Putting down strong routes

27th October 2000 at 01:00
Dyslexia specialists are enthusiastic about a new approach to reading andwriting which allows pupils to follow different 'tracks'. Sue Palmer explains.

I first heard about Tracks Literacy from a friend who teaches in Hertfordshire, at one of the county's dyslexia bases. Apparently, a teacher at the Stevenage base kept getting better results than everyone else and, when asked, she explained she used a system devised by a teacher called Mary Charlton. Specialists from the other bases asked to see it, and before long Tracks Literacy was taken up across the county. More than a year later, Hertfordshire dyslexia specialists are still enthusiastic.

The same sort of grassroots acclaim has happened elsewhere - Hillingdon, Norfolk, Bedfordshire, Surrey, Berkshire - as one teacher introduces the system and others ask about it. Tracks Literacy is quite a demanding system to learn. "I've never used my brain so much in teaching," says one convert. But it appears to be both effective and exhilarating. Some notes by a passing inspector indicate the intensity of the teaching: "Teaching: super pace. V effective use of time and resources. Assessment ongoing ... Superb awareness of where pupils are struggling to progress ... High expectations - reflected in pupils' high expectations and confidence. Secures social development in groups V well. Focus on not comparing. V high quality relationships. Perfect behaviour and very focused attitude."

It took Mary Charlton more than 25 years to develop a teaching system of this quality, beginning in the early 1970s when she worked in a school for children with moderate learning difficulties. The headteacher, worried about pupils' poor reading skills, gave her pound;200 and a corner of the library to work out a way of raising literacy standards. She started from two working principles: first, every child can make progress and, second, always concentrate on the positive. The resulting programme is highly supportive for teachers, providing the structure and knowledge they need to seek out success and build on it. It also supports pupils: "Tracks Literacy makes learning both obvious and pleasurable for the children," says Mary Charlton. "It gives them achievable targets, the security of familiar techniques and routines, and the confidence of knowing that they'll proceed on their strengths rather than their weaknesses. They also have choice and responsibility so they're in charge of their own learning and this, of course, builds self-esteem."

But despite all her grass-roots support, she is unsure where to go next. Earlier this year, the Council for British Teachers (CfBT) offered to help her put the Tracks Literacy training programme on a more professional footing. But then it backed out, fearing it might conflict with the National Literacy Strategy, for which it is also responsible. "I can't see any conflict," she says. "Tracks Literacy is for the children with the greatest difficulties, and it gives them access to the literacy strategy."

If CfBT cannot take it on, it is difficult to see how Tracks Literacy can be disseminated more widely - other than through another management company. Conventional educational publishing is not an option. Although there are a number of teaching materials (and Mary Charlton is insistent that these must be carefully produced) Tracks is essentially a teaching system. It is therefore training intensive, but at present there is only one trainer. And anyway, she does not feel that the system is completely finished. "Tracks Literacy works for the vast majority of the pupils who use it, but all children are different and adjustments will always be necessary." She asks every teacher she trains to let her know about pupils for whom something does not work. "If we just keep improving our teaching," she says, "I beleve every child in primary or secondary school today can learn to read and write."

How does tracks work? Anyone who has worked with failing readers knows that no matter how good a course is, there always comes a point when the pupil sticks or loses interest. And once failure or boredom sets in, teaching becomes like drawing teeth. Most special needs teachers learn to pick and mix but there is always the worry that, by switching and swapping to keep pupils motivated, you are not maximising the strength of any of the schemes - their fundamental structure.

Tracks Literacy deals with this problem by providing a wide range of different but interrelated teaching routes. The structure is there, running through all the tracks, but each perspective is different, allowing the teacher to capitalise at all times on pupils' strengths. Teaching is in small groups, usually about four pupils, and individual children have a degree of choice as to which tracks they pursue in a lesson; then there are more choices available within the tracks. The child who is doing well on a particular track can proceed at a rattling pace; the one who is not doing well can change tack and try another way in. All this choice means that the system is complicated - but then, the learning of literacy skills is complicated: in Reading Recovery pioneer Marie Clay's famous phrase, we are dealing with "the patterning of complex behaviour". Tracks Literacy tries to provide a highly structured environment in which failing readers can "pick up" these patterns of complex behaviour in a similar way to their more favoured peers. There are Reading and Spelling Tracks, and within each there are meaning-based and code-based routes to learning. The Reading Tracks cover both phonetic decoding and reading for meaning:

* The Start Reading Words Track teaches the blending of CVC words for reading, leading into the Read Words Track, developing automaticity in reading words through the use of phonics.

* The Start Reading Track teaches pupils to read a selection of books independently for meaning, and leads into Multi-track Reading, in which pupils choose from a selection of books at an appropriate level, and read at their own pace.

The Spelling Tracks cover systematic phonics but also the spelling of words pupils require in their own writing:

* The Start Spelling Track teaches pupils to write 12 words from personalised sentences and leads into Spelling Chunks Tracks (1 and 2). These teach the spelling of vowel phonemes and "chunks" of words.

* The Write Words Track teaches pupils to spell individual words from their own writing and links them to related spelling words.

* The Rules Tracks (1 and 2) teach pupils to write words which conform to easily identifiable rules.

While all these tracks run alongside each other, the system for teaching is consistent across them. Children will encounter particular spelling patterns many times, through a variety of tracks. The child who thoroughly learns that pattern while proceeding down one track will whizz through it on others, experiencing the motivation of success. The child who does not quite take in the pattern first time round will have many further opportunities to meet it, each one coming at the problem from a slightly different perspective.

Mary Charlton's theory is that as children proceed down any track until they reach a "learning ceiling" they are filling in gaps in their mental network of knowledge and understanding. As more gaps are filled and connections made, progress down all the tracks becomes increasingly fluent.

Sue Palmer, a former teacher, worked for many years with dyslexic pupils. She is now a freelance writer and literacy consultant

More about Tracks from Mary Charlton, 23 Queen's Road, Windsor SL4 3BQ

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