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Reading between the lines

Elaine Williams meets a teacher who finds that a less rigid approach to reading gives children freedom to develop understanding as well as fluency.

Mary Reid says she's become a born-again reading teacher. It's not that she's alighted on some miraculous formula for creating fluent readers. It's simply that she has found the confidence to step off the treadmill of reading schemes and build time into the school day "for the enjoyment of reading".

A teacher at St Charles primary school in Paisley, near Glasgow, Mary Reid has taught for 17 years. During that time, as for many other teachers, the issue of how you make children into readers, a political and educational minefield, has caused a deal of anxiety and heartache. She believes she grew too rigid in the way she used reading schemes: keeping her finger on the word, wanting her children to read every word.

Mary's new-found confidence has arisen from her involvement in piloting a framework, now issued to every school by the Scottish Office Education Department (SOED), which helps teachers to analyse children's reading and offers a range of possible next steps based on research evidence.

Taking a Closer Look at Reading is one of a series of booklets in maths, language and science, published by the Scottish Council for Research in Education, which brings together the work of policymakers, researchers and practitioners. Louise Hayward, subject leader at St Andrew's College of Education, Glasgow, and co-author of the framework, stresses that it is not intended to provide "expert diagnostic instruments" to substitute for teachers' professionalism; instead, it is intended to enhance that professionalism. It is there to reinforce good practice and if necessary to take it one stage further.

It has enabled Mary Reid to take a step back, take a long hard look at the way she has taught reading and make changes. She still uses reading schemes, but her approach has shifted. She is taking greater note of how children pursue meaning, how they look at books, how they go through the pictures then look back at the words. She said: "I am allowing that to happen as a strategy to help them understand. I let them go through the book first so they have ideas of the story and the pictures. We are now tending to share stories rather than go straight into the reading scheme."

Mary Reid has introduced paired reading and peer reading, matching up strong readers and less able readers as an integral part of her reading strategy. At one time this would have happened for five or 10 minutes only at the end of the day. She has set aside a daily quiet time when children can go through their own choice of books. During that time she reads herself, providing a role model, rather than filling up the register as she might have done previously.

She said: "I began to realise that children don't need to read every word, but teachers do need to find ways of keeping themselves and the children positive about reading. All children first come to school motivated. I want to know why some of them lose that . . . I always felt that some children became good readers despite me and the phonic system. Poorer readers don't find phonic skills nearly so useful, so you have to widen the whole reading experience. Planning for enjoyment can be a constructive way forward." Making the time to allow children to show how they enjoy reading is a way of keeping them fresh.

The Taking a Closer Look initiative has arisen out of assessment guidelines issued as part of the 5-14 Curriculum Framework for Scotland, established by the SOED in 1991. Talking to children about reading is something teachers feel they rarely have the time to do. Finding out what young children like to read and why and what they feel about their reading, can be very revealing. But it takes confidence for a primary teacher, borne along by the momentum of reading targets, to take a step back, listen to a ild, and, if necessary, change direction.

The diagnostic framework is designed above all to be practical and flexible and is clear and jargon-free. Louise Hayward stresses that teachers are not being asked to take on extra work, but merely to concentrate on good practice.

It is intended to encourage teachers to value things they "might have done instinctively and making them part of a strategy". Talking about pictures and story titles was not just a sideshow to the real business of reading, but part of the whole process.

The Taking a Closer Look procedures explore four main areas: Attitude and Motivation, Decoding (recognising words and sequences), Pursuit of Meaning, and Awareness of Author's Use of Language.

Under Attitude and Motivation, for example, they ask such questions as: "Do the pupils seem to find it difficult to concentrate on the text?" and subsequently give a list of "possible next steps" to build concentration. These include talking to pupils to find out if they are enjoying the text; finding out if the level of text is appropriate by asking the pupils to tell the "story so far"; talking to pupils to find out if they know why they are being asked to read a particular text.

Although established research on reading and child psychology played an important part in putting the procedures together, pilot work in schools has determined the final content and structure of the pack.

At first, researchers had intended to provide a series of diagnostic tests, designed to match classroom topics and to specify whether or not pupils had met curriculum guideline targets. Tests had been developed, among others, to establish whether or not pupils could identify "main ideas" from a piece of text. But when some pupils who failed the test were asked subsequently to "tell a friend" what the story was about, they accurately recounted the main ideas. It was decided finally that open-ended discussion with pupils was a far richer source of diagnostic information than test answers.

Far from providing tests which teachers might look to for a solution, the diagnostic procedures in Taking a Closer Look at Reading are intended to build on the teacher's knowledge of the pupil and the pupil's own idea of what is important.

Louise Hayward said: "The original work for the framework was test-based. We wanted something simple which teachers could use and take off the shelf when they needed it. But we found tests didn't always allow the child to demonstrate what they were capable of. By engaging in dialogue with the child, teachers found they had understood things which hadn't come out in tests. Some were doing this anyway, but we wanted it to be recognised as an effective part of a strategy.

"There are no simple answers, only a variety of answers. What really matters is the relationship between the teacher and child. This system is flexible and builds on people's individual skills. "

Because the Scottish Office has played a central role, Louise Hayward hopes teachers will feel more inclined to use the framework. Alison O'Hara, deputy head of Wellshot primary school, Toll Cross, in the east end of Glasgow, was also involved in pilot projects. She felt the framework could help teachers get out of a rut. She said: "Teachers grab at reading schemes and year in year out they go on making the same mistakes. If they're not getting experience of other schools then they don't have the confidence to change direction."

Alison had worked with a group which included a seven-year-old girl, new to the school, who couldn't read, "although she wanted to, because one day she wanted a baby and she wanted to be able to read to the baby". She had devised a questionnaire which asked the group what they liked about reading and what they found hard. Alison discovered that the girl "had a very limited view of reading. Reading meant reading schemes. Library books were not rea

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