First Steps scheme makes giant leaps

5th June 2009 at 01:00
Studying the exploits of comic book heroes is improving pupils' writing powers dramatically

They have inspired generations of pupils. Now experts believe that writing about comic book heroes can dramatically improve young children's writing skills.

The theory that people write best when it is for a specific purpose - whether that is analysing comics or concocting recipes - has been tested in Bridgend, where an Australian reading and writing programme is proving a big hit in dozens of primaries.

Staff have reported a dramatic improvement in children's writing skills since the First Steps scheme was introduced.

More than 100 of the county's teachers have been trained in the programme. At Porthcawl Primary School, the staff have even restructured the curriculum to give it pride of place.

Under the scheme, pupils cover a range of genres, reflecting the varied purposes of writing - for example, to entertain, instruct or persuade - in each school year.

In reception, children listen to fairy tales and simple poetry. As they get older, they study autobiographies and letters and discuss what the author was hoping to achieve.

Recipes, manuals and graphic novels are also on the curriculum. These often involve activities that help to emphasise group work.

Sarah Arnold, a nursery teacher at Porthcawl, said children work out the rules for each genre and then apply these to their own writing.

"They are in charge of their learning, so it fits in very well with the foundation phase," she said.

Ms Arnold has found the programme useful for assessing children's skills more accurately and recognising whether they understand what they are writing.

Andrew Wood, Porthcawl's head, said his teachers had seen real improvements among pupils.

The school's latest Estyn report, published last month, said standards had improved considerably since an inspection six years ago.

Inspectors also said the gap between boys and girls in English was narrowing. Mr Wood attributes this to the increased use of graphic novels and manuals.

"I don't think we should be afraid of asking children what they want to read and how they want to learn," he said.

The latest teacher assessment results for English show that pupils in Wales consistently do better in writing than in reading or oracy.

Organisers say pupils' speaking skills have also improved during the programme. Children are paired up with "talk partners" and keep logs of words they find difficult to write. Every week, they test each other out loud on their spelling.

The programme is organised by the not-for-profit body Steps Professional Development, which also runs a range of reading and maths courses.

Laura Howells, a consultant for the organisation, which is owned by Edith Cowan University in Western Australia, said the scheme fits well with Wales's new skills and topic-based curricula.

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