Split that makes the difference

24th October 2003 at 01:00
The ideas of an American school set headteacher Sandra MacKenzie thinking about how she could improve early years literacy

A friend and retired colleague had been talking about her American grandchildren and the primary induction arrangements in place in their school. These chance remarks soon set in motion new arrangements in my South Lanarkshire school.

Half the American children come into their school at 8am and work until noon. The other half come in at 9am and work until 1pm. The "early birds" concentrate on reading from 9am-10am and the "late birds" from noon until 1pm.

Although I couldn't do anything about the times my first years attend Kirktonholme Primary, which has a roll of 415, I could, I reckoned, do something about the organisation of their morning.

One of my depute heads and I had been very concerned about the reports on the underachievement of boys and she had conducted some research on our boys, looking in particular at their national test attainment in reading and their spelling ages.

In Primary 7 the number of girls who were performing as expected for their age or abovewas 34.5 per cent, compared to 27.6 per cent of boys. The number of girls underachieving was 17.2 per cent and for boys the figure was 20.7 per cent.

The differences were not big but there was a distinct pattern across the year groups in the results for reading as well as spelling. Our boys were in general underachieving compared to our girls. We did have one P1 boy who passed his level A reading test in May but he was the classic exception.

We had looked at synthetic phonics as a pointer towards how we could improve teaching phonics to the boys.

Staff who had recently introduced Heinemann's Storyworlds reading scheme to the P1 classes were keen to have more class lessons at the start but this had resource implications for an already overstretched budget. The school had also introduced Literacy World, Heinemann's scheme for junior pupils, in P4. Both schemes were due to move into P2 and P5 this session and we just couldn't afford to buy enough single copies of the readers for the new intake of P1 pupils to allow them all to be on the same book.

The Scottish Executive's home reading initiative came to our rescue. We applied for a grant and were absolutely delighted to be awarded pound;1,000.

And so at Kirktonholme Primary we have been running our own version of the "early birds" and "late birds" arrangement. The children receive their initial teaching input on phonics and reading in gender groups; and initially the emphasis with the boys was on Fast Phonics First, the Fife teaching pack on synthetic phonics.

We timetabled our cluster cover teacher and two school support assistants to work with our P1 pupils every morning. We intend to teach language at the same time every morning (11am until noon) and will continue to teach the boys separately from the girls until Christmas. We will review the programme then.

Already there have been some refinements. My other depute head, returning from maternity leave, brought her extensive experience as an infant teacher to bear on the proposals. As a result, we did not issue the girls with a reading book before the boys. They all got their first reading book to take home at the end of September. They had already become familiar with the vocabulary and word tins were sent home.

She advised that we should continue to use Jolly Learning's Jolly Phonics reading scheme but use the synthetic phonics approach with the boys. The Fife pack is being kept as a support for learning resource if there are any children who fail with Jolly Phonics.

In addition the P1 staff have all been on phonological awareness training.

We are all very excited about the project. We know that it will be a long haul but hopefully in seven years' time our statistics will tell a different story.

Sandra MacKenzie is headteacher of Kirktonholme Primary in East Kilbride

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