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Literacy on fast forward;Primary

Diana Hinds catches up with a scheme that helps poor or reluctant readers come up to speed

I don't like reading because it's hard, and when you get stuck on a word, it's not very nice." A seven-year-old girl, included on a training video for a new literacy project, Catch Up, expresses what many children her age feel about reading. Research shows that 18 per cent of Year 3 children - five or six in every classroom - have literacy difficulties. These are usually too minor to secure the extra help and funding a statement brings, but they can seriously inhibit the child's learning.

The gap between children who are coping well and those who are not increases drastically at this stage, resulting in the notorious "long tail" of under-achievement and a dip in the "average" achievements of lower juniors.

But catching up is possible, according to the organisers of the project, which is aimed specifically at eight-year-olds. At Catch Up's heart is the simple requirement that teachers spend 10 minutes a week with each child in difficulty, in an intensive, one-to-one session focusing on reading and writing.

Each session is carefully structured to include two minutes' talking about a book, four minutes' reading it (with errors recorded by the teacher), and four minutes' writing, to practise words the child has struggled with.

Sessions are bolstered by an initial assessment of each child's literacy skills and attitude to reading. The child must then be matched with appropriate texts which can be read with some fluency, while also introducing new words - Catch Up has arranged 25 reading schemes into nine finely-tuned levels of difficulty.

All Catch Up children in a class also have a weekly 15-minute session of group reading, to encourage confidence and expressiveness. Follow-up tasks or games, linked to the individual teaching sessions, may be carried out by a classroom assistant, with the teacher reminding children of new words throughout the week.

Based on a one-year research project by Diana Bentley and Dee Reid, of Oxford Brookes University, and with core funding from World in Need, the charitable trust that supports a wide range of international projects, Catch Up was piloted in 15 schools in Oxfordshire, Berkshire and Milton Keynes last autumn.

Since its official launch in February, it has sold 500 packs to schools and advisers. The Catch Up team is lecturing around the United Kingdom on Saturdays throughout this year and next, and school training days during the week can be arranged.

Donna Stanton, a teacher at Emerson Valley Combined School in Milton Keynes, helped co-ordinate part of the pilot, and is using the programme with four children in her Year 4 class.

Since Catch Up started, the children's enthusiasm for reading has grown. Results from the 10-week autumn pilot with the school's Year 3 children showed an average gain in reading age of seven months, with one child improving by 13 months.

One of the chief differences Catch Up has made to her teaching, Donna Stanton explains, is the 10-minute intensive session. She often fits it in after lunch, when the rest of the class is reading quietly, and makes it as interruption-free as possible.

She is also indebted to a reading strategy promoted by Catch Up, where the teacher talks through the story with the child, using some of its more challenging vocabulary. This plants the words in the child's head, increasing confidence and understanding during reading.

"There is something unexpectedly powerful about those 10 minutes," says Gill Forbes, Emerson Valley's headteacher. "A child who sits down to read is often not particularly engaged, but talking through the book first, using some of its vocabulary, gives them a focus and draws them in."

Suzi Clipson Boyles, Catch Up project director and senior lecturer in primary English at Oxford Brookes University, believes the timing of Catch Up is of particular significance. At the start of key stage 2 the demands of the curriculum, and even the atmosphere in the classroom, change drastically. Children need to be fairly mature and fluent in their reading and writing if they are to cope. Some children are simply not ready - particularly boys and those with summer birthdays, she says.

So while the children who are coping well take off at this point, reading novels, for instance - the plodders get left behind, and the gap widens. By this age, too, children are more aware of themselves in relation to others, and if they are struggling, they will realise it.

Their feeling of "I'm no good at reading", if not recognised early and countered quickly, undermines their confidence and self-esteem. They say to themselves "I'm not going to try", and become increasingly adept at devising strategies for dodging reading and writing. The energy that should have been going into their learning frequently gets misdirected into disruptive behaviour.

Catching children before this downward spiral begins is vital. Early signs are that the Catch Up programme is an excellent way of remotivating children. Pupils like it, and schools like it, because it is relatively simple. The biggest challenge it poses teachers, says Gill Forbes, is one of time management - although the group reading can be accommodated within the literacy hour, the individual sessions must be slotted in elsewhere.

"But if you believe it's worth doing, it's worth finding a way of fitting it in," she says. "The results speak volumes."

More details from: 01865 485805. website: schoolseducationcatchuphtml


* Identify as early as possible where a child is stuck, and make sure you are working from a sound knowledge of what the child can do

* Provide regular, short amounts of help, focused on the child's individual needs

* Make the child feel positive about the extra help - for instance: "I am getting help because I need and deserve it, not because I can't do it"

* Help the child understand the importance of practising skills he or she finds difficult

* Provide focused teaching that links reading and writing

* Praise specific strategies the child uses (for example looking ahead for clues, breaking words down)

* Offer opportunities to consolidate basic skills through games - these should not be restricted to infant classrooms

* If a child becomes disruptive, don't just handle the behaviour, but look for the lack of confidence that may be causing it

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