Council claims a first for literacy

24th March 2006 at 00:00
The country's second most disadvantaged authority is claiming a world first by virtually eradicating pupil illiteracy, nine years after its early intervention programmes began.

Almost all West Dunbartonshire school-leavers will be up to expected national reading levels by next year, turning around a position in 2001 where almost one in three (28 per cent) of pupils entering secondary was functionally illiterate.

Five years ago, 292 primary 7 pupils left with reading ages below nine years six months, the accepted level for coping with the secondary curriculum. Last August, only 80 children (6 per cent) moved into secondary with a reading age below that, underlining the success of the authority's strategy on raising achievement and ending illiteracy.

The council believes it is on target to ensure that all pupils can read to national standards by 2007, although there may be some who will face particular difficulties. Only a handful of pupils now return very low scores in tests.

A 200-page report launched today (Friday) by Tommy MacKay, one of Scotland's most prominent educational psychologists, describes how the authority has tackled disadvantage and illiteracy among large sections of its pupil population.

Since its 10-strand intervention programme began in 1997, reading levels have risen year on year. Around 4,000 children are rigorously tested every year and evaluation shows that children entering P3 have an average reading age almost six months higher than previous expectations. Much of the success is down to Jolly Phonics, a predecessor of the synthetic phonics programme developed in Clackmannanshire and used successfully elsewhere in Scotland.

The synthetic phonics approach was endorsed fully south of the border this week by education ministers who had examined Scottish practice.

West Dunbartonshire also believes it has sustained progress further up the primary and into secondary and has introduced special initiatives for any pupils who continue to fail.

Intensive daily, one-to-one work with P6 and P7 pupils who are behind with their reading has led to rapid progress within six months. The authority first used the Toe by Toe programme with 104 children in 2002-03 to raise average reading ages from eight years to nine years two months among the group who were behind their peers. One in three did not have a reading problem within six months. Work continues into secondary.

Backing up the claims, Dr MacKay reveals that in 1997 the mean score for P1 pupils in combined early literacy skills was 27. In 2005, it was 74. On another measure in 1997, P2 pupils had an average score of 24 words in reading against 40 words in 2005. Similarly, only 5 per cent of P2 pupils in 1997 had a very high score in word reading against 45 per cent last year.

Dr MacKay notes a rise from 12 per cent to 43 per cent in the proportion of pre-school pupils attaining a perfect or almost perfect score for concepts of print; a rise from 28 per cent to 90 per cent in P1 pupils able to recognise 20 or more letter sounds; and a rise from 31 per cent to 67 per cent in P2 pupils scoring 30 or more on the word reading test.

Literacy levels have risen in pre-school, and in P1 and P2 in all schools.

The numbers experiencing reading failure have been dramatically reduced.

Dr MacKay said eradicating illiteracy seemed an almost impossible undertaking in 1997. "However, not to do so was unthinkable as poor literacy affects health, wealth and happiness. It closes employment markets, impoverishes the economy and lowers quality of life.

"For those in the poorest areas, it multiplies any disadvantages they already have in life. The council therefore decided on zero tolerance of illiteracy."

News 4; Leader 22

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