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Intervention fails the most vulnerable

Children in primary 2 classes are showing distinct signs of disaffection with school and losing touch with their classmates, according to a study by Moray House Institute into early intervention strategies in four north Edinburgh primaries.

Although the Pilton reading project has produced extraordinary results in turning a majority of pupils from non-readers into readers, a substantial number of children continue to have difficulties.

Helen Fraser, senior lecturer in early education at Moray House who is conducting an evaluation for Lothian, told a seminar in the capital last week that attendance and lateness were two key factors.

"Teachers reported that for the most vulnerable children the factors came together: a combination of age, attendance loss, lateness, perceived lack of literacy support outside the school and losing books," Ms Fraser said.

"There were children who, as a result, did not appear to become fully integrated members of the class, either socially or in terms of the curriculum. In one or two cases, observations suggested that there were already distinct signs of disaffection and separateness."

Ms Fraser pointed out that more than 40 per cent of the P2 children she studied were still aged five in November.

The evaluation, which sits alongside evidence from the education department, focuses on classroom practice and teachers' experiences. Ms Fraser found that teachers spent most time on listening to children read aloud. The presence of a nursery nurse made the biggest difference to their work on literacy.

Children were more interested in, and aware of, letters, sounds and words, and walls frequently featured reading displays. Evidence of the early intervention project was clearly visible in classroom practice. "Notably, the time spent by children and the adults on reading was more than would have been expected and the specific aspects of the teaching and learning were more than usually defined in practice. The general interest shown by the children in letters, sounds and words was judged to be greater than usual at that stage," Ms Fraser said.

Some of the best work was observed when adult assistants noted concentration problems and moved in to help. In some cases pupils' concentration spans had gone up from five minutes to 40 minutes.

Teachers reported that 47 per cent of parents now listened to reading prepared in school, 24 per cent helped with shared or paired reading and 15 per cent used school library books. Around 75 per cent of parents had attended parents' evenings.

Intriguingly, parents with children in P2 showed more interest in reading than parents with children in P1 or P3.

Norman Henderson, the region's primary adviser, told the seminar that reading failure was preventable and "sometimes we do not set our sights high enough for children in deprived areas". Early intervention was more successful than remediation.

Greg McMillan, a senior psychologist who helped expose the extent of reading problems in deprived communities, said learning support teachers had produced "wonderful" results with reading recovery methods.

"Primary 2 children with no measurable attainment ended up in the top group of the class in 12 weeks. They went from the bottom to the top of the class," Mr McMillan said.

Mary Ryan-Gillespie, headteacher of Pirniehall primary, said that in the past class sizes of 33 had hampered teachers' efforts. The arrival of nursery nurses had made a major difference.

Lothian's report on the Pilton project concludes that improvements had come from the extra time children spent on reading, the emphasis on phonological and alphabetic skills and regular assessment.

A similar experiment is taking place in the Craigmillar area but without the extra staffing deployed in Pilton.

* Next week: reading research in primary 1.

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