Week after week, newspaper headlines announce dramatic progress in early literacy projects around Scotland. this week Raymond Ross reports from Glasgow on its 'coaching in context' approach
I've never had writing as advanced as this in P1 before," says Jane Cerexhe, class teacher at Wyndford Primary School in Maryhill, Glasgow.
"Some of it is P2 and even P3 standard. I'm delighted with the progress this session. The pupils are already grasping concepts of print and punctuation and some of them are putting in punctuation quite naturally without teacher direction, just picking up what they see in the shared reading sessions."
What delights Miss Cerexhe, who has seven years' teaching experience with infants, are the results so far of Glasgow's Early Literacy Project (ELP). Launched at the beginning of the 1997 session and aimed at pre-five and early primary, ELP is the first stage in a city-wide Literacy Improvement Programme (LIP). By the Easter holidays every one of the city's 202 primaries and 131 nurseries will have had their staff development input in early literacy.
Adopting a "coaching in context" model, this involves tutors working in class with teachers in weekly or fortnightly sessions, modelling and demonstrating lessons and approaches and looking at resources with staff. The tutors are themselves seconded class teachers and nursery staff.
"The 'coaching in context' approach is better than going out to an in-service course," says Wyndford's headteacher, Fiona MacDonald. "It's hands-on, it's on-going and the class teacher can see how the approach works with her own children."
Working alongside Jane Cerexhe is visiting literacy tutor Maire Green, a senior teacher with 25 years' experience. Their approach, Green explains, is "to make the pupils much more independent of the teacher much earlier, to counteract teacher dependence so that the children don't learn to be helpless.
"They can attempt writing on their own so that we can accept the child's best effort rather than demanding that everything, like spelling for example, be absolutely correct. It really is child-centred," she says.
Working alongside a tutor in class for the weekly one-and-a-quarter hour sessions helps Jane Cerexhe improve her own practice, she says, corroborating the research being carried out by educational psychologists Lesley Thomson and Maureen Myant for Glasgow's education department.
Though their full report will not be submitted to the education directorate until May, responses so far indicate that 79 per cent of primary schools rated the project's input as "excellent" or "good", with many headteachers claiming that staff were more enthusiastic and that pupils were writing more at an earlier stage.
"Comparisons of average Primary 2 assessments from 1997 to 1998 in 10 schools across the city show significant gains in writing," claims the interim evaluation, just out. Reading and spelling scores are "taking children well above the norms for their age".
Perhaps more significantly for Glasgow, a city which suffers greatly from problems associated with poverty and deprivation, the psychologists state:
"The correlation between deprivation and attainment scores was weak, with results indicating that schools can raise standards in the face of significant social and economic deprivation. For example, standardised reading scores in one primary (with 66 per cent of pupils in receipt of clothing grants) rose from 70.15 months (P2, 1997) to 78.83 months (P2, 1998). Spelling scores also rose from 71.5 months (P2, 1997) to 78.76 months (P2, 1998)."
In nurseries, similar improvements are claimed in children's concepts of print, early writing and letter knowledge.
"Prior to the input, 41 per cent of children knew that the print in a story conveyed meaning and 42 per cent of children could point out a word. These figures rose to 72 per cent and 83 per cent respectively after a two month period," claims the report.
Glasgow's literary co-ordinator, Fiona Harrison, believes that the city's approach to literacy is wider and more balanced than the recently acclaimed systems in Clackmannanshire, North Lanarkshire and West Dunbartonshire.
"These Jolly Phonics systems concentrate on decoding words," she says, "but you have to get beyond just decoding in order to understand meaning. So when we're teaching reading in context, we have thechildren looking at whole texts, where and how the wordfits in the sentence, and how to gain meaning from the text rather than just decoding it word for word."
Headteacher Fiona MacDonald claims that not only has her pupils' confidence grown with regard to reading and writing but that their "whole attention" to school and learning has improved.
"It also gets us away from the old approach that you need to know all your letters before you can start a word," she says.
Tutor Maire Green's input with the P1 pupils clearly demonstrates their recognition of print concepts like spacing, and the use of initial and block capital letters as well as some understanding of full stops, all of which shows an early achievement, she adds.
"You can see how the child is learning and so you can support the child. They know early on what 'making sense of a sentence' is. We have them read to the other children what they have written, so they knowthey have to make sense of itto the others."
"Parental input is really valued as well," says Fiona Harrison. "In the past there was a tendency to leave it to the professionals. We want parents to know that anything they do at home can only benefit children. We used to say not to teach them their capital letters. Now we realise that children cope perfectly well with both lower and upper case letters from the very beginning."
With all this work being done in the lower primaries, attention is now turning to the upper primary to develop and build on the early literacy project.
"The P3 teacher might not really be expecting what's going to come up from the infants. We need to prepare them for what's going to hit them," says Mrs Harrison.
"Gone are the days of death by a thousand worksheets. Direct teaching and meaningful follow-up activities aregiving teachers back their professionalism."