North Lanarkshire's literacy strategy is continuing to make significant gains for all pupils, but particularly the least able, an evaluation published last week has shown.
A group reading assessment of P3 children showed that those who had been taught by the "active literacy" methodology were significantly ahead of those taught using more traditional methods, thus maintaining the progress observed in the first phase of the programme.
In the P3 control group, 52 per cent of pupils were performing above the expected average age level while 13 per cent of the below average group had a reading age of only around six years. By comparison, in the active literacy group, 72 per cent exceeded the expected average reading level and of the 28 per cent below average, only 2 per cent had a reading age of around six years.
Educational psychologists also administered individual tests to measure pupils' literacy ability. These Neale Analysis measures showed a five- point gain on accuracy and fluency in the active literacy group compared to the control group, and a four-point gain in reading comprehension. In a separate test for reading comprehension and decoding words, psychologists found that, in the P2 control group, 33 per cent of pupils were above their expected reading age, with 67 per cent below it - but, of this group, 21 per cent had significant difficulties.
By contrast, 65 per cent of the P2 active literacy group scored above the expected level for their age group; of the 35 per cent below that level, only 8 per cent had significant differences.
The initiative puts an emphasis on active, multi-sensory tasks which encourage pupils to work together co-operatively, teaching each other and thus reinforcing their own learning, alongside whole-class instruction by the teacher. Worksheets and low-level tasks are virtually obsolete, and teachers use a wider selection of graded reading books which have less of a gap between levels.
The council has also designed its own resource of magnetic letters, including two-letter "phonemes", which it has given to every P1 pupil and to P2-3 pupils to share with a partner - nearly 8,000 packs in all.
Nancy Ferguson, senior educational psychologist with North Lanarkshire Council, said that, as children moved through primary, there would be an increasing focus on reading comprehension. This, she acknowledged, required a more sophisticated kind of teaching than that required for teaching phonics.
Ms Ferguson, who has led the active literacy programme alongside quality improvement officer Tricia Wilson, was heartened by the gains made by pupils of the lowest ability and the "middle" group.
The programme was launched in 2005 with 10 school schools in a pilot initiative. This year, all 127 primaries will be using it with their P1 pupils. As pupils involved in phase one have moved up to P2 and P3, their teachers have increased the focus on pupils tutoring each other, and used active literacy in more cross-curricular work.
Mrs Wilson said that, once children in the active literacy programme reached P2, they were expected to read 120-150 books and, in P3, around 80 books. From P4-7, pupils will be expected to read 12 to 20 novels each year. There is also a focus on offering books by Scottish authors or using Scottish contexts.
Instead of paying for worksheets and workbooks, schools were buying a greater variety of books which were more closely graded.
"To do interactive reading requires children to experience success," said Mrs Wilson. "The old types of schemes had big leaps between levels. This meant we were losing a large proportion of children early on, so we organised the texts to be levelled texts and bought additional reading books which they could take home and share with their parents. The greater variety of books has made them more motivated."
She believes the key to the success of the programme has been having motivated staff - "literacy leaders" - at all levels who understand the fundamental importance of literacy to children's learning. Teachers should also be "tenacious", sticking closely to the programme and not being distracted by other things.
ONE BITE AT A TIME
Sacred Heart Primary, in Bellshill, was highly commended for its literacy and cross-curricular work in an HMIE report, published last month.
Mary Glen, the head, advises teachers not to try and change everything in one go when they embark on active literacy teaching.
"It's a bit like eating an elephant - you've got to do it one bite at a time," she says.
A typical reading lesson for P3 would involve the teacher "guiding" the class through a book. Pupils would skim and scan the book, looking for any tricky, unfamiliar words.
The teacher makes up a "word pack" to accompany each book which the children use to write their own story to illustrate a set of pictures they have been given from the book.
Children do partner-reading - at Sacred Heart they ask the children to sit back to back because that is less distracting than when the children face each other. While they are reading out loud, the children are listening to their partner's fluency and expression, and give feedback at the end of the story. Children then read the book on an individual basis before moving on to group work.
The class has used a lot of the Katie Morag stories, by Mairi Hedderwick, for its cross-curricular work. Children have compared the housing and transport on the fictitious Island of Struay with their own community; and used Katie Morag and the Big Boy Cousins as inspiration for a campfire cook-out, which examined healthy eating and also required pupils to write invitations and address envelopes to their guests.