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Peers learn reading two-by-two

A peer literacy programme imported from the United States is taking the stigma out of poor reading by turning pupils into teachers.

The Literacy Corps, a one-to-one tutoring system developed by American educationists, now has enthusiastic recruits at five London secondary schools.

At Mount Carmel Girls School in north London, 14 year 9 pupils have been trained to teach reading and writing skills to year 7 pupils.

The older girls learn how to establish the reading level of their partner, choose appropriate texts and how to improve their own reading and critical thinking skills. They then plan twice-weekly, half-hour mini lessons.

The technique is based on a mass literacy campaign begun five years ago in the US which has helped advance reading ages and seen participants swap truancy for fluency - attendance and discipline have improved among those enrolled on the programme.

Cate Nelson, half-way through a six-month secondment from the Institute for Service Learning in Philadelphia has trained pupils in five schools across the capital as part of the initiative set up by the Community Service Volunteers. "The kids get one-on-one attention which is something teachers don't have the opportunity to do very often. It's sometimes easier for children who are not very good readers to read to a peer quietly rather than stand up in front of a class.

"A lot of kids, especially those who are having trouble at school, are very excited about being trusted to do this - they feel they are able to prove to adults that they have it in them.

"In the States we have seen attendance improve because the tutors know that someone is relying on them. We can hand over the responsibility to the kids and they will rise to the occasion."

The scheme was one of the measures introduced to tackle poor literacy levels at Mount Carmel - 96 per cent of the intake have reading ages below their actual age. Deputy head Bernie Minmagh has high hopes for the scheme and believes it will help to build on recent achievements at Mount Carmel which have seen it become one of the country's top 10 improving schools. "This is a programme that has proven to be successful in America. There they have older children going into primary schools so we have adapted it slightly. But it's a virtually cost-free exercise and it provides advantages for tutors and tutees. The tutors get a skill they can take with them and the tutees get regular one-on-one help with their reading. Both parties are very keen and motivated. "

Nkechi Okolo Oragui, 14, was flattered to be chosen by her English teacher to be a tutor. "We were taught how to read slowly and with lots of expression and how to tell if someone is a poor reader or an average reader. It makes me happy to use my spare time to help somebody read and I have also made a new friend. "

Leshae Parke, 11, is grateful for the opportunity to improve her reading outside the pressured environment of the classroom. "When I first started at this school I had to read out to the whole class and I was scared that they would laugh at me. But the reading lessons have encouraged me to read aloud. I prefer to have a tutor near my own age because you are more relaxed and if you get something wrong it doesn't matter."

Melissa Hardie, 12, and Zoe Brooker, 13, found a common interest soon after they were paired together. "We both like animals," explains Zoe, "so we try to find books about sharks and dolphins. I like reading and it's really good that I can help Melissa. I think this scheme could work for other lessons and not just English."

Melissa has already noticed an improvement in her reading after only a few sessions with Zoe. "I can ask more questions and I can spell better since I have been doing this. I don't like to ask how to spell a word or what a word says in class because people take the mickey."

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