CHANGING the way infant classrooms are organised has been a key feature behind Dundee's significant improvements in reading, writing and numeracy in the first three years of primary.
The renewed focus on literacy and numeracy has been seen as a back-to-basics move but the message from those responsible for classroom organisation in the city's early intervention primaries is quite the opposite.
Christine Riach, early years and childcare officer, declares: "Classrooms are much brighter and dynamic and there is a lot more movement."
Mrs Riach was instrumental in setting up READ (Raising Early Achievements in Dundee) more than three years ago, which led the way ahead of the national early intervention scheme, and researchers from the Quality in Education Centre at Strathclyde University will shortly publish an independent analysis of progress in 13 pilot primaries.
The results will show that the number of children achieving level B in primary 3 in reading and writing has tripled in three years, a clear indication that in schools serving disadvantaged communities more able pupils can make better progress than previously anticipated.
The percentage achieving level A in maths in primary 2 has also risen from 16.7 per cent to 48 per cent, while the number of children achieving level A in maths, reading and writing in primary 3 has doubled. The researchers state: "There is a positive picture of improvement in terms of numbers achieving each level and the stage at which teachers are now judging pupils to be ready to take the test. There are significant year on year improvements across the three tests."
Jan Smith, READ development officer, said changing classrooms was important.
"It was very formal before with groups sitting around tables with chairs. There would be a library but perhaps no seats. Children would take a book and have to go back and read it.
"Now there would be a library corner with cushions and mats, a book box, areas for construction where children can leave materials for others to see, a writing area with a selection of materials for children to use and generally much more movement. The way to teach children literacy and numeracy is to provide lots of interesting contexts."
The READ team, applying the latest research, has encouraged teachers to make a more overt link between play and literacy and to teach writing and reading simultaneously. Use of upper and lower case and the sounds and letters of the alphabet have been reinforced. Maths work has been included while sitting on rugs and mats.
Mrs Riach said: "There is more oral work, more practical work, more phonological awareness, more teaching about learning, more awareness of the importance of reading, more rhyme."
Teachers have enthusiastically endorsed the renewed focus and turned up voluntarily for twilight in-service courses as the message spreads to other primaries. "Teachers are saying they never had a framework for teaching reading before," Mrs Riach said.
Twenty schools, half the city total, are now involved in applying the lessons of the pilot in the official early intervention scheme. Additional factors identified by the researchers are staff development, extra staffing and resources, improved home-school links and better monitoring and evaluation.
But Mrs Riach remains cautious. "There is no point in doing this on a short term basis because we had to fundamentally change the way classrooms worked and the way teachers interacted with their pupils."
'The way to teach children literacy and numeracy is to provide lots of interesting contexts'.