A literacy intervention programme for P5 pupils in East Ayrshire has seen their reading comprehension scores improve in six months by a massive 33 per cent in non-fiction and 15 per cent for fiction.
It is now being extended to all the council's primary schools, and Anne Neil, a literacy consultant who devised the programme, is pursuing the findings with other authorities.
Graham Short, executive director of education and social services in East Ayrshire, said the initiative had the potential to close the attainment gap significantly. He predicted that its focus on non-fiction in the middle primary years would have an impact on secondary attainment, particularly in pupils' writing.
One of its key features was to shift from reading out loud in class and using reading-scheme worksheets to whole-class teaching and closer attention to word-decoding and comprehension.
The programme was prompted by Scottish pupils' poor showing in the Progress in International Reading Literacy (Pirls) survey three years ago.
Ms Neil, a former Strathclyde University lecturer in childhood and primary studies, worked with Carole McConville, a quality improvement officer at East Ayrshire Council, and two seconded literacy developers. They piloted the programme with 540 pupils in 14 schools, split between an experimental and a control group who continued with conventional lessons.
Both groups were tested before and after the intervention.
In the fiction-reading task, the average score pre-intervention in the experimental group was 50 per cent, rising to 65 per cent post- intervention; the control group scored 53 per cent pre-intervention and 62 per cent post-intervention.
In non-fiction, the experimental group scored 41 per cent pre-intervention and 74 per cent post-intervention; the control group's respective scores were 44 per cent and 68 per cent.
Children performing at and below average in the experimental group improved most.
The most important elements of the intervention strategy, says Ms Neil, were the use of whole-class teaching and diagnostic assessment. Interactive work and placing pupils in mixed-ability pairs and trios were also important.
"I wanted pupils to see literacy as a problem-solving activity in the same way they see maths and science. I also asked teachers to model how to approach a text rather than the method traditionally used in primary of hearing reading," she said.
The Pirls research showed that 89 per cent of Scottish children are taught almost exclusively through reading schemes which rely heavily on fiction, whereas Ms Neil's programme sought to teach across the curriculum and give equal weight to non-fiction.
"We found that, because of the emphasis on fiction, when children were writing about scientific experiments, they were empathising with worms as if they were fictional characters, rather than explaining what was happening to them as scientists would," she said.
The survey, which tests the reading abilities of P5-equivalent children, placed Scottish pupils 26th out of 45 education systems. They came 19th out of the 25 participating members of the Organisation for Economic Co- operation and Development, and ninth out of nine education systems in which English was the principal language of instruction (EPLI).
Four significant differences between the Scottish approaches to reading instruction and those of its OECD and EPLI counterparts emerged:
- assessment strategies and purposes;
- teaching resources used;
- learning and teaching activities in school;
- types and frequency of homework.
East Ayrshire's six-week intervention programme consisted of four literacy lessons per week, one led by a literacy developer and the remaining three by the class teacher. It was linked to the Curriculum for Excellence experiences and outcomes for literacy and English.
Among its key features were:
- "word attack" strategies;
- direct teaching of protocols for answering questions, with a particular emphasis on scanning the text for key question words andor synonyms for these;
- active learning approaches in whole-class, mixed-ability and ability- group tasks;
- specific text-related phonic, word attack and spelling activities for pupils of lower ability.