Zoning in on reading

28th August 2009 at 01:00
Workshops help parents and pupils to get to grips with literacy

Literacy is a touchy subject. The inability to read carries a terrible stigma and the term "illiterate" is often wielded with disdain.

So it was understandable that Debbie Gardner was a little nervous when she broached the idea of evening literacy workshops for some S1 pupils and their parents. "A few parents did phone to say, `Oh my goodness, what's this'?" says the English teacher at Greenwood Academy in Dreghorn, North Ayrshire.

Since last November, Mrs Gardner has been literacy co-ordinator at the school near Irvine, a role which takes up two days a week. The school has a wide-ranging plan to improve literacy for all its pupils. She explored the idea of the workshops after headteacher Christine McGuire underlined her determination to get parents more involved.

The informal hour-long sessions ran last year for 10 weeks from January to April. Mrs Gardner was not targeting the most struggling pupils, but those who, having moved into S1, found it difficult to move up from level D to level E literacy. While certain pupils were identified as likely to benefit, involvement was voluntary. The group started with about 15 parents plus children, but there were six or seven families who came regularly.

Mrs Gardner had just completed a residential course on critical skills, which were central to the workshops. They prioritised learning through collaboration, real-life experiences and problem-solving.

Crucial to the workshops are the idea of three reading "zones". The comfort zone includes any reading material a pupil finds easy, while the danger zone is anything overly difficult; neither will encourage learning. The learning zone is in the middle: anything which the pupil will enjoy and get through, but will also find challenging.

Mrs Gardner explains the three zones by asking the group to consider three activities: shaking hands with the person next to you - comfort zone; using the internet to find out three facts about Brad Pitt - learning zone; acting out a scene from Romeo and Juliet without preparation - danger zone.

The concept blows apart conventional hierarchies of literature. As Mrs Gardner makes clear, whatever the intrinsic merits of Jane Austen, children will gain nothing from Emma or Pride and Prejudice if they are too often in their danger zone.

The value of reading materials is assessed instead by "whether the pupils challenged themselves as they read". This, Mrs Gardner explains, could make football magazines and graphic novels acceptable reading materials. "Children don't like to be told what to read," she says, so they should be able to choose what they read - as long as it is not in the comfort zone.

The first five workshops concentrate on reading (the last five are more about writing). Parents often have little idea of their children's reading capabilities. They do not appreciate the difficulties of dealing with the frequent use of "archaic terms" at level E and, often wrongly, assume their children can use the context to work out their meaning.

They are "shocked" when presented with the difference between vocabulary at level D and level E, which, Mrs Gardner explains, drives home an important point: "If pupils don't read at home and pick up these extra words, they're going to find it extremely difficult to pass level E."

The workshops involve lots of tasks where parents and pupils must do some research - including "home challenges" - before reporting back. This might involve finding reading material that fits each of the three zones.

Final projects demand research on a grander scale: they should be written to level E standard, and include sources showing where facts were gleaned about cats, the Second World War and traditional Scottish musical instruments.

"The end result was that parents had a better idea of their children's reading skills," says Mrs Gardner.

The workshops, which cost about pound;500 to run, were funded mainly by the school's parent council last year. This year, Mrs Gardner has decided to run them for S1-2 on alternate fortnights. Learning and Teaching Scotland has provided support and will also contribute a chunk of the costs.

Mrs Gardner's wider brief to improve literacy throughout the school will involve every teacher and every department.

A literacy conference in May, organised by an S1 English class for P7 pupils from nearby Lawthorn Primary, highlighted literacy in home economics, science, technical subjects and guidance. In home economics, pupils learned about the importance of following cooking instructions accurately, and made biscuits emblazoned with capital letters and semi- colons.

Mrs Gardner says the plethora of platforms for informal writing online - Bebo, Facebook, MSN, emails, texting and so on - means pupils are losing the ability to spell, punctuate and write formally. But she also feels they make writing mistakes in other subjects that they would not make in English, because they know they will not be penalised.

English "cannot be the only time and place where accurate written work is encouraged and rewarded", she says. She wants to establish a system of support for teachers of other subjects, which will include simplifying the Curriculum for Excellence literacy outcomes.

The comments of one mum emphasised the challenge that lies ahead: "My son can spot an apostrophe or a semi-colon at 20 paces, but asking him to use it in his own writing is a different matter."

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