Fast track for slow readers;Digest

Sue Palmer

Sue Palmer looks at the literacy initiative for juniors

For an education secretary, the prospect of resigning in 2002 if pledges to bring 80 per cent of 11-year-olds up to standard in literacy haven't been met must concentrate the mind. It must also engender particular interest in England's eight-year-olds, who'll be sitting national tests in 2002. Those who scored Level 1 or 2c in key stage 1 tests last summer are unlikely to attain the magical Level 4 in three years' time.

Unfortunately for David Blunkett, 38 per cent of children in present Year 3 classes are in that boat when it comes to reading, and 52 per cent for writing.

So it comes as no surprise that the next batch of materials and training from the National Literacy Strategy is directed at struggling readers in the juniors, particularly Years 3 and 4. More than pound;22 million became available to these children towards the end of last year.

Since then, a team led by Literacy Strategy director of training, Dr Laura Huxford, has been designing, writing and trialling teaching materials in time for delivery to schools in May, so that "fast-track" Additional Literacy Support (ALS) courses can begin at the start of the new academic year.

Schools will receive a free pack of teaching materials covering literacy hour group-work for some of the most problematic pupils, and money for extra helpers to deliver it. It brings the possibility of reducing that "long tail of underachievement" which has bedevilled primary education for so long.

The ALS materials are intended for use during the daily Literacy Hour in the 20-minute group teaching time, and most of the cash is to go on employing classroom assistants to deliver the programme to small groups of children. Funds for employing classroom assistants (or extending existing assistants' hours) will be distributed to schools through local education authorities, largely on the basis of national test results. There will be a two-day training course for one teacher and one assistant from each school in the summer term, and a training video will be released.

Like most programmes for struggling readers, ALS concentrates mainly on phonics, on the grounds that unless children are completely secure in this basic skill, all other literacy work is built on shaky foundations. Three lessons a week are devoted to highly-structured phonics work, mostly through interactive games and activities.

There is also one weekly session of guided reading - supervised alternately by the teacher and the assistant - in which children can put their developing skills into practice. Eight weeks into the programme, a further regular session on writing skills is introduced.

This is the first time a national remedial programme has been tried, and there are many questions about ALS. How can an off-the-peg course cater for the vast range of struggling readers across the country? And how can classroom assistants be expected to deliver a specialised teaching programme to groups of up to five children - or, as one teacher put it, "the least-trained people working with some of the most difficult pupils"?

Laura Huxford and her team are well aware of these questions and the compromises ALS involves. But they are also aware that, in the literacy stakes, time is running out for eight and nine-year-olds who have not yet become readers and writers.

In many junior classes there are a dozen or more struggling readers, although the Government hopes the NLS will lower those numbers. In the meantime, even the most successful teachers find it difficult to help these children. With litercy and numeracy hours to run and the rest of the class to provide for, a non-specialist class teacher cannot be expected to devise and supervise the highly-structured programmes struggling readers need.

In the circumstances, schools may see an off-the-peg course as being much better than none at all, and a classroom assistant to deliver it far better than nobody.

The success of ALS - like most educational initiatives - probably depends on the enthusiasm with which it's introduced into schools. Teachers in the grip of initiative-fatigue may not find it easy to put on a smiley face and motivate children and support staff into optimistic fervour. But some may see it as a last chance for struggling readers of becoming literate.

And for David Blunkett, of course, it may offer a much-improved chance of long-term employment.

Sue Palmer is a freelance writer and primary inservice provider who has worked as a consultant on the ALS materials.

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