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How to switch on the reading light

Why can't dogs read? Thinking about that will help to shine light on what factors can help literacy click for young children, reports Jean McLeish

It is early morning at Seaton school in Aberdeen and two 6-year-old boys are discussing why dogs can't read. The sun is flooding into the classroom and every inch of wall space is covered with children's paintings, their self-portraits with mile-wide mouths.

Morag Russell, a literacy researcher, is working with the boys.

"Remember one of the things we were interested in was how people learn to read? Well, I wrote down all your ideas and I've got them here.

"But also, I thought I would show you a picture of Kirsten and Kyle," she begins, showing them photographs of her grandchildren. "That's Kyle.

Remember Kirsten was teaching him to read? And he said: 'I'm tired, why don't you teach the dog to read?', but she wasn't very sure why dogs and cats can't read, and you gave me some very good ideas."

The boys are on first name terms with Morag in these weekly conversations and look at her attentively. "Lewis, you said humans can focus, dogs are hyper and the mind of a dog is sort of wild. Jay, you said they've got a funny mind that runs about, mine doesn't, I'm human."

The conversation moves on to how reading gets harder as the words get bigger and Morag asks them what advice they would give nursery children learning to read.

Taking time out of the classroom conversations, Morag explains the background.

She is a senior lecturer in education from Aberdeen University's Reading Bus research team. Along with colleague Geoff Lewis, she is exploring ideas about literacy through conversations with adults and children about their everyday experiences of reading.

They have been finding out what people read, why they like it, where they like to read, what it would mean to them if they couldn't read, whether they liked reading at school, if not why not, and what parents hope for their children, in a literacy context.

The findings will support the development of the Reading Bus, which was launched in Aberdeen in August, initially serving the St Machar area, where there are 10 primary schools, including Seaton.

On its travels it aims to promote reading, raise the achievement of children at risk of early failure, encourage family learning in a non-school environment and empower hard-to-reach parents to increase their involvement in their children's learning.

It is hoped that the bus will celebrate literacy as a contemporary survival skill, vital in our daily lives, encompassing everything from text messaging to traditional reading material.

The bus was the brainchild of Jenny Watson, the deputy headteacher of Hanover Street school in Aberdeen, who saw a similar venture during an industrial placement. School staff recognised the critical contribution of parental involvement in early education and were striving to increase levels of participation.

"Increasingly, as the project develops and research findings are coming back," Morag explains, "we are finding it's not that parents are hard to reach, it's more that schools are hard to access for some, if not many, parents, who may feel they failed at school or who may have a deep-seated resentment that school failed them in some way."

The bus is part of a strategy to tap into everyday literacy activities to draw in these parents.

Today Morag is piloting scenarios she is about to use in her Little Reader research project with P2 children at Donbank school. She wants to find out more about children's perceptions of how they learn to read, building on work by Professor Colin Harrison of Nottingham University.

"He spoke to a number of experienced infant teachers in Edinburgh and asked them: 'What is it that helps children learn to read?' They said: 'We don't really know, it just clicks,'" Morag explains.

Her work is to find out what "clicks". Learning from the Seaton pilot, she first talks with children about why dogs can't read, prompting them to think about how we can read, and then asks: "If you had to teach nursery children to read, what would be important things to teach them?"

The P1 class teacher at Seaton, Isabel Sylvestro, is a committee member for the Reading Bus and a close observer of the pilot study. "It's been really interesting," she says, "because you don't often get the chance to quiz children about the click factor, as Morag calls it. They know it's something they need adult support for, they can't just do it on their own."

The research methods are based on the Reggio Emilia early learning approach in Italy and the work of Robin Alexander, of Cambridge University.

One Reggio Emilia strategy to assist children's dialogue is revisiting their language and drawings to demonstrate the validity of their contribution, while Alexander's case for dialogic teaching, as distinct from question-answer-tell, involves conversations where participants are learning partners.

Last year, Morag asked parents to remember good and bad reading experiences, to make three wishes for their children and to reflect on how they would cope if they couldn't read.

"They talked about texting and, if they didn't read, how would they be able to cope," she says.

"They talked about their disappointments in school and how set readers didn't do anything for them. Their bad experiences tended to be about being forced to read things, being told to read when you didn't feel like it, about getting words wrong, about not having time to finish if they were given 15 minutes reading time.

"Interestingly, when it came to three wishes for their child, they tended to say things like, that they would be able to read better than I can, that they would have time to read, that they would be allowed to make choices, that they would be able to play."

Morag's colleague Geoff has asked P4-P7 children, parents, community members and stakeholders in the bus project where they read, what they read and what it would be like if a witch cast a spell and they couldn't read.

Morag says they would be concerned that they couldn't read teletext or football programmes, the web and their magazines.

"It was very much about the lived life. It was about finding your way around strange places, like hospitals; if you can't read the signs you end up in the wrong ward. It was about going on holiday and knowing which check-in desk to go to. That's how they saw these functional, real-life aspects of reading - as vitally important.

"So it is a challenge for us now to continue to examine what's happening in the home. We can then highlight to parents the exciting things that are already happening.

"There is a notion that some homes are not literate, that they are semi-literate. But in this highly literate society, all homes are literate.

It doesn't matter if it's about filling in the lottery ticket or reading the racing results. These are literary events that are taking place in the home and children are learning about why they read."

A newspaper cutting on the Seaton staffroom wall is a reminder of the challenges facing the community. A report puts Seaton third in a list of Britain's least healthy communities. There is a lot riding on the bus.

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