Two-thirds of Secondary 2 pupils are failing to achieve national literacy targets, while 60 per cent of Primary 6s are on target, a report from the Assessment of Achievement Programme disclosed last week.
Action needs to be taken, said Education Minister Cathy Jamieson.
In Perth and Kinross, the problem is already being tackled. An early intervention initiative which has been running successfully in primary schools is now being piloted at secondary level, in a move that not only addresses the challenge of raising literacy but should also help ease the transition from primary to secondary school.
PELT UPS - the Partnership for Effective Literacy Teaching in Upper Primary and Secondary - is a follow-up to PELT, a teaching strategy for P1-P3 classes that uses clearly defined procedures based on shared and guided reading and writing. Children are taught skills, including skimming, scanning and prediction, and how to use specific language elements, such as conjunctions and exclamation marks.
The key aims of PELT UPS are to raise attainment in literacy, provide professional development for teachers and provide continuity for pupils who are making the step between primary and secondary school.
In 1998, school inspectors reported the success of early intervention projects at P1-P3 level and the need to extend this good practice into upper primary and beyond. Jayne Horsburgh, the education services manager in Perth and Kinross, has been responsible for helping schools implement the early years strategies, developed by colleague Moira Cummings, in P4-P7 classes.
"Because of the 5-14 curriculum, my vision has been for the scheme to run into secondary schools as well," she says. "I felt there was potential for early intervention strategies to be used to support secondary teachers in developing literacy across the curriculum."
Last year Perth and Kinross secondaries were invited to an introductory session about PELT UPS and Perth Grammar, which views literacy as a whole-school issue, volunteered to pilot the scheme. English teacher Eleanor Wood and history teacher Jayne Wylie have teamed up to deliver the model.
"This is a huge step by Perth Grammar and the teachers," says Mrs Horsburgh, "not least because they have to work with an external consultant in their own classroom, which can be a big issue for some teachers.
"The emphasis in secondary school is on partnership and evaluation. A teacher may come away from a lesson thinking it was awful and that can be very isolating.
"PELT UPS gives teachers a language to evaluate their practice. It helps them to focus on their strengths while developing other areas."
The staff development programme for PELT is delivered by the early years support officers.
Literacy consultant Ann Tregenza also has been going in to the authority's primary schools to work with a pair of teachers on planning and delivering lessons. The teachers observe their partner's lessons and offer support and evaluation in a way that is completely different from having an inspector in the classroom, she says. "Most importantly, the teachers learn how to evaluate their own lessons."
As the two teachers become more confident and enthusiastic they move on to partner other teachers within the school. The idea is that this cascade will, eventually, give every teacher in the school the skills, confidence and enthusiasm to adopt the model.
Depute headteacher Elspeth Higgins manages the PELT project in Viewlands Primary, Perth.
"Learning and teaching has become much more focused," she says. "The children know what we're homing in on. At the end of the lesson they can say what they have learnt and how to do it.
"The teachers say that, thanks to working in small groups, they are now more aware of how children are coping. There is more discussion on what the children have read and understood and more time to discuss the messages and grammar in a piece of text. This is having a positive impact on children's writing skills."
Viewlands Primary now has eight teachers using the PELT model and Mrs Higgins says it has had an impact on the whole curriculum.
"We originally used it in writing in the early years and reading in the upper years but it has now impacted on subjects such as environmental studies and religious and moral education."
"The children are attaining earlier, the confidence in children and staff has definitely risen and our expectations have been raised," she says.
Miss Wood has witnessed the PELT model at a Crieff primary school and believes it is easier to deliver the programme at that level than at secondary level, because the structure of the day is different and primary children are used to working in small groups, but she has adapted the model with her S1 English class.
"I'm much more explicit about what I'm looking for from each piece of work and explain the expected outcome," she says. "For example, in imaginary writing I'm better at explaining how to develop characters, how to describe a setting and the use of dialogue.
"And this is a technique that works equally well in history."
It is early days at Perth Grammar and Miss Wood believes the full force of the initiative will probably not be felt until the primary classes currently benefiting from the PELT model arrive at secondary school.
"But I'm already more reflective on my teaching and much more aware that I need to be completely explicit with the pupils," she says. "The pupils are not mind readers. They need to be clear what they are trying to achieve and then they are more likely to succeed."
More on PELT and PELT UPS from Jayne Horsburgh, tel 01738 476365