How one council found clue to keeping reluctant readers on the right page

25th September 2009 at 01:00
It may not have reduced the gender gap, but a Renfrewshire writing programme did engage boys more

Secondary teachers assume primary colleagues know exactly what they're doing when it comes to literacy. But they still have plenty to learn, says Claire Hall, a teacher in Todholm Primary, Paisley.

"I'll never teach writing the way I used to again. I couldn't understand why stories the children wrote just stopped. I now know it's because they were bored. One lesson we learned on this project was to give it to them in manageable chunks. It's like knitting - if you drop a stitch but carry on, it's a big job to go back and fix it later.

"One paragraph a day is manageable for pupils to write and teachers to look at and talk about - and improve before it gets out of control."

Exciting Writing was set up in Todholm as well as Woodlands (Linwood) and Mossvale (Paisley) primaries, with the aim of motivating writing, raising attainment and narrowing the gap between girls and boys. A key feature was the use of Glow to stimulate pupil interest and share good practice, says education officer Janice Neilson.

"I believe we're moving away from CPD as someone standing up and telling teachers what to do, and towards a more collaborative model. It was noticeable during this project that the four capacities were being developed as much in the teachers as the children."

Glow was a steep learning curve, says Aileen McNair, depute head at Woodlands Primary. "We'd never `Glow met' or set up a group. There was all this stuff about access rights and administrators. There were technical problems at first - we could see people but not hear them. But we got there in the end. Now I could set up groups in my sleep."

But nobody fell asleep on this project, say the pupils, for whom the methods used made a huge difference to how they felt about writing and how they tackled it.

"It wasn't just for the boys," says Jamie Traynor, who was in Woodlands P7 at the time. "But it was the boys who were failing. I was one of them. It's easier for girls to sit and write, I think. Boys like to be up doing things. With Exciting Writing, we got to do all kinds of things, especially on the computers."

That meant you could be more creative, says Daniel McLellan, who was in P7 at Todholm. "Writing was boring. Now it's fun. We were sharing our writing with people in other schools through the computer. That meant there's a wider audience for it. I liked that. It's more interesting."

Finding out what caught pupils' interest was how the project began, says Alison Young, a Mossvale Primary teacher. "We hadn't a clue where to start, to be honest, so we asked the pupils how they felt about writing and how we could make it exciting for them. They said they wanted to use the computers and to see a purpose for their writing."

Once the project was under way, different types of writing were explored in each school. "I had no idea there were so many," says Eilidh Mitchell (Woodlands P7). "There's persuasive writing, recount writing, imaginative, procedural . When I write now, I ask myself what kind it's supposed to be. That helps me."

Pupils got to know each other through video-conferencing in Glow Meet. They uploaded their writing to the Glow group, where it was peer-assessed by writing buddies in the other schools. They recorded their own feedback to create podcasts, which were uploaded and made accessible to everyone.

The project demonstrated, to teachers and pupils, the potential of Glow and the scope for motivating children's learning and raising attainment. But did it reduce the gender gap in writing?

"Well . no," admits Janice Neilson. "It did get the boys motivated and producing better writing than ever before. But it had exactly the same effect on the girls."

Janice Neilson and teachers from Woodlands, Todholm and Mossvale primaries gave a seminar on "Exciting writing" and Fiona Norris gave one on "Literacy across Learning" at this week's Scottish Learning Festival


Every teacher in every subject is now supposed to be responsible for promoting literacy and encouraging young people to "explain their thinking, debate their ideas and read and write". It is called "literacy across learning" and it's not popular.

"What's the English teacher doing while I'm taking time off that can't be spared from my subject to teach hers?" is the objection.

It's one with which Fiona Norris, literacy team leader at Learning and Teaching Scotland, sympathises. "Teachers can't do everything at once."

To see what they could do, her team organised literacy across learning seminars last session, which were attended by around 550 secondary teachers. The materials and ideas developed are now being collated, says Ms Norris. "We will make them available to all teachers, through the authorities at first and then online."

So exactly how is a maths, science or PE teacher supposed to develop children's literacy while teaching their own subject?

"I talked to one teacher who was starting a new topic," says Ms Norris. "She got pupils to list questions about Pythagoras. They went home and researched them on the internet. They made notes. They shared ideas and prepared a group presentation to the class. The teacher asked me what I thought and I told her she had just managed to cover a large number of the outcomes in the literacy framework.

"Literacy across learning is about small steps, not huge changes in how people teach."

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