Atlantic crossing

3rd July 1998 at 01:00
An intensive reading scheme from the US is winning converts. Headteacher Mike Armstrong reports

Poor attainment at GCSE is directly related to poor reading. It's obvious really - if our students can't read and understand the questions, they can't answer them.

This was recognised long ago by our family of schools in Nottingham (the Wilford Meadows comprehensive and five primaries), but we have had limited success in remedying the situation. That was until Professor David Hopkins at Nottingham University's School of Education introduced us to the research of Bob Slavin from Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore.

Slavin's research showed that children who are reading at levels in keeping with their chronological age at eight continue to make good progress, get good exam results and become good citizens.

It also showed that children who are reading at levels below their chronological age at eight, do not make good progress, do not get good examination results, and sometimes do not make good citizens.

Inner-city teachers are familiar with the loss of enthusiasm which goes with early failure, the resentment of re-enforced failure which changes "I can't" into "I won't". We see this in the estimated 60 per cent of our prison population unable to read and write adequately.

Bob Slavin decided it doesn't have to be that way and introduced the Success for All (SFA) programmes which are now followed by 400,000 students in the US, Canada, Israel and our own UK six-school pilot in Nottingham.

The scheme begins with the development of language skills and launches children into reading using phonetically regular story books. Teachers focus on phonemic awareness, auditory discrimination and sound blending, as well as meaning, context and self-monitoring strategies. The children move on to activities based on literature and non-fiction material. The programmes emphasise co-operative learning built around partner reading, identification of characters, settings, and problem solutions in narratives, story summaries and writing.

Direct instruction in reading comprehension skills (irony, fact and opinion, inference, personification, feelings, for example) is provided by prepared texts and students are guided to make the connections with the literature.

Our training by tutors from Johns Hopkins University involved two days and two evening sessions for everyone and an additional two days for heads and the facilitators appointed to teach the programme. Linguistic differences between us were speedily overcome. We appreciated the praise of "Good job" and even stopped cringing when addressed as "You guys". One or two sceptics reminded us of a previous American import, those reading laboratories which still litter English department stockrooms.

Most of us, though, agreed that while SFA might not be the panacea for all ills, it is better than anything else we've seen. We know it works elsewhere and it does ignore the suggestion that class size is not important. In the early stages, especially, students are placed in small groups according to ability. Failing students have 20 minutes of individual tuition a day.

Funding from Greater Nottingham Training and Enterprise Council and the University of Nottingham subsidised several of us to join 800 SFA converts at a conference in Florida last April.

After our isolation in the UK, it was good to be among so many people facing similar situations. We shared our problems with emotional and behavioural difficulties, poor attendance, involving parents, motivating teachers, but most of all we shared our success, our certainty that by employing the best practice we know about, we are making a difference.

The costs of American trainers, materials and additional staffing are high but falling. A small comprehensive school could introduce the scheme at Year 7 for between Pounds 12,000 and Pounds 15,000. The University of Nottingham will soon be able to offer training and local industry, enthused by the project, provides tutors and some financial support. Boots is our major sponsor.

One hundred and fifty employees are allowed one hour per week to tutor our students. That is "tutor" and not just listening to reading. Volunteers give their own time to learn how to do that effectively. Boots gains too, they say. Employees develop vital communication and listening skills and, more importantly, enjoy the sessions.

It is working. Students in my comprehensive school are making significant progress despite late entry to the scheme and devoting only half the recommended time. In the primary schools, some made a year's progress in a term.

Although it is early days, we can see why the United States Congress has passed a bill offering $50,000 per year for three years to schools which adopt Success for All strategies. In Nottingham, where more schools are joining the project, the schemes are being adapted to meet the needs of older students.

The National Literacy Strategy will support those who are brought up in a family culture of literacy. SFA offers those not so fortunate the opportunities to succeed.

Mike Armstrong is head of Wilford Meadows comprehensive school, Nottingham

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