Help for slow starters

5th May 2006 at 01:00
A new package helps children with reading difficulties catch up. Diana Hinds reports

Jake needs extra help with his reading. A Year 3 boy, he sits at the computerwearing a headset and with a microphone in front of his mouth and listens to a computerised voice read him a story about the Pest and some chocolates, while he follows the highlighted text on screen.

Next, he has a go at reading the story himself - with occasional voice prompts from the computer when he is uncertain. The computer then plays his reading back to him and awards him points for his performance. Soon he will gain a certificate. Jake smiles with pleasure and growing confidence.

But this is not some brave new world where teachers no longer hear children read and computers do all the work for them. Jake features on a promotional CD for a new key stage 2 reading package called Rapid, devised by Heinemann for children with special needs. The voice-recognition software - first developed in the US - is the most revolutionary part of the package, but equally important are the 48 Rapid books, finely levelled and specially designed to appeal to older primary readers with low reading ages.

The idea of the software, explains Diana Bentley, co-editor of the series with Dee Reid, is to enhance and extend the one-to-one work that teacher and pupil have already done together on the book. "The software is an addition and a support - but not a substitute for reading with an adult,"

she says.

"So many teachers say that parents don't hear their children read at home.

Some parents find it hard to be patient because they are anxious about their child's progress, particularly if they struggled as readers themselves. The software doesn't tut or sigh or get cross with the child and it's a very patient listener. Software like this is non-critical and highly motivating."

Diana Bentley and Dee Reid are old hands when it comes to helping children improve their reading. In 1995, when they were job-sharing senior lecturers at Oxford Brookes University, they conducted a research project into what a teacher could do in 10 minutes a week, one-to-one, to help a poor reader.

The project took off in a big way as Catch Up, launched in 1998 and funded initially by the Caxton Trust. Trialling showed that children on the Catch Up programme for 10 weeks improved their reading ages by as much as eight months. The project is now in more than 4,000 primary schools and, last year alone, Diana Bentley and Dee Reid trained more than 1,000 teaching assistants in its methods.

The secret of Catch Up's success is a combination of concentrated one-to-one attention and a tightly structured 10 minutes. Aimed at children who are a year or more behind in their reading, the project has no special books of its own, but organises a school's books into carefully graded levels. The first two minutes of a Catch Up session are prepared reading, when the teacher or teaching assistant looks through a book with the child, introducing the story, the characters and any unusual vocabulary. For four minutes, the child reads the story aloud and the teacher notes any difficulties they have, without supplying the answers. The last four minutes are linked writing, when the teacher focuses on words that caused problems, and the child practises spelling and writing them.

"It's a very holistic programme - not just phonics, not just sight-words,"

explains Dee Reid. The prepared reading is also crucial, says Diana Bentley: "It helps to boost children's fluency. Once they start with a little bit more pace, the words suggest themselves a bit more."

Some of the key principles have now been extended to the Rapid books, with the aim of benefiting schools which haven't had Catch Up training or experience. Each book begins, for instance, with a "Before Reading" page, introducing the story or topic as well as some of the "tricky" words. The final page is what Dee Reid calls "an echo" of the final four minutes of Catch Up, with questions about the text and particular words or phonemes, and some spelling practice. Each book finishes on an upbeat note with a joke - usually some word-play connected with the story.

A distinctive feature of the Rapid books, which are organised in six levels (spanning national curriculum 1c to 2a), is that each contains a story and a piece of related non-fiction: Jelly Trouble, for instance, by Haydn Middleton contains a lively story with cartoon-style illustrations about a pirate ship called the Jellyfish, followed by an information section, complete with stunning photographs, about real jellyfish.

Throughout the books, a little cartoon character called Rapid Boy pops up with interesting questions or facts, and in some of the stories, the special device of a backpack being opened heralds the start of a fantasy adventure. Viv Rhymes, specialist teacher at the Northern Language and Communication Resource Base, Queensway Primary School, Banbury, who helped trial the books, says that the structure of the books helped children establish an understanding of context, which in turn helped them read more successfully.

"Special needs children like to be familiar with the format of a book, so they know how things are going to pan out," she says. "They need a lot of structure to help them, because they find inference and deduction difficult."

Finding enough books for these older readers is never easy, she says, and she particularly welcomed the Rapid books "because they look more grown-up, even though they are set at a very low level inside". Some children found the questions on the last page too taxing, she says, but all enjoyed the joke - even if they didn't always get it.

Viv plans to continue using the books and says she would be interested in the software if the budget could stretch that far. The whole package - software, three sets of headphones, three copies of each book, two teaching guides - costs around pound;800, but schools can also order the books separately.

Further trials are to be carried out later this year and Dee Reid and Diana Bentley are now embarking on Rapid training courses for local authorities and teaching assistants.


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