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Reading scores soar when worksheets are thrown out

Traditional tales, magnetic boards and other tools are part of an active literacy programme that is taking schools in North Lanarkshire by storm. Elizabeth Buie reports

Once upon a time, every primary teacher in North Lanarkshire taught phonics separately from reading, writing, talking and listening.

Then, along came two fairy godmothers armed with traditional tales and lots of ideas about how to make reading and writing fun for young pupils, integrated across everything they were learning, and effective.

Quality improvement officer Trish Wilson and senior educational psychologist Nancy Ferguson did not have a magic wand. They studied the research about what had worked elsewhere and, once they had created their own programme, trialled it with class teachers and modified it where necessary.

Their Active Literacy programme puts an emphasis on multi-sensory tasks which encourage pupils to work in pairs, groups and under whole-class instruction. It uses a range of tools, including magnetic boards and letters, and websites such as "cbeebies", which have three new stories online every week.

There is great attention to detail. Like the cbeebies' stories, their Traditional Tales - classics rewritten by Trish Wilson - are recorded and narrated by a male voice to encourage the idea that men and boys like reading. And their magnetic letters have been manufactured to their specification, so that every phoneme is produced separately.

Worksheets are out, traditional reading schemes now treated as simply one of a range of reading materials, and puppets pop up all over the place. One of the aims is to make literacy enjoyable - and teachers report improvements in behaviour, with more pupils motivated and on task.

Although written originally to fit into the 5-14 guidelines, the programme dovetails perfectly with A Curriculum for Excellence, with its emphasis on cross-curricular themes, learning through play, and active learning approach.

The most recent evaluation of five of the first 10 schools which piloted it (the first cohort of P1s are now in P3) has shown significant gains, particularly among struggling readers who can become increasingly switched off education the further up school they go.

Nancy Ferguson has used the assessment tool "Reading Now", by the National Foundation for Educational Research, to assess the pupils she has tracked for the last three years. It measures reading for comprehension, as opposed to word reading which, she believes, can give inflated scores.

The Traditional Tales are used for one term by P1-2 pupils; then it's on to what Miss Wilson describes as "quality novels", such as Julia Donaldson's story Fly Pigeon Fly, set in Glasgow. These lend themselves to cross-curricular work - studying Glasgow's sky-line; or even a visit by a local pigeon fancier.

Further up the school, teachers are encouraged to use multimedia approaches to literacy, but even P4 pupils continue to use the hands-on materials they enjoyed further down the school - except now, they set themselves speed timers, quizzes and games.

Some pupils with learning difficulties still struggle with reading and writing, although in much smaller numbers. Mrs Ferguson and Miss Wilson are developing materials for their specific needs.

School leaders are enthusiastic about how effective the strategy has been, while admitting that implementation has involved a lot of hard work by staff who have had to espouse the worksheet culture.

To date, 72 of the authority's 128 primaries have become involved in Active Literacy as each phase is rolled out. The final phase comes this summer.

Morag Johnson, head of Holytown Primary - part of phase one - has seen a significant shift in pupils' reading and writing attainment, which she attributes to a large extent to the focus on writing every single day across different areas of the curriculum. Although her 5-14 attainment scores measure only pupils in P3, P4, P6 and P7, there has been a huge impact on pupils in the early stages.

She has an unprecedented "handful" of P1s who will soon have passed Level A in reading, writing and maths (the teachers have also been using active numeracy strategies). "It is a much more fun way for the teachers to teach and for the children to learn and we are seeing results. Children are much more engaged in their work," she says.

At Sacred Heart Primary in Bellshill, depute head Christine Boyle sees pupils becoming engaged in learning earlier than before and reaching their targets one to two terms sooner. Those with learning difficulties are also benefiting - the departure from structured reading schemes and use of a much wider range of books makes them feel less stigmatised, she says.

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