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Reading audit nudges school to language policy

Earlier this month teachers at The Grove, a secondary school on the green edges of Market Drayton in Shropshire, devoted a training day to the question of reading.

"At first some departments put up a barrier, they felt the issue didn't really concern them," says Rob Hawkins, the assistant head, recalling some initial staff doubts.

"But by the end of the day there was a very different feeling: they became aware of how vital reading is to the whole curriculum."

The teachers considered their various practices in relation to reading, and were surprised to discover the great variety of types of writing the children had to cope with. With 36 local primary teachers attending, they also looked at continuity across the phases.

Over the next two years, the school will focus hard on reading as the first stage in its long-term plan to introduce a cohesive whole-school language policy. The initial aim is to improve what is being done at key stage 3, and to bridge the gulf that often exists between this stage and key stage 2.

The impetus has come from a steering group of 10 of the school's 70 teachers, who have come up with a detailed action plan. This involves pinpointing the reading experiences of a representative sample of 40 Year 7 pupils, excluding state-mented children and those receiving learning support.

"We wanted to have an initiative that was coherent, consistent and manageable, " Rob Hawkins says. "It had to be one that could be woven into the curriculum, rather than something that would give teachers yet another extra task."

The school obtained funding from the local education authority under the Raising Achievement in Shropshire Education (RAISE) scheme.

This involved a small but significant sum of money, with advisory support and specialist help in setting up the steering group, and looking at what was being done on the subject nationally.

The evidence of how children are reading in the school is being gathered by a cross-section of staff, from a mixture of practical and academic subject areas - but excluding English. And even though the new language requirement excludes writing in the PE Order, the school's PE staff are involved in the exercise, since pupils have to make use of a fitness booklet.

Some teachers on the steering group are doing an audit of what children read in the different departments, looking at how reading is assisted by vocabulary books, glossary work, and the use of library skills.

The audit has uncovered the enormous variety of texts a Year 7 child has to read in a single day, from primary sources such as parish registers in history to instructions in technology, from descriptions of steps in an experiment in science to explanations linked to maps and graphs in geography.

Others are "tracking" pupils for a whole day, looking at all their activities from a reading perspective.

But the pupils themselves are also participating in the exercise, filling in forms designed to pinpoint the subjects where they are experiencing difficulties with reading.

According to drama teacher and steering group member Nickie Ledger, one interesting finding is already emerging. "Some children are not prepared to say they have a problem, even though we know by cross-checking with the staff in question that they do," she says. "It seems it's OK to admit this in English, but not in other lessons."

The school already had plenty of reading initiatives on the go, such as paired reading, the use of volunteer sixth-formers, and links with teachers in the school's 12 feeder primaries. In the summer, the new Year 7 children used a booklet devised by teacher librarian Ros Thomas, which identified books they might enjoy reading before they started at The Grove.

The aim now is to bring all these initiatives and activities together in January into one coherent package, and to monitor its effectiveness. If the plan for reading is successful, the staff believe it will be that much easier to carry out a similar exer-cise with writing, and then speaking and listening.

But headteacher Geoff Dickenson is certainly not expecting instant results. "It's like a tug boat pushing a large ship," he says. "At first it doesn't seem to be moving. But if you keep going long enough it gradually develops a momentum, and then it's very hard to stop it."

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