Where literacy means reading to learn

3rd March 1995 at 00:00
Seventy-five schools from infant to secondary are involved in the Essex Reading Project. Francis Beckett evaluates its success, two years on. Reading projects are supposed to tackle illiteracy, so it comes as a shock to find that the Essex Reading Project is being run right across the age range, from infant to secondary schools. Is this a confession of abject failure to teach reading when it ought to be taught? Not at all, says Peter Marshall, one of the country's education advisers responsible for running the scheme. "It depends what you mean by literacy."

He rejects the idea that by the time a child goes to secondary school, reading has somehow been "done". There is always more an 11-year-old can do with reading. Maggie Holmes, the learning development co-ordinator at Woodlands, an ll to 18 comprehensive in Basildon, says: "The project isn't about learning to read, it's about reading to learn."

The scheme is not run on lavish lines but, in its third year, 75 schools have thought it worthwhile to be involved: 55 primary, one special and 19 secondary. Woodlands' successful bid has brought it Pounds 700 a year to buy in-service training and some supply cover, allowing teachers to shadow each other and shadow pupils, finding out how children use their reading in every subject. "We shadowed pupils in Year 7 across the curriculum, looking at their reading distribution and access to text," says Maggie Holmes. One result is that the school has compiled, with the help of all subject teachers, a dictionary of words which children need to be able to read in each subject.

This is not the sort of work which yields quantifiable results. But Woodlands needs to improve its overall performance, and exam results have improved every year since 1990. Part of the credit goes to the Essex Reading Project. "We are very aware that at some stage we need to provide something quantifiable, " says project director Pat Baldry, in answer to a question she has clearly been asked dozens of times.

The scheme was launched, after all, with a clear brief to improve reading standards in response to claims by psychologists around the country in June 1990 that the results of seven-year-olds had declined dramatically. "Undoubtedly," says Pat Baldry remembering the story that broke in The TES, "that sent a cold wind through many town and county halls."

The gathering of hard data in terms of test results is not part of the current brief in Essex but, in individual schools, assessment and recording reading progress is an explicit aim and there is plenty of anecdotal evidence.

Research into classroom practice has always been a principal aim and this is firmly connected to teacher education; Homerton College, Cambridge, accredits the work of each teacher-co-ordinator in every school. As far back as l990 a primary literacy survey by Essex advisers highlighted five key issues, including teachers' need to know more about how children learn to read, and children's need to be taught "strategies to enable them to come to grips with unknown words or demanding texts". Now, in an interim evaluation, teachers have said their knowledge and understanding of how to teach reading has increased and that reading practice in their schools has changed.

The project is funded by the county council, Essex TEC and Longmans publishers. The TEC provided Pounds 16,000 the first year and Pounds 20, 000 the second, but this year the TEC said that its funding was "pump priming", the well-known code for "that's your lot". The county council provided its professional advisers to co-ordinate the project, plus Pounds 15,000 in the first year, nothing in the second year, and Pounds 20,000 in the third. Longmans provided Pounds 1,000 in the second year, Pounds 500 in the third year, as well as teaching materials.

LEA schools get Pounds 600 or more towards the cost of cover for teachers on project courses or other project work. (GM schools - and, being Essex, there are a lot of them - have to find the cost of cover themselves.) Each school pays Pounds 515 into the project to help pay its costs, and commits Pounds 1,200 from its own budget towards project work in the school. As time goes on, less money will be provided centrally and project schools will have to find a greater proportion out of their delegated budgets.

Each year schools bid to become project members for two years: one year of research in the classroom, and one for making use of the lessons learned in the research. Each chooses its own focus.

At Ryedene primary in Basildon, staff wanted to re-organise the way they presented books to children. "We wanted them to be able to select books at the right level and to know that, if they selected them at a lower level, they were doing it for a reason," says deputy head Sandie Gillard. The library now only houses non-fiction: fiction has gone into the classrooms.

The school started imaginative activities associated with reading, such as rewriting their book as a play, or designing a new front cover for it. Each day they have half-an-hour's quiet time for reading activities. Some will read to themselves, others play word games or read to each other, others do "shared reading", reading a page each.

Reading led to writing. Each class has a writing corner where all children can experiment, and each child from Year 3 upwards now keeps a journal. "It's a form of contact between teacher and child," says Ms Gillard. "It's not marked, not corrected for spelling or grammar. It's a way for the child to experiment with writing."

Some of the 10-year-olds showed me their journals. Rebecca had created a remarkably sophisticated crossword puzzle over Christmas, where every word had a Christmas theme. Barry had a long journal with many stories in it. It had obviously become a vehicle for all the ideas bubbling out of him and included a long story about a character called Junkman, who lived on a junk yard because he had been thrown out of his house at seven. Barry liked turning peoples' names around instantly, and introduced himself to me as Yrrab. "And this is my friend Lion." "Hallo, Neil," I said, but Barry noticed that it took me a few seconds. He asked me my name and wrote it down.

I left during their quiet reading half hour. The silence was suddenly punctuated by a cheerful shout from the other side of the room. "Bye, Sicnarf. " "Bye, Yrrab," I called back.

Helen Bromley, reception class teacher at Sunnymede Infants in Billericay, started running evening classes for parents on how children learn to read. Each course is one evening a week for six or seven weeks. That has helped the parents to teach their own children at home - and has provided Ms Bromley with a team of willing and able classroom helpers.

Every Tuesday morning, for the first hour-and-a-quarter, she has enough parents to give each of them a group of three children to read with. She goes round the groups making suggestions about new ways of doing things. Any other time parents can spare an hour, she finds them work in her classroom.

"It was one of the most exciting things I've done," she says. "I found out what parents can do. They have taught their children so much and then children come to school and parents feel disempowered. That is wrong. Why should they be shut out of their children's education?" Sunnymede parents are now organising a host of interesting reading games, inside and outside the classroom. Mrs Carol Simons showed me a cardboard pop-up book with pieces of material shapes which she had made for the children, called "Joe and Tom's Feelie Book.".

"Children round here have megadrives and computers and all that," says Ms Bromley. "But what they discover is that when Mum makes them something simple out of cardboard, it is still a big thing for them."

Ms Bromley believes that Essex's initiative has concentrated minds on reading and given both teachers and parents self-confidence. The parents in her class agree. "What I learned," says parent Nicky Styles, "is that the way I instinctively do it is the right way."

Fifty miles away at Harwich School, a grant-maintained school for 1,250 11 to 18s, building the confidence of readers and giving them public recognition - at "graduation evenings", for instance - is an explicit aim, firmly linked to whole school improvement. Increased time for reading, greater access to books, book trails through the town and other book "events" have all helped raise the profile and status of literacy in the past 18 months.

As well as a nominated governor and a teacher co-ordinator, the school has also employed 14 part-time learning support assistants. They have been trained in-house to give strategies to those in difficulty and to raise the confidence of others. The school has created a new pay scale for the assistants and expanded the scheme in September.

Simon Ross-Pierce, the co-ordinator, has seen reading ages leap by two-and-a-half years, and an increase in numbers of books borrowed from the library. "There are lots of ways of measuring success," says Mr Ross-Pierce, who has links with eight primary schools in the area and is even being invited to give talks at antenatal clinics to parents-to-be. "We know from experience that it's never too early to start."

Further information on the Essex Reading Project can be obtained from the Essex Language and Media Centre, EDDAS, Wickford, Essex SS11 7JZ.

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