hear.

First they get words within words, then rhyme, then syllables, then onset and rime. Only after all that can they hear separate phonemes. Leanne is not there yet."

So where exactly is she? Her writing is telling us, the lecturer points out. "Leanne has a visual strategy but no phonics. She knows the shapes of words, but she can't hear them. She is telling you: 'Show me how to use word recognition, because that's what I can do'. So that is what we work on. We take her into the text, get her to find words, make and break them with magnetic letters. At the same time we sing nursery rhymes to her, introduce her to phonemes through Elkonin boxes.

"What do we get for this effort? Two months later, this." She holds up a recognisable sentence, still missing many vowels. "After four months, this is what Leanne gives us. She is still not sure of a few things, but she is ready to come off learning support."

The final example of Leanne's work was done for her class a year after the programme ended. There is a stunned silence as the group absorbs the page of beautifully formed, fluent writing, and compares it with the stumbling jumble of letters that was all the girl could manage a year earlier.

"That is what can be done with these struggling kids," Ms Neil concludes.

"We can help them catch up. They don't need learning support for ever."

Dalrymple Primary

Paul Milligan illustrates a key message from Anne Neil's course, as his eyes flicker often from the coloured magnetic letters on the table to the teacher by his side. "These kids want to get it right for you," Mrs Neil had said. "They are trying as hard as they can."

In his second year at Dalrymple Primary in East Ayrshire, Paul has to try harder than most. He is already way behind with reading and writing. So principal teacher Anne Marie Kean (pictured left with Paul) takes him for three half-hour sessions a week, putting into practice what she is learning on the course.

As the teacher takes different letters in turn and places them next to another two, Paul makes the separate sounds and decides if they form a word: C-A-T gets his approval, but he shakes his head at D-A-T and F-A-T.

Mrs Kean prompts him: "Fff-aaa-t. What would I be if I ate too much, so my face looked like this?" She blows her cheeks up and the lad looks quietly amused.

The observation survey and the "roaming around the known" have shown that Paul has very poor knowledge of the initial sounds of words, Mrs Kean explains: "So if he had met 'jumped' in a book, he'd have had no clue to the word, because he didn't know what sound 'J' made. So I'm doing lots of alphabet work with him.

"But the tests show that Paul is missing bits of everything. For me the strength of this programme is that it's so personalised. The testing shows what the child has learnt and can use. Then you build a programme that suits him or her."

For Paul, a big strength of the programme is that he gets time to think, which rarely happens when working in a group. "I like reading on my own with Mrs Kean," he says. "But I like making pals too."

Although Paul stays on task for the full half-hour, it is hard work for young kids, says Mrs Kean, as the lad heads back to class with a golden ticket in his hand. "Paul had no nursery experience at all, so that gave him a lot to catch up with."

Individual programmes are costly, but only needed for a small number of children. For them they are essential, says Mrs Kean. "Paul's class is still moving on, so once kids like him slip behind, it's impossible to catch up on their own," she says. "They can only do it in one-to-one sessions. But what we're learning is that they can do it."

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