North Lanarkshire has taken literacy back to basics: that is, words. By exploring vocabulary, teachers are motivating children - in primary schools and now in secondaries - to read, appreciate language and express themselves. Douglas Blane reports
Once upon a time in a land faraway there lived a grand vizier who was so fond of his colossal collection of books that he took them with him wherever he went, carried in alphabetical order on the backs of 400 camels. Nowadays books are not nearly so highly prized and stories and information can easily be obtained from computers that will soon be small enough to fit in our pockets. Before long, some say, books will only exist as images on a computer screen or beside the dinosaurs in dusty museums.
Yet, if text has lost much of its appeal in this multisensory, interactive age, why are the P4 pupils at Noble Primary school in Bellshill, North Lanarkshire, so eager to show off the books they asked Father Christmas to bring them and to read aloud with obvious pleasure their favourite passages?
This is Stacey's. "Down behind the dustbin, I met a dog called Felicity. 'It's a bit dark here,' she said. 'They've cut off the electricity'."
It's not Shakespeare, but in a few more years it could well be, because children who enjoy reading Michael Rosen at the age of seven are frequently the same ones who will delight in Burns, Coleridge and Tennyson when they are 17.
Enjoyment is only part of the story. A lively teacher can make almost anything seem fun to children. The tricky part is to make sure they learn something at the same time. Motivation and a positive attitude are a good start but specific skills have to be taught and learned, and this takes time, repetition and persistence, which all sounds suspiciously boring to children weaned on the instant gratification of computer games.
However, if children don't learn spelling, grammar and punctuation they will not understand the language sufficiently well even to write a letter. If their vocabulary is limited, then so will be their ability to express themselves. If they don't know what influences a writer in her choice of words and sentence structure to create mood, develop character, build and resolve tension, then their appreciation of more demanding literature will be diminished and their own creativity stunted. And if no-one shows them how to fish out pearls of knowledge from an ocean of information, most of them are going to drown in it.
In North Lanarkshire a whole-school approach to reading has been developed which tackles literacy in a structured way that motivates children and enthuses the teachers. At the heart of the programme, pioneered over the past 18 months by primary adviser Tricia Wilson, is a much greater emphasis on direct, whole-class teaching, with correspondingly less reliance on worksheets and reading schemes. The methods have been adopted in all the authority's primary schools and now are being extended into the secondaries.
Worksheets are neither enjoyable nor motivating, says former headteacher Ms Wilson, nor do they focus on specific skills in any useful way. "Children can easily spend no more than a few minutes reading and the rest of the time they are just filling in blanks. There is an over-dependence on the use of worksheets, which do very little to develop reading skills.
"I think in the past we've spent time doing reading but we haven't actually been teaching reading."
Newarthill Primary school, whose headteacher Pat Ashworth is seconded to North Lanarkshire education department, has worked on the programme since its inception. A lively lesson is in progress. Gathered in a semi-circle around the teacher, P6 pupils are exploring the opening scene of a story in a large format, large print big book.
Teacher Rona Gray has covered up a selection of words with sticky tape and is reading aloud while the children follow the text. "I His iron ears turned this way, that way. He was hearing the sea. His eyes like I glowed.
"What do we think that missing word might be?"
Suggestions include "light bulbs", "the moon" and "fire", but when Ms Gray pulls back the tape the children see that the author has chosen none of these. "His eyes like headlamps glowed white, then red, then infra-red, searching the sea."
Continuing with the topic of setting a scene and building a character, the teacher turns to a story about a boy whose mother has armed him against the cold with liberal doses of cod liver oil, malt extract and orange juice. "When you picked him up you expected him to I like a hot-water bottle full of half-set custard."
Suggestions from the class include "wobble", "squirm" and "squelch", and as Ms Gray writes them on the board she encourages the children to explain why they chose a particular word, to justify their answers.
When first asked, young children find it difficult to offer more than one-word responses, Ms Gray explains later. "It's a matter of building their confidence, getting them to realise there are no wrong answers, as long as they can justify what they say."
Occasionally the class decides one of their words is better than the author's. This builds their confidence in their own language skills and helps to strengthen their independence.
The combination, illustrated in this lesson, of teacher as model reader together with a variant of the cloze test, whereby words are hidden from the reader and alternatives explored, turns a potentially dull and technical language lesson into a sociable, stimulating, whole-class event.
"Children love it," says Mrs Ashworth, "right up to Primary 7. It's a much more interactive way of teaching that catches their imagination."
The method can be adapted to lessons in most aspects of language: parts of speech, simile and metaphor, alliteration, punctuation, sentence structure, dialogue.
Although big books were originally intended for infants, they are now available for a range of ages in a variety of genres. Even these are not essential, as teachers can devise interactive lessons around any piece of text that can be shared with the class, including the children's own writing.
