Literacy group gets a good write-up

2nd November 2012 at 00:00
Reading ages are on the rise, thanks to a support group for struggling pupils, says Jackie Cosh

Pupils require a reading age of approximately nine years four months in order to access the secondary curriculum. If their reading age is below that, they continue to struggle and boredom leads to bad behaviour and disruption in class.

At Doon Academy in Ayrshire, routine testing of Primary 7 children found some with reading ages of as low as six.

An intensive literacy support group was set up, which saw all pupils in the group improve their reading level, with one child's comprehension improving by five years and six months in 10 weeks. Their achievement was recognised when the school won the Literacy Across Learning Award at this year's Scottish Education Awards.

Previously, such children were given two periods a week of support, but this was making little difference. Subject teachers reported that they weren't able to access social subjects because they couldn't read well enough.

The depute headteacher at the time, Lyndsey McRoberts, suggested an intensive 10-week session with pupils being removed from class for two periods each day, but she was met with opposition.

"We had talked about this many times with Lyndsey," says pupil support teacher Doreen Murray. "She came up with the idea of extracting pupils for a period of time and originally we said no, as we are inclusionists. It would have meant no social subjects for 10 weeks. We had many discussions and eventually we decided to go for it."

"They weren't going to lose anything. It wasn't going to change how they were doing academically," agrees her colleague Aileen Wood.

Nine children were chosen. Parents were contacted and subject teachers were approached.

"Teachers were delighted we could support these children," says Mrs Murray. "They realised they were sinking. "We hoped something would improve but didn't expect it to improve as much as it did."

For some of the children there was an issue with street cred at the start, but this soon turned completely around to the group having a bit of cult status.

"The ethos at the start was that we are a team," explains Mrs Murray. "We were to work hard as we had limited time. We built in circle time. They talked about how they were doing, what they found hard in class and any problems they were having."

The morning began with a bit of brain gym to get both sides of the brain working. Then they dived into a visual multi-sensory programme which was very active and kinaesthetic. Vocabulary and spelling patterns were covered and homework was to come up with a strategy for how to spell some of the words.

Rather than relying on providing the pupils with strategies, the emphasis was on the pupil finding one that worked for him- or herself. Sometimes this was visual. When trying to remember where the apostrophe goes in "wouldn't" and "couldn't", one boy found that it helped if he visualised where in the line his friend stood when they each stood holding a letter.

Pupils were taught that different strategies work, but also different learning styles. "We wanted to avoid reliance on one strategy. If pupils identify a preferred learning style, they can home in on that and say that they can't learn any other way, but that is not the case," says Mrs Wood.

Grammar played a large part with games to find three compound words, or touch three nouns. Dictation and free writing were introduced with pupils' writing improving hugely over the 10 weeks. Over-learning was a big part. The pupils learned the same thing in different ways day after day.

Some of the work involved working in pairs, testing each other on spelling, and checking each other's work. "By the end of the programme, they were constructive in their criticism. At the start they would say - `this is a load of rubbish'," says Mrs Wood.

At the end of the 10 weeks, the children were retested and all had improved hugely in their reading, writing and spelling. But just as important was the improvement in their attitude to reading, and to learning in general.

"Feedback from teachers has been so positive," says Mrs Murray. "Demerits have gone down for every one of the pupils. We have had emails from staff saying: `This boy is really engaging. You should see what he has written for me, in comparison to what he was doing before.'"

The school is now running keep-in-touch sessions for the pupils to discuss any problems they are having, with plans to buddy these children up with the next year's group, when it starts after Christmas.

Elaine Hetherington, the new depute headteacher at the school, is keen to continue the work her predecessor started. She says: "The next step is to take it forward. We want to keep targeting the bottom 20 per cent. We want to teach staff to know the strategies which work, stuff which early years teachers are more familiar with."


Iain Ireland, age 13, S2

Mrs Murray refers to Iain as the "simile king", a far cry from some months ago when, as Iain admits himself, his reading and writing weren't very good.

"I always used to get stuck on big words," he recalls. "I didn't want people to laugh at me, so I kept it to myself. I went into the literacy class thinking that they would laugh at me too, but they didn't know them either."

Iain enjoyed playing word games with similes, finding ways of using them, and also found ways of remembering compound words.

"The word `cupboard' I remember as `cup' and `board'," he explains.

As a keen artist, visual strategies have worked and Iain now writes cartoons for his little brother. His reading and writing have vastly improved.

"I didn't used to like reading but I do now and I read Horrible History books. I also find classes a lot easier," he says.

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