Leaving a literacy footprint

7th September 2007 at 01:00
Passive worksheets are out and active learning is in at primary schools in North Lanarkshire, where a new literacy programme has been launched

TRICIA WILSON sums up North Lanarkshire's new Active Literacy programme as learning that is no longer passive and is, above all, fun.

"Children are no longer working through dead, lifeless worksheets. They are working collaboratively and talking about what they are doing. As the teacher teaches them, they have to teach a partner," says the quality improvement officer who has been one of the architects of the programme.

As an example of the way that P1 children reinforce each other's learning, she cites the case of one pupil helping her partner spell a new word by asking her: "Now, have you listened for the first sound?"

A passionate advocate of literacy, she warns: "If they don't leave primary school literate and numerate, when they reach the secondary stage their confidence and other abilities are adversely affected."

She tells heads and teachers at the official launch of the strategy: "We have got to make a literacy footprint on these children's lives."

The principles of the literacy materials developed by the authority 12 years ago remain sound, she maintains. But the approach needed to be refreshed. So, following an evaluation of its previous strategy, and having looked at current literacy research, the authority developed a new strategy based on the active learning theories of Jerome Bruner, and principles of metacognition and co operative learning.

Nancy Ferguson, senior educational psychologist, adds that research has found statistically no difference between synthetic and analytic phonics methods, but that North Lanarkshire's approach is mainly synthetic "because we know it works".

The new elements of active learning are not about children just investigating by themselves they receive an initial period of instruction from the teacher and then work together in pairs or groups, reinforcing a learning point or extending that learning. Then, they come back together as a whole class.

Teachers involved in the pilot study say the time for pupils to work independently and in groups allows them to spend more time with individual children, whether it is the able ones who need to be stretched or those with additional support needs.

"Before decluttering became official, we looked at this. We have removed the worksheets everything that made learning passive. Children were sitting for far too long. They were gainfully em-ployed, but their literacy skills were passive. There were too many low-level tasks which were not challenging. We have tried to put in active learning and critical thinking. We have integrated talking and listening, so that in every task children have chances to revisit their skills," says Mrs Wilson.

From P1 upwards, children have to be able to explain how they have learnt and what they have learnt. That takes a lot of training of teachers and pupils, she accepts. But in the classes where the strategy has been piloted, there has been a real difference in the motivation of children. Teachers speak excitedly of pupils asking to be allowed to make and write books in golden time, the period usually set aside for play on a Friday afternoon.

Teachers do much more reading to children, using level books that can demonstrate the purpose for reading. Children write daily in cross-curricular contexts, as well as in language lessons.

Mrs Wilson models for teachers the way she wants them to use puppets and act out stories for early years classes. Donning her Percy the Park-keeper hat, boots and rope, she takes the P1 classes on a fictitious rescue mission. Her series of Traditional Tales classic fairy-tales given a modern twist also forms part of the language strategy.

Passive worksheets are out and active learning is in at primary schools in North Lanarkshire, where a new literacy programme has been launched.

Elizabeth Buie reports

How it works

In reading, children are taught and encouraged to:

read with, and to, a partner;

read to one another and help each other with blends of less familiar words;

talk to and listen to one another about what they have read;

discuss with one another the main points of the story the Who? When? Where? And What happened next? questions as starting points for discussion;

write about what they have read;

read what they have written and, in collaboration with others, edit and fine tune their writing.

In writing tasks, children are taught and encouraged to:

write daily for different reasons;

write for different purposes and in different contexts;

share ideas about their writing;

work collaboratively to check and improve their writing.

In talking and listening, children are taught and encouraged to share and explore ideas in pair, trio, group or whole-class discussion.

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