Structured approach to pre-school lifts literacy

Small-group model trialled in nurseries may give boost to lowest achievers

Play-based learning in Edinburgh pre-schools is making way at times for more structured learning, in a bid to improve literacy levels among children who risk falling behind.

Council educational psychologists have pressed ahead with structured interventions in small groups, despite concerns that these would not fit well with nurseries' emphasis on play.

Feedback has been largely positive, however, and early signs are that children are being lifted out of the lowest-achieving 20 per cent that the council is most keen to help.

Heather Gorton, depute principal educational psychologist with a remit for literacy and early years, said that while play-based learning was "entirely appropriate for pre-school children, a literature review had shown that "for children who are struggling, taking a more focused, small-group approach is actually going to help them a bit more".

Some resistance was encountered initially, she said: "Some (nurseries) were very open to it, some were a bit more reluctant to work in that way, to do something a bit more structured."

A range of interventions were tried out across 39 nurseries, with largely positive feedback from staff. The lessons learned have been applied as the approach has spread across the city.

At the same time as the work in 39 nurseries, Edinburgh - with help from NHS Lothian and Queen Margaret University - was putting together its Up, Up and Away resource to help nurseries to identify children at risk of falling behind with literacy.

There is no compulsion to use the resource, but staff in all city nurseries have now been trained in Up, Up and Away and most are using it. There has been considerable interest in Edinburgh's work from other Scottish councils.

Parents have become central to improving their children's literacy. One simple but successful idea has been to send home postcards with tips on how to help children with reading.

Edinburgh has also used PEEP, an intervention originally developed in Oxford. Staff run small groups helping parents to learn how to play effectively with their children and, in doing so, boost literacy and numeracy.

Although no standardised pre-school tests exist to assess children's literacy levels, educators - as well as parents - have been enthusiastic about Edinburgh's approach.

One said of Up, Up and Away: "I can now see a vast change in the children I am working with. Their confidence is developing. They're much happier - even though they have their moments."

Another had praised a separate intervention, SALLEY (structured activities for language and literacy in early years): "The children clearly benefit from the small-group activities and have improved turn-taking, talking and listening skills."

One challenge, however, is that the approach used in Edinburgh demands continuing training for pre-school staff.

Mrs Gorton said: "We've found that we need to keep prompting people to use things."

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