Huge gains claimed for literacy project

Diane Hofkins

An Australian scheme linking learning and assessment could soon be sweeping Britain. Diane Hofkins reports. An Pounds 11 million Australian literacy programme which links teaching and learning with assessment could be the next antipodean initiative to sweep Britain.

Teachers at the annual conference of the United Kingdom Reading Association in Winchester at the weekend heard news of the First Steps programme, which has raised standards among the most deprived pupils in Western Australia, where it was developed, as well as for other children.

The scheme, developed and tested over four years in 500 schools, provides a framework designed to enable teachers to link assessment to practical teaching strategies and activities in the areas of oracy, reading, writing and spelling.

The project, intended to raise literacy standards, particularly for disadvantaged pupils, was funded by the state of Western Australia, and has since spread to most parts of Australia, some American states and New Zealand, where the successful Reading Recovery programme for helping weak readers was developed.

Based on children's development, First Steps helps teachers to pinpoint children's attainments and shows ways to help move them on to more advanced work and thinking, with teaching strategies and activities.

Alison Dewsbury, who leads the project, said, "What we wanted to do was make life easier for teachers." The authority, schools and universities involved wanted to provide practical support.

Ms Dewsbury said the First Steps indicators, which help teachers pinpoint children's achievements, had been "webbed" on to the curriculum profiles in Australia, and could be done here.

A computer program can tell teachers what curriculum level a child has reached, and what progress he or she has made towards the next. This is particularly helpful for special needs children who make small steps toward the lower levels.

The project seems to be geared toward what both government inspectors and teachers want: ongoing, systematic assessment which leads to the planning of work which suits each individual child. "Teachers say it affirms and validates everything they have always known," says Ms Dewsbury.

John Bald, a reading expert and independent Office for Standards in Education inspector, said: "It should play a major part in the considerations of future literacy policy in this country. HM inspectors have made it clear that effective assessment followed by planning that takes account of that assessment is what is needed for success at key stage 2 (where they have consistently highlighted problems). This does that in a systematic way."

Ms Dewsbury said the project was thoroughly researched by the Australian Council for Educational Research, which confirmed that it worked. Everything was tested on teachers. "We threw out anything that didn't work, no matter how valid."

The First Steps materials, published in Australia by Longman and in the US by Heinemann, consist of eight books costing a total of about Pounds 100, and include teaching resources as well as the framework. But it is unclear if and when they will be published in the UK. Neither publisher has yet made any decision to publish First Steps here.

The project was introduced in three phases in Western Australia, starting with the most deprived areas. A 1993 parliamentary report showed the most deprived schools ranked halfway between the middle group and the "stockbroker belt" schools, said Ms Dewsbury. Normally, they would be well behind the middle group.

She said First Steps had proved so popular in Australia that its principles were taught on teacher training courses at all the universities. One university had resisted until its students marched because they couldn't get jobs without it.

The First Steps literature says that its impact on schools, classroom practice and pupil outcomes increases steadily over time. It says: "The material validates and affirms the professional expertise of teachers by capturing and making explicit some of the vast body of knowledge that teachers use, often intuitively, when assessing and teaching their students."

Ms Dewsbury and her team put together "developmental continua" which are described as "'maps' of language and literacy that trace the development of understandings and skills from infancy to adulthood". She says they found that, although children do "a heap of things all at once", these things tended to cluster together in patterns. So they highlighted "key indicators" for five different stages, although these are not definitive, and these tended to be things that teachers would notice automatically.

For children with difficulties, a range of other indicators were included, too. Teaching strategies and activities are linked to key indicators.

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