'They learn so much so quickly'

West Dunbartonshire aims to eradicate illiteracy in the socially disadvantaged authority by changing attitudes and motivating children and parents to read. Douglas Blane reports on its astonishing success so far

.As the end of the infants' first year in school drew near, the P1 class at St Kessog's Primary in Balloch was engrossed in breaking down the words their teacher was dictating into phonemes and using coloured letters on magnetic boards to form the sentences.

Inside their jotters a variety of examples of independent writing included: "I had a dream of a rabbit She was in a bush of flowers."

It may not be classic literature, but it's good for a five-year-old.

For class teacher Ann O'Hare, the speed of all the children's learning once they are introduced to reading and writing through Jolly Phonics is one of the most impressive aspects of the programme. "At first you think they'll never be able to do it, but they learn so much so quickly. You used to be just finishing the alphabet by the end of Primary 1 and the children wouldn't have begun independent writing, which they started way back," she says, looking around her, "until next year. These days all the children move into P2 at more or less the same level."

Beyond the classroom, important changes have been made in the school's relationships with parents, who are now encouraged to get actively involved in their children's reading from the start. "They come in for workshops, and we ask them to read books to the children even before they go to school," says Ms O'Hare. "By the end of Primary 1 the children are reading the books to the parents and they move into Primary 2 with much more confidence than they used to do."

Along the corridor, as Clare Giannini's class approached the end of their P2 year, that confidence was still evident. A forest of hands goes up whenever the teacher asks for volunteers to work at the blackboard. At this stage teaching methods are more diverse, sentences are more demanding and the words on the wall are a good deal trickier and more numerous than previously. But the emphasis remains on phonological awareness, on fostering a literacy environment and on encouraging support for reading at home.

"It may sound demanding for the teacher but it isn't really," says Ms Giannini. "We know what we're doing because we've had training, and the early intervention team comes into the classroom regularly. The children know what they are doing and can do it, so they're all settled. You can see for yourself how much fun they are having and that makes the day more interesting and enjoyable for the teacher. It is just very satisfying to teach like this."

The early intervention team is considered vital to the long-term success of the West Dunbartonshire Literacy Initiative. The three home-link teachers and 10 early intervention teachers go into classrooms to work with infants in all the authority's primary schools and nurseries. Supported initially by funding from the Scottish Executive, the team is an integral part of the authority's plans for the future. Three more teachers are being recruited to work with older primary children.

"We make sure the class teachers get the training they need and we work along with them," says the team's headteacher, Kathy Morrison.

"Primary 3 teachers are now looking for guidance because the children are coming to them much further on than before.

"We work on the gaps that we can see from the children's baseline assessments. And we work with the parents, which is very important.

"There used to be an attitude in schools of 'You send your child here clean and in uniform and we'll do the rest'. Some schools paid lip-service to parental involvement by getting them to run the tuck shop or do the photocopying, but we now know that isn't good enough. Parents have to be real partners in the education of their children."

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