'Nothing new, nothing magic'as rhymes instil basic skills
A nursery project in Lothian is "blowing away outdated ideas" about the unwritten nursery curriculum by demonstrating that children as young as four can learn the alphabet and acquire basic pre-reading skills through normal play activities.
A seminar on early intervention heard last week that the region now plans to use results from the project in its fight to eradicate alarming levels of illiteracy among children of primary school age.
The project, based in the nursery class of Leith primary, has shown that four-year-olds from an average city catchment area can make substantial advances in phonological awareness (the structure and sounds of words) and develop an awareness of print. Such areas of learning have traditionally been assumed to be the preserve of primary teachers.
Liz Reid, Lothian's director of education, said: "Staff have demonstrated to the satisfaction of teachers and the advisory service that they can pursue the development of alphabetic knowledge without altering the overall philosophy of nurseries. What is new is that this greater emphasis on pre-reading skills should be part and parcel of the working week in every nursery."
The findings had been welcomed by teachers and confirmed the direction they wanted to take, Mrs Reid said, and were "blowing away outdated ideas".
Linda Watson, a nursery teacher who has developed the strategy over the past three years with the help of two advisers from the region, told the seminar that she had done "nothing new, nothing magic", other than ensuring that all activities brought in the basics of pre-reading. She was merely replicating what happened normally in many middle-class homes, concentrating, for example, on nursery rhymes.
Ms Watson said research into early reading had indicated that such a strategy could be successful. "We were aware of the research and enthusiastic about it but nobody seemed to be applying this to the classroom," she commented. She was confident a strategy of early intervention would have important effects on the later stages of primary schooling.
Diane Pepper, a regional psychologist, added: "Most nurseries still focus on play aspects and less on emergent literacy. We see it as our duty to do something about it."
Ms Watson, a nursery teacher for 20 years, said substantial gains from the project were already evident. "I do not have any doubts about that and I do not need to wait for the research evidence. Expectations of what children can do in the pre-school setting are changing. The whole class of children regard themselves as readers and you can see their confidence and self-esteem. There are obviously different degrees but the sense is that they are children who can read."
Mrs Reid pointed out that surprisingly high numbers of children across Lothian struggle with literacy. That was why the region was reasserting the primacy of learning to read. She was not surprised that teachers with their minds on the 5-14 curriculum "sometimes took their eye off the ball".
One of the key messages from the seminar, which focused on the success of early intervention in reversing reading difficulties in the deprived Pilton area of Edinburgh, was the need for adult helpers in infant classes, Mrs Reid said. "It can make an enormous difference. We have to balance the need for additional resources with changes in professional practices and changes in teachers' expectations."