Write approach to literacy

19th May 2000 at 01:00
The fan's blown over the paint, Miss It's gone all over the floor My sister scribbled on my jotter, Miss There's someone at the door I can't find my rubber, Miss I've made a big mistake The computer disk's snapped in two, Miss It must've been a fake My pen's have all stopped working, Miss I can't do my colouring in My ruler isn't straight, Miss So I put it in the bin I've forgotten my times tables, Miss The seven, eight and nine I can't do my maths, Miss So ... can we take a new line?

Bethan Stoner, P7, Milngavie Primary.

Primary pupils in East Dunbartonshire are becoming authors. Michael McLaughlin reports on what's behind their success

Jess Runciman has written three books. Her latest is The Magic Box, a fantasy adventure that is a weave of wizards, a goblin called Parsnip and a main character called Druna who cooks using magic herbs. Juliana Vietes has written a pamphlet giving advice on best use of pocket money, and Bethan Stoner writes poetry. All three are pupils of primary schools in East Dunbartonshire.

This is not only encouraging, it seems remarkable until the big picture is revealed, showing that all 10,571 pupils in East Dunbartonshire's primaries are engaged in developing their skills as authors and that Jess's, Juliana's and Bethan's achievements are the norm in this authority.

Every primary teacher in the authority has taken part in three days of staff development on the teaching of writing. The programme began in May 1998, when all the primary headteachers met and agreed that they would all focus on writing as part of their school development plans.

"The decision was a response to the Standards and Quality in Scottish Schools 1992-1995 report," explains Jan Pollok, educational development officer. "The idea that we could have 600 teachers hearing the same message and sharing the same experiences came from the authority's steering group on writing, which was composed of classroom teachers, headteachers and representatives from the educational development team and support teams."

"The concept of having 600 teachers present at the same conference to hear international speakers and to take part in workshops was a very bold one," says Christine Symington, head of educational development in East Dunbartonshire, "but it has been a stunning success."

The first conference, in October 1998, was concerned with the big issues in writing. The second, in February 1999, was more focused on learning and teaching approaches. The final conference, last September, concentrated on the resources the authority can provide to support the teachers.

"We consciously started with the teachers and ended with resources," says Margot Cram, headteacher of Lenzie primary, "because we are committed to the principle that the teachers' expertise and understanding is central to the success of their work.

"We want our teachers to be professionals and not merely technicians who plough their wa through a scheme of work. The metacognitive start to the development was crucial to its success."

Inspiration was supplied by speakers such as Nigel Hall and Ray Barker - recognised gurus in the field of literacy. The learning and teaching issues were addressed by a large team of contributors, including Gill Friel, Eleanor Gavienas and Sue Ellis, who was the consultant throughout the initiative.

Ms Ellis, who works from the Jordanhill campus of Strathclyde University, says: "This has been a really exciting initiative. I work with many authorities in Scotland, but this is the only one that I have seen that has tackled a development on that scale.

"A good deal of the success is due to the fact that both headteachers and class teachers received professional development together. This enabled the heads to become a driving force in taking the initiative forward, because they understand what the learning and teaching issues are."

The steering group has now published a 50-page writing handbook for the authority's teachers, which sets out the philosophy and approach to teaching and learning writing and spells out specific teaching aims and resources. It has been distributed to every primary teacher and secondary English department.

The most remarkable outcome of the initiative is the improvement of the children's writing and their understanding of themselves as authors.

"They just don't see it as work," reports Isabel Robb, headteacher of Gartconner Primary in Kirkintilloch. "In our exit poll of last year's P7 pupils as they transferred to secondary, the work on writing was consistently identified by them as the most enjoyable that they had done."

Christine Sutherland, educational development officer for school improvement, says: "When I listen to teachers discussing their teaching in terms of the technicalities of the 5-14 programme, talking knowledgeably and comfortably about character development, setting and the writing process, then I know this has been a phenomenal success."

Phyllis Finnie, head of Colquhoun Park Primary in Bearsden, puts the success down to the fact that the programme "has raised the teachers' expectations of what the children are capable of and raised the children's expectations of themselves".

Elizabeth McKenna, Margaret Bryden and Jill Hamilton, teachers at Lairdsland Primary in Kirkintilloch, Glasgow, say that staff are "extremely motivated and stimulated by the initiative".

As far as Jess, Juliana, Bethan and the other 10,568 authors in East Dunbartonshire's primary schools are concerned, writing is fun and very important to them.

Peter Schrag, the American educationist, wrote: "The longest distance in the world is between an official I curriculum policy and what goes on in the mind of a child." In East Dunbartonshire that distance has been bridged.

Michael McLaughlin is an educational development officer with East Dunbartonshire

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