Teenagers go into schools to help pupils to read better, as research backs adult-style book groups, reports Elizabeth Buie
A literacy initiative which copies book groups for adults has had significant benefits and made reading "cool" in the eyes of pupils who previously had been reluctant or struggling readers.
A report on the project concluded: "Both boys and girls showed significantly more positive feelings about reading in school. Boys reported that they were more frequently reading for pleasure at home, recommending books to friends and getting totally absorbed in a book.
"These gains meant that the boys effectively 'caught up' with the girls in these aspects. There was an improvement in the number of books that all pupils reported reading which bordered on statistical significance."
At a time when the curriculum is undergoing radical review, and new forms of assessment are being introduced, the researchers reported that "literature circles" had the potential to make a contribution to both.
The evaluation, by a team from Strathclyde University's department of childhood and primary studies, which was commissioned by the Scottish Executive, examined literature circles of pupils ranging from P4 to S1 in four schools.
The idea originated in the USA and has been tried out by some Scottish authorities, including Aberdeenshire, West Lothian and South Lanarkshire.
While the American book circles tended to be pre-packaged activities and assumed a literary purpose for the work, however, teachers in Scotland are being urged to see the circles as having the twin purposes of engaging pupils in reading and literary analysis.
Sue Ellis, one of the researchers and a specialist in literacy teaching for primary schools, said one teacher had at first excluded the lowest-ability pupils in her class from the initiative, fearing that it would be too challenging for them.
The teacher then felt guilty when she discovered that her bottom group had all gone to the library themselves, borrowed the same book and were holding their own literature circle. "This drives home how much lower-ability pupils want to be part of a classroom and have a right to the same opportunities," Ms Ellis said.
The pupils were given a degree of freedom to choose the text (although lower-ability groups needed more teacher direction and support in this task), and the eventual aim of the initiative was to allow children to run the circle themselves.
Although all the teachers involved acknowledged they had to do some preparation and groundwork before the groups got going, and initially had to provide some management of discussion, all saw the project as an opportunity to give a measure of control over some key areas to the children.
Single-gender groups seemed to produce a strong group solidarity and a club ethos, but the boys also acknowledged that they felt more work was done when there were girls present.
This finding led the research team to suggest that teachers should ensure that pupils get "a balanced diet of single-gender and mixed-gender literature circles". They made a similar recommendation regarding mixed-ability groups.
Ms Ellis added that, when the team designed the initiative, they knew they had to find something to engage pupils because "engagement increases attainment".
She said: "We knew that to get engagement in the reading curriculum we needed four things: the notion of choice of task and how you go about the task; collaboration in making it social; texts that are interesting to the actual reader; and high-quality, relevant teaching. Literature circles allowed for that."
The research team found that children in the literature circle classes gained autonomy and enthusiasm for reading, with teachers reporting that children began to ask to set up additional groups. Parents also reported that their children had been discussing the books spontaneously at home.
The study found that the receptive vocabulary of the boys also improved, which the researchers described as "an interesting result because a wider vocabulary contributes to verbal reasoning ability and thus empowers children's ability to learn across the curriculum".
The most recent findings from PISA (the Programme for International Student Assessment) showed that many 15-year-olds rarely read for enjoyment and almost a third do no reading for pleasure in their own time.
The Assessment of Achievement Programme shows that girls in Scotland are performing consistently better than boys in reading and writing at P4 and at P7.
The first Scottish Survey of Achievement in English language will provide the latest data when the results are published next month.
A spokeswoman for the Scottish Executive said: "This report, although based on a small-scale research project, does suggest there are useful benefits to this type of scheme: children become more engaged and take a much more proactive approach to reading."
A copy of the research report is available on http:www.scotland.gov.ukPublications200511SRLitCir