When pupils are teachers

30th August 1996 at 01:00
Sandra Dunbar on a paired reading scheme with a difference. It makes you feel like a teacher." This was Claire's reaction to her experience on a paired reading scheme with a difference.

Thursday afternoons are paired reading time for pupils in S1 and S2 at Lanark Grammar School - they work with seniors from S5 and S6 to improve their skills. Last year, 10 of the S1 group were given the chance to take part in an interesting extension to the usual scheme. Would they be prepared themselves to act as tutors and help pupils from a local primary? Despite some initial reservations - "What if their books are too hard for us?"; "What if they don't do what we say?" - all agreed to give it a try.

So from January to May, staff from Robert Owen Memorial Primary accompanied a group of their own pupils who were finding reading difficult, bringing them to Lanark Grammar on Thursdays to be paired with their S1 seniors.

The experiment was organised jointly by staff from the learning support department at Lanark Grammar and from Strathclyde University Department of Special Educational Needs, who were interested to see how far the S1 pupils would benefit from the added responsibility. Would the research evidence that the tutors as well as the tutees gain from such schemes be borne out in practice?

Formal assessments are still underway, but already it is clear that, if judged in terms of pupil motivation and enjoyment, the scheme was a great success. Gordon Murray, a member of the area network support team, attached to Lanark Grammar, reports that throughout the project he had continually to reassure the S1 group that their primary pupils would return. "Are they coming again this Thursday?" was the constant refrain and he had no difficulty with absences from his willing tutors, most of whom took their responsibility very seriously and were genuinely enthusiastic.

As the group included pupils who were far from the "school prefect" image, their attitudes sometimes took staff by surprise. During the first afternoon, one pupil who settled down side by side with his tutee was observed to have stayed in one place for a record period of time since his arrival at secondary!

For the pupils from Robert Owen Memorial Primary it became a high point of the week. In fact, the threat of removal from the scheme proved an effective sanction. They felt very grown up going regularly to the "big" school and grew in confidence in their ability to cope when the time for transfer came.

As both school serve the same close community, many of the pupils knew each other and strong links have been forged which could be a source of future support. All of the primary pupils presented beau-tiful hand-made thank you cards to their tutors at the end of the scheme.

Staff from both schools welcomed the opportunity to build contact between the schools and discuss the progress of individual pupils. Once the pairs were settled, they were able to withdraw and spend time together.

Perhaps the most telling evidence of success is the commitment of staff to continue the pilot into another year. Now that the research constraints of forming a truly random sample group of tutors have been removed, future schemes will probably take care to select less challenging role models from the secondary pupils.

However, they will continue to be chosen from those who are themselves on the receiving end of the standard paired reading scheme. As they have been identified as having difficulties with their own reading, they might not normally be selected for positions of responsibility - especially when it involves responsibility for the learning of younger pupils. As Gordon Murray puts it: "You usually turn to the blazer and tie brigade."

The pioneers of S1 at Lanark Grammar proved that they had much more to offer than anyone expected. They realised themselves that they knew, from their own experience, what made a good tutor. You had to be there and not disappoint people. You had to listen and let your pupil go "at their own pace". You had to find a quiet place so that nobody else heard mistakes when you were reading out loud. You had to take time to let your "pupil" choose a book that they wanted. Sometimes, when their charges didn't behave, or didn't pay attention, they suddenly realised what it might be like to be on the other side.

Just maybe, they will have learned more lessons from being the teachers than they could ever have done by always being pupils.

Sandra Dunbar is a lecturer in special needs, Jordanhill campus, Strathclyde University

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