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Searching for the right words

Susannah Kirkman finds a programme to help children who are struggling with literacy

"Thomas couldn't sound out the letters and, for a time, he didn't want to read with me at all. Now he's reading poems and writing in his diary every day, " says his delighted mother, Felicity Martin.

Six-year-old Thomas is one of the first pupils to benefit from SoundWorks, a new literacy programme which aims to help five to seven-year olds who are struggling with reading and writing. It has been designed for use by classroom assistants, parents and school volunteers.

Dwindling school budgets, plus the demands of large classes and the national curriculum, all mean that teachers often don't have the time to provide the extra one-to-one help which some children need. "We all know that early intervention is important, yet difficulties usually have to develop into quite serious problems before appropriate help is provided," says Mary Kibel, the Devon special needs teacher who has written the materials. She believes that if extra help is given soon enough, it can save children years of frustration and wasted effort.

Her research into pupils' phonological errors (problems in recognising different sounds that occur in words) has shown that the difficulties of older children could be prevented if five and six-year-olds were helped to make fine discriminations between speech sounds like pb and ea.

At Bradley Barton Primary School in Newton Abbot, where Thomas is a pupil, two experienced classroom assistants are now using the SoundWorks programme with six pupils from Years 1 and 2. Each child gets four individual 15-minute sessions a week, working through the highly-structured, multi-sensory programme.

The first stage of the programme, for instance, introduces 10 letters and teaches children to recognise the beginning and end sounds in words. By the end of the course, roughly two terms later, pupils can read the hundred most-commonly used words and write words with initial and final blends like "stamp".

The classroom assistants, who received on-the-job training from Mary Kibel, are both enthusiastic about the programme. "I find my job much more interesting now," says Dawn Roberts. "We have more expertise and we know where we're going. It's also very rewarding to see how the children blossom."

"The training gives you an awareness of why children find reading and writing difficult - for some, it's like a puzzle which we have to help them slot into place," says Debbie Bristow. The programme manual, which they call their bible, gives step-by-step guidance on the skills which they introduce to the pupils and points out the reasons for any potential problems. There are plenty of suggestions for different games and activities, so that the classroom assistants are never short of ideas to demonstrate a new skill. Each SoundWorks kit includes wooden letter blocks, word-building cards and other materials which can be used in many different ways.

Both assistants enjoy their independence and the control they now feel over their work. Class teachers help to select children who will benefit from the programme but screening and diagnostic tests, all part of the SoundWorks pack, are administered by the assistants. Every school uses the programme in its own way, but at Bradley Barton, although each child's progress will be discussed with their teacher at the end of every term, Dawn and Debbie are able to work on their own for the rest of the time.

"One advantage of the programme is that they don't need to keep referring to me," says Susanna Hughes who is head of early years and also has responsibilty for special needs at the school. She finds that the weekly half-day she once had free for organising special needs provision is now largely taken up with the paperwork mountains created by the new Code of Practice.

She is also pleased with the pupils' overwhelmingly positive response to SoundWorks. "Their faces light up when it's time for their lesson," she says.

Parents have already noticed tremendous differences in their children. "Within a year, she has gone from writing a meaningless jumble of letters, to writing sentences which I can actually understand," says Fiona Hess, mother of six year-old Katie. "Before, she was very aware that she was still learning her letters while her friends in the class could read, and it was difficult to get her to come to school at all."

Felicity Martin has been struck by her son's improved behaviour at home: he no longer has tantrums or suffers from mood swings. Other parents have found that children's general confidence and physical co-ordination have improved. Michael Rutkowski, the head of Bradley Barton, believes that the scheme is well worth the money.

"We are having to look at value for money and effectiveness and that is certainly what we are getting," he says. "Children's problems are just disappearing."

He is impressed with the programme's adaptability; it can not only be used with pupils who have dyslexic tendencies, like Katie, but also with children like Thomas, whose problems were caused by temporary hearing loss as a toddler. Bradley Barton has found SoundWorks effective for children with more severe learning difficulties, too.

Mary Kibel says the programme can also be adapted to the needs of individual schools. At the primary school where she teaches, she has shown parents how to use SoundWorks with their own children. With this approach, she makes all the teaching decisions and demonstrates each new step herself. The parent watches and then repeats the activity at home with the child. Volunteers and parent helpers in schools could be trained to use SoundWorks, too, she believes. It would be up to individual schools to decide how much independence the volunteers should have.

The Open School, the educational charity which is sponsoring SoundWorks, hopes to offer a variety of courses which will meet the needs of the schools which want to become involved in the programme. The successful piloting of the project in 10 Devon and two London schools, plus a positive evaluation by Exeter University, has encouraged Open School's director, Lynette Gribble, who has herself taught English to adolescents with special needs.

"It's very hard to put anything right at that stage because they've spent years making the same mistakes and their self-esteem is so low," she explains. But she is adamant that the SoundWorks programme is not a substitute for trained special needs teachers. Instead, it should allow them to concentrate on older children and those with more severe difficulties.


* The approach is methodical. At first, children learn 10 letters: s,p,m,t,c,d,h,n,r,a and how to distinguish initial and final sounds in words like "c-at" and "d-og". At the next stage, they learn 12 more letters and start building simple consonant-vowel-consonant words like "pig", "sat" and "cot".

* Digraphs like "oo" and "ee" are then introduced, along with the suffixes "s" and "ing", and some common irregular words and some initial blends like sp- "spider" and tr- "train".

* By the end of the course, pupils will know the five short vowel sounds, the suffix "ed", the hundred key words, and should be confident enough to try free writing.

* The SoundWorks pack costs Pounds 185 . An induction course for teachers will cost Pounds 35. For further information, please contact: SoundWorks, Open School, Park Road, Dartington, Totnes, Devon TQ9 6EQ. Tel: 01803 866542.

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