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Playing with words brings out the best

As six-year-old Kerry assembles words on a metal tray sprinkled with multi-coloured, magnetic letters, she pauses to borrow an extra "r" from a neighbour. She needs it for "Darren", she says. "He's my new brother. He's really cute, like a wee doll.

"I like making words like this and I like writing them too."

The classroom reality behind West Dunbartonshire's 10-year initiative to eradicate illiteracy is more human, less abstract and greater fun than a research report can convey.

At St Michael's primary, Dumbarton, P1 and P2 are doing phonics revision with the help of teacher Joan Ruane, who holds up letter groups on flash cards and gets instant responses as the little ones sound them out and perform the actions. "Oo, oo": heads move back and forth with the sound, like the bird in a cuckoo-clock.

"Ng, ng": arms rise high and little muscles flex, as their owners groan like mighty weightlifters.

Teachers like synthetic phonics, Mrs Ruane says, because the approach is versatile, easy to use, children love it and, best of all, it works. "It's very different from what we did before. We used to introduce letters with a character, such as the Wicked Water Witch," she says. "But some children could only remember the character and the sound itself got lost. So they struggled.

"Now we have virtually every child knowing all the sounds in primary 1. I have never seen that before."

For headteacher Sister Elizabeth Brady, the literacy initiative has increased the pace of learning, raised teachers' expectations and put welcome additional support and resources in classrooms. "It is monitored from year to year, so we are catching children who have difficulties early," Sister Elizabeth says. "It's a concerted effort with the whole authority working together. We all have the same goals - it's teamwork."

At a nearby table in the open-plan school, a small group of P1 pupils are receiving extra support from early intervention specialist Lesley Hutton.

"They have all their letters by Christmas," she says. "One of the biggest benefits is the way it helps boys, because of all the movement and interaction. It's kinaesthetic as well as visual and auditory."

She turns to the group. "Jordan, could you come to the board, make the word 'bang' for me, and do the actions . . ."

While West Dunbartonshire's focus on infant reading and writing has produced higher levels of achievement in each of the six years of the initiative, it is not sufficient to "eradicate illiteracy". An additional strategy is needed to identify and support older children who are struggling.

When 10-year-old Jordan MacLeod joined St Michael's last year, he could barely read, he says. "Now I read books on my own with big words in them. I like imaginative stories.

"The hardest bit for me was memorising the sounds of the letters. Once I got that, I just had to do a wee bit every day - it's why it's called 'Toe by Toe'."

A structured, multi-sensory phonetic programme, Toe by Toe does not have the same "high level of costs associated with other programmes", says the research report, because only one training session is needed for staff, many of whom are volunteers.

Learning assistant Nancy Teal has supervised Jordan and four other pupils for 15 minutes a day since the beginning of the session. "It's enjoyable and very rewarding," she says. "You can see them thinking: 'I can do this'.

"It is very important to do every page, though, even those that seem simple - because they are learning basic skills that carry them right through.

"The kids come on in leaps and bounds. It's fantastic."

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