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Literacy plan takes first steps

The educational publisher Heinemann is to import three Australian specialists in September to train British teachers in a literacy programme which has already attracted the attention of chief inspector Chris Woodhead and Labour education spokesman David Blunkett.

Alison Dewsbury, leader of the First Steps project, will bring two colleagues from Western Australia to Britain for a month to run training courses for schools, local authorities and teacher-training colleges, leading to British trials of the scheme.

First Steps, based on a study of how children learn, has raised standards among the most deprived pupils in Western Australia, which funded it, as well as other children, and has now attracted the attention of policy-makers wanting to boost literacy standards in the UK. The scheme links assessment with teaching and learning.

The project was first seen in Britain less than a year ago by a small group of teachers at the United Kingdom Reading Association's annual conference. The First Steps materials have since caught the interest of Mr Woodhead, who has strongly criticised the way reading is taught in many primary schools, and Mr Blunkett, who mentioned the project in his speech to the National Association of Head Teachers last week.

Citing the need to learn from other countries, Mr Blunkett said: "First Steps provides teachers, parents and pupils with a clear framework for teaching and assessing children's reading, writing and spelling."

John Stannard, the newly appointed director of the Government's network of 13 literacy centres, which will open in September, has met Ms Dewsbury to learn of her ideas, as have representatives of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority and OFSTED. One local authority, still unnamed, is planning to appoint a First Steps co-ordinator, who will attend a training course in September.

In Britain, the system could provide a way to measure children's progress throughout the four-years of key stage 2, where children may remain on one national curriculum level for as long as three years.

The materials are published by Longman Australia, but Heinemann owns the international training rights. Ms Dewsbury is employed by the Western Australia state government and earns no royalties. The profits are used for further developments of the scheme.

First Steps research into supporting children whose first language is not English showed a big difference between children who are already literate in their own language and those who are not. Its report, Supporting linguistic and cultural diversity through First Steps, says that children should be encouraged to switch into their mother tongue if they are unable to find the words in English. This gives them confidence and "encourages cognitive development as well as speeding up the learning of English".

The findings could undermine the results of national curriculum and other standard English tests at seven, such as those used in OFSTED's recent report on three inner London boroughs, in schools with large numbers of pupils whose home language is not English. Ms Dewsbury is adamant that "you can't judge a child's cognitive ability in a language they're not at home with. It's useless to assess a child's literacy until they're totally at home with the language. "

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