Reading at the double

18th April 1997 at 01:00
A #163;2.5 million local authority-funded literacy project has helped pupils to improve their reading skills twice as quickly as their peers in a deprived area of south London.

In its first year Labour-controlled Lewisham's Literacy 2000 scheme has emphasised high-quality training for teachers and classroom helpers, focused work with specific groups of children, parent involvement and raising the status of reading in schools. Unlike the Government's flagship National Literacy Project, which tells teachers what to teach in a highly-detailed term-by-term programme, Literacy 2000 does not prescribe methodology or content.

Politicians from both the Labour and Conservative parties have been leaning towards more prescription in basic skills teaching.

Figures, validated by the National Foundation for Educational Research, show that targeted Lewisham pupils in their first year of secondary school increased their scores on a standardised reading test by 4.5 points over the 1995-96 school year, while the average for their peers was 2.2. Meanwhile, an independent evaluation by Exeter University said measurable improvements in six-year-olds' literacy skills were "significant ", while in the nursery they were "outstanding". Seventy-one nursery children with language delay increased their overall scores on the Early Reading Record by 270 per cent; the local authority had set a target of only 50 per cent based on previous literacy projects in Lewisham.

Project director Karen Feeney said: "What's unique about Literacy 2000 - and what has made it successful - is that we've brought together a range of different strategies into a single project. We're not pushing any particular method. Emphasis is being put on good management of literacy in schools." Careful planning and monitoring were crucial, she said. Teachers were given training in a rich range of skills and approaches.

The project costs about #163;700 per pupil in the first year and #163;120 each year thereafter. Lewisham claims it is the biggest local authority-funded literacy project in the UK, costing #163;2.5 million over five years. A different part of the borough is being targeted each year, with all schools reached by 2000. Each participating school sets its own targets against LEA goals.

An evaluation by David Wray of Exeter and Susan Rogers of Reading University credits the use of high-quality assistants, the quality of the training for both assistants and teachers (who were paid to attend weekend courses), raising the status of literacy in schools and strong leadership for its success. They say schools achieved equally good results by different methods.

Most schools made strenuous efforts to develop pupils' enjoyment of reading, setting up clubs, using book weeks and shared reading, and employing enticing features like the authority's story tent. "This attention to pupils' motivation for reading seemed, to judge from the test results achieved by those schools which foregrounded it, to have made a positive contribution to literacy development," says the report.

However, another school used a highly-structure d approach achieving "no less impressive" results. "This is an important piece of evidence which suggests that, in successful teaching of literacy, even to children who have experienced difficulties, it is not teaching methodology which is of paramount importance." It also provides evidence of the "autonomy within a structure of accountability" approach which the project director has sought to implement, they say.

The project was less effective in schools where it had low status. They also warn that good results can be expected in the first year of any project. "What is of major interest now is whether that success can be maintained over a longer period. "

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