Integrated literacies tightened up

8th May 2009 at 01:00
A Paisley college has fine-tuned its approach to help students tackle literacy and numeracy

With spanner-carrying students in dungarees removing the wheel-nuts and examining the brake discs of three cars raised on ramps, it seems obvious what's being learned in the workshop at Reid Kerr College in Paisley.

But learning nowadays is more subtle than it seems. "We're doing integrated literacies," says Rose Brown, director of Reid Kerr's centre for learner development and support. "It's a model we've been using for three years, following a pilot in hospitality. The results were amazing, so we've extended it as far across the curriculum as we can."

Literacy and numeracy can be barriers to learning for some students. But so can the traditional model that has them studying these core skills in classes separate from subjects which interest them. "With integrated literacies, they do maths, but it doesn't feel like it," says Mrs Brown. "They learn literacy, but no one's singled out for additional support. The tutor is there for everyone. The whole class benefits."

With support and training from Renfrewshire's adult literacies initiative, Reid Kerr has been running the model in a range of subjects and courses - motor vehicle, engineering, computing, care, plumbing, hairdressing and hospitality.

"You deliver learning in their chosen vocational setting," says Mrs Brown. "If they're doing something with brake-shoes, they don't want to go to another class to learn the numeracy part. They're here because they want to be in a workshop."

In this class (VRQ level 1, vehicle servicing and repair), integrated literacy tutor Lorna Grierson is eyeing a line scribed on a piece of steel by young Declan McMillan. She deftly wields the calipers to show that he hasn't quite got the line down the centre of the piece - which means holes drilled along it will be off-centre and the gearbox mechanism he is making won't work. "You have to be really accurate," she explains. "Have a go again on the other side."

This is just the kind of tricky measurement task that repays extra input, says Mrs Grierson. "If they have to work five different pieces of metal before getting it right, it's very demotivating. I'll guide them so they get a sense of achievement."

As other students approach Mrs Grierson with questions about their work, it looks as if she is well equipped with motor vehicle knowledge and skills. And to some extent she is - now.

"I knew very little when I started with this course a year-and-a-half ago," she admits. "I'm originally primary teacher-trained, but you can pick any subject up to the level needed for this job. You learn from the lecturer and the students.

"I make a point of that. If they're not asking me what something means or where to find numbers or instructions - which can put them off if they can't find them - I'll ask them to explain things to me.

"It makes them feel good about themselves - that they know something other people don't. It builds their confidence."

Of course, bringing an extra lecturer into a class helps simply by halving the student-teacher ratio and giving learners more access to adult expertise. While accepting that this explains some of the success of integrated literacies, Rose Brown is convinced there is more to it.

"Success hinges on the partnership between the two tutors and on the fact that they have quite different jobs to do. The literacies tutor is there to see things from the students' point of view."

This suggests there might be difficulties between tutor and lecturer, especially at the beginning of their relationship. "Lorna and I had no trouble from the start," says Graham Aitken, motor vehicle lecturer. "She was quick to pick up on what we do in class. She didn't come in and interrupt me or tell me I wasn't explaining things right. I'm the subject specialist. We both recognised what our jobs were and that we each had something to learn.

"This way of working might not suit some people, and get sparks flying. But it comes down to the people. Selection of staff and interpersonal skills are critically important."

Feedback was sought a few weeks ago on integrated literacies, says Mr Aitken. "We asked if they'd rather do it this way, or with separate core- skills classes. They all said they liked it like this. The big problem before, for the college, was that we'd lose lots of students as time passed."

But the last time this course ran, retention was 100 per cent, says Lorna Grierson. "That's unheard of for entry-level courses like this."

Students are voting with their feet for the integrated approach, but how does it seem to them? When they're not sure what to do, will they decide which kind of question they have and who to ask?

"Not really," says Graeme Macrae. "I know Mrs Grierson isn't a motor vehicle lecturer, but I'd ask her questions about anything. If she doesn't know, she'll send me to Mr Aitken."

"You ask whoever's handy," says Stephanie Wightman. "But you'd probably ask Mrs Grierson about measuring things, what something meant or finding something in the handbook."

Mrs Brown has been astonished, she says, by how well integrated literacies works. "Last time I came to this workshop, there was a row of dungareed bottoms leaning over a car engine, and I had to look again to work out which was the literacy tutor's." She smiles. "That's how integrated they are."

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