A literacy programme for primary pupils in one of Scotland's most deprived authorities is showing a dramatic shift in attainment, with national test results for writing up 10 per cent from 70 to 80 per cent, and reading up to nearly 88 per cent from 82 per cent, in six years.
Its latest intervention programme, targeted at pupils with additional support needs, has seen pupils' reading age rise by 11 months (in just under a year), compared with six months for a control group.
Senior educational psychologist Nancy Ferguson told The TESS that, after expansion to all primaries in four phases, North Lanarkshire's Active Literacy programme was moving most children into average and above-average literacy scores.
"But some children still need some extra support and we felt we needed to look for something more systematically embedded within literacy teaching for them," she said.
For those "struggling" pupils, the ASL programme breaks reading down into very small steps and trains teachers and support staff in how to do this.
It offers a range of interventions based on literacy research, cautioning that "no one method is suitable for all children". Approaches include the team's adaptation of synthetic phonics, writing, dictation and tactile work using magnetic boards, plasticine and other media.
All pupils use a number of strategies, such as different-coloured pencils for practising writing (rainbow spelling), "cheer" spelling (making different body shapes to match different letters), and "echo" spelling (when a pupil partner echoes the same body shapes back to underline the method).
With ASL children, there is a particular focus on "play-learning" and small, achievable targets.
Tricia Wilson, one of North Lanarkshire's quality improvement officers, who has led the Active Literacy programme since its inception five years ago, said: "There are fewer falling behind the average level and fewer at the bottom."
She believes schools are now encountering far more children with major difficulties from the outset.
"They are watching more television and not doing enough personal reading. They need all these interventions on basic literacy, so it is a big job," she said.
Evaluation of children in the four phases of the project so far suggests that the progress shown in early primary has not been "washed out" as has tended to happen in some earlier literacy programmes.
- Children in phase one showed a five-point higher reading score than those in a control group when they were in P3 and a six-point higher score in P4;
- When pupils in phase two were compared with the control group in P2, only 8 per cent were in the lower levels of reading attainment compared with 21 per cent in the control group;
- When children in phases one and two and the control group were tested in P3, using the Neale Analysis (an in-depth measurement of reading accuracy, comprehension and rate), those in phase two scored highest in all three measures, probably because the teachers were more experienced;
- Analysis of almost 20 hours of film footage of staff teaching literacy revealed that Active Literacy teachers spent less time dealing with behaviour and more engaging with pupils and extending their learning.
St Brigid's Primary in Newmains is in a fairly deprived area. Many pupils arrive with little familiarity with books.
The school has piloted the Active Literacy programme for pupils with additional support needs and was praised by HMIE for its literacy work.
One effect of improved language has been better numeracy, "because children had a better comprehension of text", said head Karen Somerville. They were more confident with the wordier problems in national tests.
St Brigid's results have shown improvements across the board:
- Reading: 2006, 89 per cent; 2007, 91 per cent; 2008, 93.4 per cent;
- Writing: 2006, 66 per cent; 2007, 82 per cent; 2008, 85.8 per cent;
- Maths: 2006, 72 per cent; 2007, 80 per cent; 2008, 91.5 per cent.
In early years in particular, there is team-teaching, and pupils who need support receive it from a combination of teachers and assistants. There is a visiting support teacher who comes three mornings a week to benchmark and track the children's literacy.
There are various stages of intervention. Level one involves assessing children's progress and assigning them to ability groups; level two involves more support, eg "rainbow writing" (colours help pupils memorise them), tackling common word strategies with spelling, focusing on phonemes, etc. Then there is one-to-one work. If teachers feel a pupil is slipping, they put him or her on a six to eight-week programme of 20 minutes a day with the principal teacher or other identified staff, four days a week. Those in the red group (who need most support) are targeted with specific strategies.
"Really skilled teachers take them and look at what phonemes they know, which elements of the alphabet they know, all through fun and activities. They know when they are withdrawn into a group or they have teachers working alongside the class teacher, it's a quality time for them," said Mrs Somerville.
One girl, who was working towards Level B when she entered P6 and was put in a group for novels, had previously found them so challenging she had never read one but benefited from the group's social interaction. Teachers used spelling routines with her - she loved cheer spelling - and by the time she left P7, she was working towards Level D, having moved up two levels in two years.