When it comes to reluctant readers, sharing is the name of the game

26th June 2009 at 01:00
This year's Royal Mail Scottish Children's Book Awards involved more than 2,500 pupils in a paired reading scheme

When a young child exclaims "Make the project go on forever!" and another pleads "Keep it the way it is!", teachers need to sit up and listen.

That is precisely what staff at the Scottish Book Trust, and Crerar Hotels which funded the paired reading project for last year's Royal Mail Scottish Children's Book Awards, have done. But they also got an education consultancy to evaluate what made the project so successful, and how they could build on it.

Around 2,500 children were involved in the paired reading scheme last year, almost half the 5,540 who voted for the award winners. In 50 schools in Edinburgh, Moray, North Ayrshire, Falkirk and Aberdeen, reluctant readers in P6-7 were paired with P1s and 2s to read picture books together, and their teachers were as enthusiastic as they were.

"The children are normally very wary of reading, but these books have captured them," said one P6-7 teacher of pupils with additional support needs.

"I've seen children in a new light, children I had underestimated perhaps," said a project co-ordinator.

The Royal Mail awards, which are sponsored by The TESS, have been an enormous success across the whole of Scotland, involving thousands of children in reading three books in their own age category - from toddlers' picture books to teenage thrillers - then judging and voting for the winners each November. The shortlist of nine from which they choose is pre-selected by an adult panel from 50 to 60 books published that year, so these are the very best of contemporary Scottish children's literature.

The paired reading pilot was part of a push to include reluctant readers and was deemed a success by education consultancy Creative Contexts. Each of the 50 schools had a co-ordinating teacher and the children fared best, it found, when a well-briefed teacher worked with them.

The older children would rehearse their reading and work out which questions they might ask and how they could engage their younger partner. In some cases, they also planned additional activities relating to the books, from making sunglasses to designing T-shirts and monsters, or making menus and drawing pictures.

Overall, the researcher concluded: "The RMA paired reading project offers a powerful way to enthuse and engage pupils in learning, giving them confidence as readers and encapsulating much that is advocated by A Curriculum for Excellence; it is an approach that deserves to be widely shared."

So sharing is the name of the game this year. In January, the chance to take part in what is now called the "shared reading scheme" (because the emphasis is on the older child as reader), was thrown open to all 32 authorities. Twelve applied and five were selected - Angus, Glasgow, Argyll and Bute, East Renfrewshire and South Ayrshire. "Ten schools will take part in each authority - the same age group," says Anna Gibbons, children's programme manager at the book trust, "although some may involve S1 reading to primary".

Each of the five authorities has been given 150 free books, 50 copies of each shortlisted picture book - Manfred the Baddie by John Fardell, Pink! By Lynne Rickards and Margaret Chamberlain, and Stick Man by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler.

In addition, this year, the five authorities are receiving continuing professional development for 30 to 40 teachers and drama sessions for three schools. "All the CPD is twilight sessions, so there are no cover costs," says Ms Gibbons. They are delivered by Catherine Howells, a former teacher who wrote the research report. She will explain to teachers what they need to do to engage the older child in the story. The teacher then goes back to school and selects anything from two to 25 P6-7s, preferably ones who are less keen on reading."

The book trust tries to encourage both the P1 and the P6-7 teacher to come along, so that they learn how to work together, says Ms Gibbons.

The CPD has already taken place in two authorities - Angus and Glasgow. The other three courses will run in the autumn, as will the drama sessions.

These will involve practitioner Pam Wardell doing a two-hour session with older kids to choose their favourite book, explains Ms Gibbons. "So for two hours they will be bringing it to life. In Angus, younger pupils will view their performance before the older kids come into their classrooms and read to them."

The hope this year is that the schools and children will be as enthused as last year's participants, and that the practice will spread. Two of the authorities which took part in 2008, Falkirk and North Ayrshire, are continuing the scheme, says Ms Gibbons, even though they won't receive any more funding.

Other schools can benefit too. Although most of the Pounds 26,500 funding from Crerar goes to the five authorities taking part in the shared reading, the remainder is paying for hundreds of free picture books for schools (outside those authorities) that want them. There are 100 sets on offer, 30 of which are still waiting to be claimed. Any schools wishing to receive three sets of the three pictures books should register on the Scottish Book Trust website.

"Last year, the P7s really enjoyed their new relationship with the little kids, and vice versa," says Ms Gibbons. "It improved primary school children's attitudes to books and reading, younger and older ones. That's got to be good."


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