Breakthrough time

10th July 1998 at 01:00
A literacy initiative last year showed how technology can foster learning. This year it goes up a gear, writes Jack Kenny

Probably the best product of the Summer Literacy Scheme, run for the first time last year, was the enthusiasm it generated. Run by Education Extra, a charity set up in 1992 to support the development of after-school activities for children, the Summer Literacy Scheme was supported by the Department for Education and Employment and News International, owners of this newspaper.

Now it has become separate from the Government's main literacy strategy, even though it is partially funded by the DFEE. This year's Extra Summer Initiative will deal with literacy and numeracy, using information and communications technology and covering themes in sport, soccer, music, television and money. Materials will be available through the National Grid for Learning.

As part of last summer's pilot, each individual scheme across the country had to provide for at least 30 children with reading ages below level 4, to provide 50 hours of literacy support, appoint a qualified teacher as project leader and aim for a ratio of five children to each adult.

Education Extra's regional development officer, Richard Thompson, was clear that ICT had made a real contribution to the project, combining the drill aspects of integrated learning systems - SuccessMaker and SIR were both used - and the more creative side of writing and desktop publishing.

One teacher felt that using computers for such a short period did not help embed any skills. But, probably more important, it did help children with little or no experience of computers to reduce their apprehension and gain confidence in their ability to learn.

"We are involved because we need to create a learning culture," says Yvonne Jeffries, headteacher of Haywood High School in Burslem, Stoke-on-Trent. "We used IT throughout the course to support learning and were loaned the Global SIR system. We didn't over-use it but kept it to small doses.

"The children liked it. It gave them a feeling of progression. We used the more usual ICT packages to instil confidence in pupils joining us in September and who may have felt apprehensive."

They went to a local museum as part of their work and their reports were completed using a range of ICT: graphics, desktop publishing and word processing. Yvonne Jeffries continued: "It seems to have increased their confidence and enhanced their skills. We have certainly noticed a difference. "

Martyn Ellison, vice-principal of Westgate Community College in Newcastle upon Tyne, was also enthusiastic about ICT's contribution to the scheme. "We get 300 kids in here a year. Half have reading ages two years behind their chronological age. Twenty-five per cent are three years behind."

The college used SuccessMaker with 60 pupils, but it was used only for about 20 minutes each day, forming just one part of their work. This was complemented with "enrichment activities", such as swimming.

Martyn Ellison says: "SuccessMaker is a corny American name, but it does create success. When you see a recalcitrant kid with a smile on his face because he has just got a score of 95 per cent, you realise that. "We have to create a can-do attitude and ICT can achieve that if you make it part and parcel of a whole system."

The 1997 scheme evaluation report makes it clear that ICT was an important part of many schools' literacy strategy. But while it found the computer-based work was effective in terms of motivation and monitoring progress, it said there was a sense among advisers that ICT could be used more imaginatively. Education Extra has responded to this and its new material, which will be distributed by disk and via its website, is expected to be more imaginative.

Richard Thompson says this summer's projects include Internet work in which children will write to premier league footballers. (More important, they will also get replies.) The website will also publish the children's work.

The summer literacy schools may well pioneer approaches which can be used by any school or pupil to enhance literacy. The innovations of summer 1998 will be worth watching.

Education Extra, St Margaret's House, 17 Old Ford Road, Bow, London E2 9PL, tel 0181 983 1061

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