Paired reading

Several studies have shown that boys are at last closing the literacy gap with girls. Schools point to initiatives such as buying more appealing books, using more boy-oriented teaching methods or the impact of the literacy hour. But there is still a problem - the five worst readers and spellers in my Year 7 Lower Band group are all boys.

Ten years ago, I was offered a job in Canada. I joined a pilot scheme where older pupils were paired with younger to work on reading and literacy skills. The scheme largely succeeded: it made resistant readers into pupils who would at least attempt a text and it built up confidence.

I returned to Britain, where like all teachers, I am always looking for ways to "do education better". At my school, pupils with special needs receive excellent support, but you cannot have too much of a good thing.

This year, after discussion with all concerned, we decided to attempt a very small scale paired reading scheme. Our aims were to match a handful of carefully identified incoming Year 7s with a partner in Year 11. We wanted to concentrate on boys because of their lag in literacy skills and to match them with boys in Year 11 because the impact of role modelling cannot be over-estimated. A Year 11 boy has surpassing street credibility to his 11-year-old admirer.

We named 12 Year 11 boys who possess the right mix of charisma, ability, maturity and kindness. They were invited to join the scheme and it was good to see their enthusiasm. They attended two sessions of training about the process of reading and how toassist it.

Next we had to identify our Year 7 group. We contacted the SENCO in each primary school and asked for names of Year 6 boys who wished to volunteer or who were likely to benefit from the scheme.

Once we had their names, our Year 11 pupils wrote letters to their Year 6 partners. Our aim was to bestow kudos on the recipients, so that peers would be curious and envious rather than unkind.

In September, the scheme began. Partners were to meet once a week at lunchtime for about 20 minutes. They had to read - not chat or do homework. A private space was guaranteed. We bought two boxes of Easy Read books, which were crucial to the credibility of the scheme; both groups felt important because of this implied cash value on their work.

Most of the partnerships dropped easily into a relaxed and trusting weekly routine, no fuss, no tears. A few tended to need a bit of chasing - they would forget, abscond, or have pressing other business. One boy was upset at the perception of "being different" and did not wish to continue.

I cannot quantify how much the scheme helped literacy. But I am certain that for the younger pupils, spending time with a role model who valued reading, took their schoolwork seriously, and did not mind being seen as an academic achiever, can only have been beneficial. As an attitude-adjuster paired reading works magic. It gives credibility to reading and paves the way for a more positive approach to letters and learning.

Katherine Blueman teaches at St Dunstan's community school, Glastonbury

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