More in store for young readers

7th June 2013 at 01:00
The people of Dunbar are making it their business to encourage children to read and improve literacy, as Emma Seith reveals

When Lindsey Barley, a support for learning teacher at Dunbar Primary in East Lothian, read an Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development report entitled Reading for Change, one element in particular struck a chord. The point being made was that reading for pleasure is key to improving performance in literacy. Inspired, she created a scheme that transformed an entire town.

But while the idea of teachers facilitating this reading for pleasure was great in theory, in reality it wasn't going to be practical. More than 1,000 students attend Dunbar Primary and in P1 alone there are seven classes.

"In a class of 33, if the teacher reads with each child for 10 extra minutes a week, that's over a day of teaching gone," Mrs Barley says. "Reading is crucial, but it is one of many essential skills to be taught."

So she came up with the project Dunbar Reads Together, which was launched last August, where literacy is not just the responsibility of the school but the whole town. It was designed to show that reading was not only a school-based activity but to be enjoyed in personal time too.

At the heart of the initiative was a 25-week reading programme in which every child in the school had to identify an adult who would read with them regularly. The adult, child and school then entered into a contract guaranteeing that they would read together for at least 20 minutes a week, but ideally for three 20-minute sessions a week.

After five weeks of the scheme, the child was rewarded with a bright yellow lanyard on which they proudly displayed the title of the latest book they were reading; after 15 weeks, they received a yellow and red wristband as a token of their achievement; and after 25 weeks, they were given giant badges proclaiming "I did it!".

Dunbar Reads Together has involved 34 local organisations, including businesses and sports clubs, which were asked to do two things: interact with the children about books at every opportunity and volunteer to read with those children who had no one to read with at home. Ultimately, more than 30 of the children in the 25-week programme did this as a result of volunteers helping out.

Mrs Barley says: "Often there are good reasons for parents being unable to read with their children at home - it's not just children from deprived backgrounds who are affected. There could be a new baby in the house or Dad could be working shifts and reading just goes by the board.

"We asked the people already working with children, who had of course been vetted, to start reading with them. For instance, we asked the Brownies if we could send four girls along half an hour before they usually meet to read with the four leaders."

Meanwhile, the rest of the town - from the shop assistants in the local Asda to the waiters in Italian restaurant Umberto's - also donned yellow lanyards advertising what they were reading, to spark conversations with children about books. This led to some interesting chats when Fifty Shades of Grey was at the height of its popularity, Mrs Barley recalls, laughing.

Others went a step further. At the Dunbar Medical Centre, Dr Neil Black set up a reading corner; depute railway station manager Moran Yates arranged for a bookshelf to be set up in Dunbar railway station and displayed a map created by Dunbar Primary marking the town's "reading hot spots"; the Brownies decided to complete their Book Lover's badge and the local bike shops ran cycling events to encourage reading.

This year, the project was given a further boost by a Switch Off And Read campaign in which people in the town were encouraged to switch off their televisions, computers and mobile phones and read one of three books instead: The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd; Billionaire Boy by David Walliams; and The Highway Rat by Julia Donaldson. Then, in April, there was a flash reading in Asda when P6 students turned up unannounced and read in the aisles.

The result is that performance is "well up" across the range of tools used by the school to measure literacy achievement, Mrs Barley says.

In January, outside approval came when HMIE carried out an inspection of the learning community surrounding Dunbar Grammar School. The inspectors commented on "the outstanding levels of volunteering" in the town and singled out the Dunbar Reads Together project for praise. It had had "a measurable impact on improving children's abilities in reading and literacy", the inspectorate's report said.

As a result of this success, the town now plans to turn its attention to numeracy with the launch of Dunbar Counts Together. Then they will return for another 12 months of Dunbar Reads Together.


Dr Susan Ellis, a researcher in literacy at the University of Strathclyde, says of the Dunbar Reads Together project: "This is a wonderful initiative that is capturing the hearts, minds and imaginations of a whole community. It recognises that reading is a social practice, not just

an individual event, and that people who are passionate about books create the next generation of readers."

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