Puppets and storytelling are turning North Lanarkshire pupils into confident readers. Shirley English reports on their success
Freud once said that "children take play very seriously" and, true to form, the backstage preparations for the puppet show at Victoria Primary, in Airdrie, are in deadly earnest.
Sophie Gardner, six, has carefully hand-written a sign which she sticks to the puppet theatre's pro-scenium arch, announcing "Little Red Riding Hood". She explains: "I've stuck it on so you know what the show is called."
Meanwhile, her P2 classmates Jared Hepburn and Stella Lawson, also six, have written out a story, selected their puppets and are ready to begin. "This is the story of Goldilocks and the three bears," Stella informs the audience (me). "Would you like some porridge?"
It is an unusual start to what turns out to be an extraordinary fairy tale, and no one seems to mind the last-minute story switch.
Some plot elements remain unchanged - the three bears go for a walk while their porridge cools and Goldilocks trespasses on private property and steals their breakfast.
"Goldilocks arrives at the cottage and finds no one at home," Stella narrates, as her puppet, sporting bright yellow woolly hair, enters stage left. "Then she eats the porridge. Yum, yum." In a whispered aside, she says: "I think that's a bit naughty, don't you?"
Jared takes over: "Then a monkey and a lion come along . and they eat her up!" A rather violent struggle ensues on stage. "Help, help!" calls Goldilocks. "Roar. Argh!" say the monkey and the lion and in a short time poor Goldilocks is no more.
"The end," says Sophie with a wide grin, applauding herself and her two friends.
The children are obviously enjoying themselves and are taking full advantage of the "cosy corner", one of five multisensory areas in the new "purposeful play" room at Victoria Primary. It was set up this term to complement the Active Literacy strategy developed by North Lanarkshire Council with the 3-18 curriculum in mind. The resource, staff say, will make the transition from nursery to P1 smoother by extending pre-school approaches of learning through play into P1.
All five areas - the cosy corner, home corner, creative corner, construction, and sand and water - have tools for pupils to write about their activities, to ensure literacy impacts across the curriculum. Pupils are encouraged to use their play experiences to develop their reading, writing, talking and listening skills.
The play sessions are themed depending on the lesson. The aim is that all P1-3 pupils will eventually get three hours of purposeful play a week and P1s will be paired with visiting nursery children for special sessions.
The purposeful play room is just one manifestation of the Active Literacy strategy, which has banished single reading schemes and worksheets in favour of active learning in all 130 of North Lanarkshire's primaries. The strategy uses a range of phonics methods and literacy games. Different reading schemes have been colour-banded to suit different abilities in line with national assessment levels and are used alongside traditional tales and puppets.
In lessons, pupils are encouraged to work together in pairs or small groups, both teaching and assessing each other, and thus reinforcing their own learning.
Victoria was one of the first 10 primaries to join the original P1-3 pilot three years ago. Staff say that since then they have witnessed a revolution in pupil motivation and attitudes to reading and writing as well as in attainment levels. By the end of P2, 33 of the school's 36 P2 pupils will have taken their level A tests in reading and writing, including two children with English as a second language. Previously, the majority sat level A during P3.
The advances at Victoria are echoed in new research, carried out by North Lanarkshire's Psychological Services and Literacy Base, an authority-wide training resource, into the impact of the new strategy.
The findings reveal that gains identified in P1 children in the pilot's first year, have been sustained as they move up through the school to P3. Children taking part in Active Literacy have continued to have an average reading age five months ahead of pupils in the control group (where older methods have continued).
The percentage of struggling readers, who scored the lowest reading age in the tests (5 years, 11 months), has also been significantly reduced from 12.5 per cent in the control group to just 2.3 per cent in the Active Literacy group. Also, more pupils in the group (72 per cent) scored average or above in the reading tests, compared to 52 per cent in the control group.
Elizabeth Weir, P1 teacher at Victoria, explains that the new strategy ensures that children read a text, on average, three times more than in the past, working in pairs, reading to each other, or alone.
The pace is much faster, with the class getting through two or more books each week, and comprehension is practised by writing story summaries or alternative endings. There are no worksheets.
"They are more independent and more responsible for their learning earlier on," she says. "The children are surprising us on a regular basis."
Today she sets out three tasks for her class: reading; writing a sensible sentence; and practising the alphabet and their common words ("out", "now" and "new") with plasticine and magnetic letters.
While the Blue group reads Red Ted at the Beach on the carpet with Mrs Weir, children in the Yellow group are paired up for literacy games and are soon engrossed in making words and sentences with Lego letters and word cards.
The Red group, meanwhile, practise their alphabet and three common words. Every 10 minutes they rotate to the next task. Everyone is working quietly. No one is waiting for the teacher or colouring in a worksheet to pass the time.
Mary Glen, head of Sacred Heart Primary in Bellshill, joined the Active Literacy pilot in the second year. "We have found this works for all children, whether they are from leafy suburbs, have support needs or are high achievers, and that's because they enjoy it," she says.