If primary teachers had a spare 10 minutes in their day to help pupils improve their literacy, what could they do? The standard response, discounting a hollow laugh, has been to hear children read. Hear them in the lunch hour, hear them in break, hear them before school. Yet simply listening and encouraging reading, while generally successful with children of average ability and above, does not significantly help children with difficulties. Evaluations of programmes such as Reading Recovery have shown that adult mentoring attention alone does not have a permanent effect on literacy.
In 199495, Diana Bentley and Dee Reid, researchers at Oxford Brookes University, tried to find a 10-minute solution. They went into primary schools to test how best to help children at risk of not learning to read. Their results, published in 1995 as Supporting Struggling Readers (United Kingdom Reading Association) are now embodied in Project Catch Up.
Currently more than 2,000 schools in the UK are using Catch Up's blend of teacher training, resource materials and ongoing assessment to raise literacy standards among the lowest achieving 20 per cent of pupils in Years 3 and 4. These children, gaining a level 1 or 2C in key stage 1 SATs, are at risk of falling through the education net if their reading does not pick up during key stage 2.
Julie Lawes of the Norfolk Psychological Service, who is running a Catch Up programme for more than 200 children in the Thetford Education Action Zone (EAZ), says: "I am sure there are children now in school who would have dropped out without Catch Up." Two terms on, having quit the programme at Christmas last year after 10 weeks, a third of her group have maintained reading gains of up to six and a half months on the Salford Sentence Reading Test.
"It amazed me," she says. "A lot of children have made exceptional gains in just 10 weeks." That is 10 weeks with two individual sessions of 10 minutes each per pupil. There is no magic about Catch Up. It synthesises good practice and complements the Additional Literacy Strategy (ALS).
* The programme begins with a teacher or learning support assistant (LSA) trained by Catch Up assessing the child, using their mastery of key words as an indicator of reading strength. Regular assessments are carried out at the beginning and end of each term.
* Then the adult helper chooses a book from Catch Up's list, graded into nine levels of difficulty. Texts include standard schemes such as Oxford Reading Tree.
* Time with the child is focused entirely on literacy, bypassing mentoring skills.
* Two minutes are spent pre-reading: discussing the probable story, pointing to remarkable facts about the language (repetitions, questions, word formations), predicting the narrative flow, "scaffolding" the language to allow pupils to climb up.
* For the next four minutes the pupil reads, receiving praise for any positive reading strategy such as using phonics, taking clues from pictures, deducing meanings from contexts. Any problems are recorded by the adult in the pupil record book.
* In the final four minutes, writing is linked to areas of difficulty, through an appropriate writing activity. It could be simple copying of a sentence or a more elaborate comosition, but it needs to be completed within the time. For example, Ashley, aged six, had repeatedly hesitated over present tense verb forms ending in "s" while enjoying the story he was reading about a harassed father at a sports day. So Beverley Bird, Ashley's LSA, wrote "Dad runs and runs and runs" for him to copy, also reminding him about the full stop at the end of the sentence.
* Finally, as the child leaves, a diagnostic sheet is filled in for the next time. Throughout the session, the teacher discusses the text: "These words end with 's', don't they? How can we tell someone is speaking? How do we know it's not the end of the story?" * When a pupil has mastered a level of texts with no errors, he or she moves on to the next one.
* Catch Up's approach can be reinforced by other materials: a new CD-Rom, with entertaining graphics and sound effects, booklets to help parents, a video, photocopiable games and activities. Importantly, ongoing training - in Thetford EAZ once a week for LSAs - is available, as are conferences and further training.
Nothing new at first glance. "At first I was sceptical," admits Kim Holmes, Julie Lawes' literacy assistant. "But it works, and it works with all children."
A matched trial has shown that Catch Up students made much greater gains than those with unstructured reading time. Teachers will appreciate its simplicity with very little preparation - "Catch Up has done all that for you" - but, says Julie Lawes, "the secret is it's a process, an ongoing process which pulls together good practice into a graduated model." End of term assessments were "so outstanding I thought I'd made a mistake in my calculations."
Catch Up is now into its second year in Thetford. Dulcie Ogilvie, head of Drake First school, used it on her Year 3 readers last year and this year is trying it on Year 2 as well. She says: "Children have enjoyed the work immensely and have shown significant and sustained gains in their reading achievements, spelling and writing skills and self esteem." Out of 17 children using Catch Up in 1999, six were able to leave with improved reading after 10 weeks. Others took longer, but some made even greater gains. Bethany, aged nine, who now beams "I love school and reading," began her Catch Up work with a reading age 11 months below her chronological age. Six months later, it was 13 months above, an overall gain of 24 months.
Dean began Catch Up with a gloomy view of himself as "no good at reading" and a reading age more than a year younger than his chronological age. Now aged nine, he enjoys deftly slicing "sh" and "ch" words into an electronic worksheet. Confident and chatty about his favourite subject - history, particularly Henry VIII - Dean can share a grin and a joke with Mrs Holmes. "So, what do you think your reading's like, Dean?" "Excellent," he replies.
"It is wonderful to see their confidence grow," says Mrs Holmes. "Within three or four weeks you see children who could only string three or four words together start to write long sentences. And the pleasure they now get from reading!" "When you look at the children," says Dulice Ogilvie, "you realise that even when the EAZ ends, we can't afford to let it drop. Catch Up delivers."
The Catch Up Project, Oxford Brookes University, Oxford OX4 6LB. Tel: 01865 488129. Web: www.thecatchupproject.org