Reading writ large
It is Thursday morning and John Carr, head of mathematics at St George's Community School, Bristol, is warming up his class. Sitting in a horseshoe of desks, the dozen 12 to 13-year-olds each has a book open, but the lesson has nothing to do with maths. The children are looking at a phonics reading exercise. The teacher points to a set of letters: "nevery" and asks them to cover up the "y" with their fingers and say out loud the word that is left.
Down the corridor, another group, led by the technology teacher, is involved in a similar exercise. In fact for eight lessons in every fortnight - 20 per cent of curriculum time - the entire Year 8 cohort of this inner-city comprehensive gathers in small U-shaped groups, led by teachers of a variety of disciplines, to develop their literacy.
Each group is graded, with the balance of the work shifting according to ability. The least able groups focus mainly on basic phonics instruction and spelling practice, while the top groups tackle more demanding comprehension, grammar and writing tasks. One of the eight lessons is used to brush up on numeracy.
"The aim," says Helen Salmon, the school's director of achievement, "is to make sure all pupils can do better in their standard assessment tasks - and to take good students to the threshold of doing well. Poor reading is a barrier to achievement."
Much has been made in recent months of how poor reading, spelling and numeracy, particularly in inner-city schools, are undermining standards across the curriculum and are linked to bad behaviour among boys - witness the Office for Standards in Education's report, The Teaching of Reading in 45 Inner London Schools. The Social Market Foundation's analysis of results from tests on 500,000 11-year-olds also provided cause for concern, criticising the wide variation in attainment between best and worst-performing primaries.
In response the Government has set up a series of literacy centres - one of them in Bristol - aiming to improve teaching methods in primary schools. But secondaries, which inherit the problem as pupils move on from primary school, may see little benefit for some years.
St George's is in a deprived area where unemployment was running at 45 per cent the last time it was measured and the immigrant population - mainly Asian - is high. Forty-one per cent of pupils qualify for free school meals and almost one in three know English as a second language.
Faced with a particularly problematic Year 7 intake last year, in which 60 per cent of pupils were two or more years behind in reading and spelling - and 12 pupils had no functional literacy at all - headteacher Ray Priest decided it was time for radical action.
"We have seen there's a dramatic problem with reading ability within this age group," he says. "This is a real attempt to do something."
The goal is to improve the reading ability of last year's Year 7 by two years before July, by combining direct, structured literacy instruction with the creation of a reading culture throughout the school. The latter he hopes to achieve by:
* having non-teaching staff - secretaries, caterers and the caretaker - as well as parents and sixth-formers, adopt a child and listen to him or her reading aloud for 10 to 15 minutes twice a week; * setting aside time each day when everyone in the school, teachers and pupils alike, will read to him or herself; * maintaining up-to-date, attractive reading materials in box libraries for every class for this purpose; * Giving each child a book a term to take home and read for pleasure.
Part of the encouragement is a points scheme - children gain five points for carrying out a decoding exercise correctly or for reading a book at home and talking about it with the teacher. Points can earn a discount in the school tuck shop, cinema vouchers and, most prized, a shield.
The project will be repeated with successive intakes at an annual cost of roughly Pounds 25,000, of which Pounds 22,000 goes on the effective doubling of staff for the periods when the year group is broken up into 12 smaller groups.
The book give-aways are funded by the Reading Is Fundamental project (run by the National Literacy Trust) at a cost of Pounds 500. Disaffected boys are targeted by a link-up with the local football club, Bristol City, which has sent its leading goal scorer, Bermudan Shaun Goater, and several other players down to the school to hand out the books and talk about the need for children to keep studying even if they are good at sport.
There are two unusual aspects of the literacy programme: the way substantial time has been taken from across the curriculum, using teachers from a range of subjects to focus on literacy; and the fact that it is being carried out with pupils of all abilities, in small streamed groups, rather than just the 15 or so poorest achievers.
In the lowest group, where one child has a reading age of just over six, special needs co-ordinator Shirley Stevenson uses sustained direct instruction on the structure of language and words, complemented by lighter work using literacy games such as a phonic version of "snap". In the advanced groups - highest reading age 15.3 - internally produced resources containing reading and writing exercises geared to curriculum subjects are used to enrich literacy.
"There's a strong feeling that if we are committed to comprehensive education, we must want all kids to succeed," Helen Salmon says. "As an English teacher, in the other six schools I have taught in I have never been able to get these issues taken seriously across the curriculum. It's sometimes seen as being the English department's job. But people need to think about the readability of texts whatever their speciality. They have accepted that here."
Ray Priest admits the huge slice of curriculum time devoted to literacy might be an inspection issue, but he is prepared to defend it. "Being able to work and read will give children so much more access to the rest of the national curriculum," he argues. "So I would be prepared to put my head on the block. "