Scots spell out reading plans on world stage

THE Scottish approach to boosting young children's literacy skills was given a global platform this week when more than 2,000 educators from around the world gathered in Edinburgh for the annual congress of the International Reading Association.

Early intervention was pronounced an unqualified success in presentations from four Scottish authorities - but it was accompanied by pleas not to leave things until pupils start primary school.

Christine Riach, who heads the READ project ("raising early achievement in Dundee"), said its work on children's literacy development begins as young as the age of two. "Literacy learning is well under way by the time children reach the age of three," she said.

Hilary MacGillivray, co-ordinator of the programme in East Ayrshire and a former nursery school head, agreed there must be a pre-school start.

The focus reported from Edinburgh's "achievement in literacy" programme, on the other hand, was on P1 pupils, using the synthetic phonics approach now used in all primaries in Dundee.

Ms Riach confirmed that real improvements can be made to literacy skills if children are supported during the key period between the ages of four and a half and five and a half, as what can be the informal learning of the pre-school stages gives way to the more formal primary curriculum.

While each council had a slightly different emphasis, all were unanimous that early intervention has notched up remarkable successes - not just with children but in the nature of teaching.

Jan Smith from Dundee's education department acknowledged that changing teacher attitudes was "quite a task". She added: "Many were long in the tooth, many had been in the same school for a long time, many had taught in the same way for a long time and to persuade them to become more reflective in their practice was a challenge."

But attitudes had changed, and teachers no longer dismissed youngsters from deprived backgrounds as "poor wee souls" from whom little could be expected.

Pat Wharton from Stirling agreed that teachers and nursery nurses working together had much greater confidence in their own practice which in turn meant higher expectations of classes. "You don't have staff saying so much, 'they're only primary 1' or 'they're only four'."

Several speakers stressed the crucial importance of staff development. Success brought inspiration and motivation was boosted, Ms Wharton said.

Ms Smith suggested that the programme's impact was based on the active involvement of schools working to a strategy and with ongoing support, after which "schools made their own success".

Ms Wharton agreed this sense of ownership was important. "Staff can learn by learning from each other. The authority didn't pretend it knew all the answers and we did listen to staff where they told us what worked and what didn't."

THE POINTS THEY MADE

* "Comprehension skills acquired while watching television or listening to stories may transfer to reading and vice versa."

* Pupils can become highly literate through the use of balanced strategies, parental involvement, technology and a focus on five key factors - vocabulary, syntax, text structure, phonemic awareness phonics and "the volition to read, write and learn".

* The picture book is a greatly underused resource in secondary classrooms for developing language skills and critical thinking.

* Music activities can support the acquisition of literacy in the early years.

* Critical thinking is essential to literacy from the start.

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