Fast Track brings pupils up to speed

Study shows success of reading initiative in secondary schools

Hundreds of struggling Scottish secondary pupils have been helped to learn to read, thanks to an internationally renowned US literacy programme, new research shows.

The study reveals a marked improvement in the reading skills of 75 per cent of the Edinburgh students who took part in the Fast Track scheme. The mean score of participants taking literacy tests rose from "below average" before starting the programme in 2013 to "average" 12 months later.

Data shows the same effect in 60 per cent of the 22 secondary schools that participated in the programme and in later testing. The remaining 40 per cent also saw improvements, although they were not statistically significant.

The Fast Track programme, created by US publisher Science Research Associates, is the final stage of an integrated approach to boosting reading in Edinburgh from nursery upwards. The scheme aims to intervene as early as possible when students are in need of extra help. It takes pupils back to basics: they learn core letter sounds and short words, building up to more complex reading and writing.

Researchers told TESS that anecdotal evidence also showed that other initiatives running in primaries, where work had begun several years earlier, had reduced the number of children starting high school unable to read.

Martin Gemmell, principal educational psychologist at City of Edinburgh Council, who conducted the latest study, said: "Overall, 444 pupils in Edinburgh had results that could be compared in 2013 and 2014. The mean score in 2013 was 80.2, which is a below-average score. The mean score in 2014 was 86.1, which is a score in the average range. This is a massively significant result in statistical terms.

"This move from lower-than-average to average scores is also found in 60 per cent of the secondary schools in Edinburgh. In the other schools, good gains were made without the same statistically significant shift.

"Overall, across Edinburgh," Mr Gemmell added, "75 per cent of pupils participating in Fast Track made significant progress in their reading. Another 11 per cent made progress but not at the same significant rate and 14 per cent did not progress."

He also noted that this year's secondary intake had "far fewer" candidates for Fast Track, potentially demonstrating that primary literacy programmes had been effective.

In Edinburgh, primary schools have been identifying P7 pupils with reading problems to take part in Fast Track when they start high school. Teaching has been led primarily by learning support staff, although English departments have run the scheme in some schools.

Edinburgh is one of five literacy "hubs" identified by the Scottish government in 2011, after publication of its national literacy plan in 2010. The hubs - which also include Fife, Highland, North Lanarkshire and West Dunbartonshire - are centres of good practice tasked with trialling and developing ways to improve reading skills.

The government's literacy focus was originally triggered by a survey showing that 3.6 per cent of adults in Scotland could not read.

Alasdair Allan, minister for learning, said: "We would encourage local authorities to work together to improve their literacy strategies and, ultimately, outcomes for young people. Good literacy skills are of vital importance to everyone, as recognised by our Literacy Action Plan and through Curriculum for Excellence."

Chris Leslie, schools resource developer at the Scottish Book Trust, welcomed the "exciting" results.

"It's wonderful to see a programme which can empower children who have become disenfranchised from reading," he said. "A love of reading has been proven to be a huge factor in academic achievement. I think it's important to follow up projects like this with some of the other great initiatives I've seen in local authorities - for example, reciprocal reading, which supports children to lead discussions about books."

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