This particular type of lesson is only one part of North Lanarkshire's reading programme. Based on 5-14 guidelines, classroom practice and research by the Scottish Council for Research in Education, the programme is structured into four sections - attitude and motivation, decoding, pursuit of meaning and author's use of language - with a clear progression from P1 to P7 in exploring a writer's subject matter, meaning and methods.
The aims are to encourage and guide children to reflect on their reading, to motivate their writing and to enhance their enjoyment.
"At first, what we recommended was fairly general," says Ms Wilson, "but teachers wanted something more detailed and specific, so we looked at setting targets they could share with children and we specified what to teach at each stage."
A particularly valuable feature of the programme is the guidance on reading for information, which is treated separately from the other strands of the 5-14 curriculum. Even if children never open a work of fiction again, these will stand them in good stead in their later lives.
"Unless you teach them how to go about locating and extracting useful information," says Justine Orr, headteacher at Noble Primary, "what happens is they'll present you with 16 pages on the Vikings, printed off the computer, that they've never even read."
The children are taught where to go for information and what to do when they get there. The teacher again acts as model reader and, as early as Primary 1, children work in pairs and trios learning about books and how to use them for research. By Primary 7 their ability to locate a relevant text and extract, structure and use the information contained in it exceeds that of many university students.
At Noble Primary, Linda McDougall's P67 class has split up into trios, each with its own non-fiction book on subjects such as spiders, vivisection and coral reefs. Research on learning has shown that understanding and retention are greatly enhanced if the reader has specific questions in mind when tackling a new piece of text. So the children's first task is to formulate their own questions: why do spiders have hairy legs?; how do starfish eat?; how do volcanoes form islands?
"Remember, we want big questions," says Ms McDougall. "Ones that give lots of facts when we answer them, not just 'Yes', 'No', or 'It's blue and has five legs.' "
Each member of the mixed-ability trio reads a passage aloud while the others write down unfamiliar words. Then all three talk about what they have learned and note down key facts. Finally the book is closed and each child uses the notes to write whole sentences that can be read out to the class.
"The hermit crab gets an old shell and covers it with twigs and sea anonimes ..."
"Anonimes?" queries Ms McDougall.
"Anemones," Ross corrects himself. "It's an animal that lives under the sea and it has tentacles that curl up and when another animal goes by they shoot out and catch it."
At first the notion that children as young as seven could learn these note-taking skills struck the teachers as wildly implausible. "My first reaction," says Theresa Cameron, "was 'No way'. So I had my training, prepared my lesson plan, went into the class and got results straight away from the less able children."
"It improves their understanding of the text," says Ms McDougall, "enhances their ability to respond to other people's opinions, brings the less able children up and, if you ask them weeks later about what they've read, they still remember it.
"I've never had children do what these kids are doing."
The open-plan design of Ladywell Primary school in Motherwell - there are no classrooms, just a single internal space - can afford visitors the impressive sight of an entire school working on the reading programme at the same time. A hum of involvement and concentration permeates the air, rather than the chaos that might be expected from 300 children gathered in one place.
The teachers say that the best features of the reading programme are that it gets everyone involved - not just the quickest or most able children - it teaches them that their words and ideas can be every bit as good as an author's, it builds confidence and encourages creativity, and it shows them how to be intelligently selective when bombarded with words, images and other information.
"The programme provides teachers with guidance without being a strait-jacket," says headteacher Andrea Morton. "Children who used to say 'We cannae do writing because we don't read' now think of themselves as authors."
Classroom experience of the most effective ways to integrate North Lanarkshire's reading programme with its writing programme is accumulating and work is in progress to ensure that gains made in the primary schools are not lost in the transition from primary to secondary.
"Teaching language used to be a bit ethereal," says secondary English adviser Ellen Doherty, who has been piloting the methods in selected secondary schools, "but this is much more skill-based, not just reading, writing, listening and talking but also sets of sub-skills within those elements.
"Previously I don't think we've explained to children clearly enough that in order to get better they have to work on these specific skills in these particular areas.
"I like the analogy of learning to drive. What we used to do with English was like sticking them in a car, giving them the keys and saying 'Right, off you go!' Now we guide them through it: we teach them skills and we show them the steps they need to take to make them better readers and writers."
Take Another Look at Reading, the North Lanarkshire reading pack with aims and methods for lessons from P1-7, plus two videos of lessons and discussions with teachers, pound;150, from North Lanarkshire Education Department, Kildonan Street, Coatbridge ML5 3BT, tel 01236 812209.Taking a Closer Look at Reading and Writing, Scottish Council for Research in Education, 1995 (reformatted 2000), tel 0131 557 2944