A step in the right direction

13th October 1995 at 01:00
Sue Palmer explains a literacy project from Australia that starts by defining what children actually need.

This summer yet another Antipodean literacy project arrived in the UK. A paper was presented by Alison Dewsbury at the United Kingdom Reading Association Conference on First Steps - a framework which supports teachers as they meet individual needs in the classroom. Perhaps wearied by promises from Down Under, delegates did not flood to hear it.

However, quality will out. The handful of delegates that did attend was impressed; one of them was so impressed that he offered to give up his own session the following day so Alison could do the whole thing again. Word got around about this act of generosity, and the second presentation was very well attended. Those of us who were shoe-horned in were glad we went.

Alison Dewsbury is a teacher. Her First Steps project looks exciting, but even more exciting is the enthusiasm she radiates as she talks about it. She swoops about the lecture room, explaining the philosophy, demonstrating teaching methods, breathless with the need to communicate. All this is very appropriate, as the First Steps project is a teachers' project. Designed by teachers, ratified by teachers, it affirms the role of the teacher as central to learning. To previous generations this might have seemed self-evident, but after several decades' erosion of teachers' status and confidence by waves of advisory bodies, curriculum bodies and "educationists" of all shapes and sizes, it comes as a pleasant shock. It was quite exhilarating to hear that "we wanted everything in the project to be helpful to teachers. If it wasn't helpful to teachers - no matter how `valid' it was - we threw it out."

The project started in 1988, in response to concern about standards of literacy in Western Australia. A team of teachers, working with researchers from Australian universities, was asked to develop methods of improving standards in the poorest schools - tough inner city schools, schools in remote mining communities, Aboriginal schools.

They set about doing the teacherly thing: looking at where children were (real children, that is, not some sort of national average child) and then devising ways of helping them. "What we did was try to define the children's needs, then link their needs to what you can actually do about it." How wonderfully simple, and how unlike the tactics of our own dear School Curriculum and Assessment Authority which sets the standards then gloomily waits to see how many children will fail to reach them.

The First Steps project came up with four "developmental continua" defining stages in children's learning in reading, writing, oral language and spelling. These continua were then researched by the Australian Council for Educational Research, refined and validated. Checklists were compiled for each stage (or "phase") on each continuum. These enable teachers to identify the points which particular children have reached - not through special assessment tasks, but by looking at their everyday work in the classroom. There are also checklists for children's self assessment.

All this is contained within four Developmental Continuum books, one for each of the language areas. The books published in Australia and America also provide lists of "Teaching Emphases", which help move children from their current development phase to the next one. Each has a breathtakingly accessible "overview" sheet, honed down to one side of A3, summarising children's development between the ages of five and 12 and what a teacher can do to help it along.

Finally, for each of the four language areas there is a Resource Book of ideas, compiled by real, practising teachers, which help in achieving the Teaching Emphases. It is what Alison Dewsbury calls "developmental learning leading to developmental teaching".

The Continuum document for writing, for instance, recognises six phases: role play, experimental, early, conventional, proficient and advanced. The early writing phase, for instance, suggests that children write about topics which are significant to them and points out that they are probably unable to deal with punctuation and spelling at the same time .

The accompanying Writing Resource Book recommends specific teaching activities, covering the various forms of writing (narrative, recount, procedural writing, reports, explanations and expositions), and linking also to the teaching of oral language and reading. Many activities can be adapted to suit the needs of different children.

Many ideas in the Resource Book are not new, but it is helpful to have them systematised and assembled in one place. The suggestions for recount writing, for instance, include putting up a newstelling wallchart (which highlights the words who, when, where, why, and what) to help role play and experimental writers focus on what they need to include in their oral retelling. It is then suggested that the same question words are included on a framework to help early phase writers plan their written accounts. More sophisticated frameworks are suggested for conventional and proficient writers, incorporating the ideas of a setting, time, order, exemplification, and a concluding statement.

Within four years of First Steps' inception, children in the targeted tough schools were out-performing children in more prosperous areas. Parents in the "mortgage belt" demanded that the methods be introduced in their schools too, and then the stockbroker belt was also crying out for it. There is now also a book for parents, which shows how they can recognise their children's developmental phase and work alongside the school to help them on.

An Australian government report published in 1993 recommended that "all States and Territories which are reviewing their curricula adopt the First Steps program" and that "the concepts of First Steps are included in the National English Curriculum." Not surprisingly, all Western Australian schools are now using at least part of the First Steps framework, and it's being taught on all the teacher-training courses. It's spreading rapidly across the rest of Australia, and is beginning to take off in New Zealand and the USA.

It's not the Holy Grail, of course - just another teaching resource, albeit a useful one. But it does look as if it would sit very comfortably alongside our national curriculum and compensate for what many see as significant weaknesses. Unlike the national curriculum, First Steps integrates a clear developmental model with formative assessment strategies - so that assessment is presented as a springboard to further teaching, not just a bureacratic chore to be performed at the end of each key stage. The publicity material sums it up: "Making the links-assessment, teaching and learning" with assessment first, rather than tagged on like an afterthought. However, like any resource, the success of First Steps depends upon the commitment, ability and professionalism of the teachers who use it.

This is where the project may have something very different to offer. One of the guiding principles of the First Steps team was that "change and improvement needs to be generated from the grass roots, not imposed from above." The project set out to systematise the knowledge and strategies that have always been there, underlying good teaching.

There is no disguising Alison Dewsbury's glee when she reports what teachers have said about the project: "It affirms and validates what we have always known."

If it does this, then it also affirms and validates the teachers themselves. In an educational system where teachers frequently feel less valued than the dinner ladies, that could be the most important first step of all.

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