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Zoom in and turn on to better reading

Little Rachel on a Friday afternoon doesn't know what my English policy is, but if we've got it right, she's probably doing something meaningful." That was how one head described the outcome of what he called his school's "trial and error" language policy when we interviewed him as part of the Leverhulme Primary Improvement Project at Exeter University.

It was typical of the pragmatic "policy out of practice" approach described by several other heads.

The project is a two-year research programme I am directing. We aim to study at four different levels what people try to do to improve literacy in general and reading in particular. We are using a zoom technique to focus first on local authority practice in Birmingham, the South-east and the South-west, second on what happens in schools in these areas, third on the processes in individual classrooms, and fourth on the children themselves.

In the first phase of the project we have been looking at local authority policy and practice, analysing documents and initiatives, attending meetings and interviewing advisers. We have also interviewed heads, teachers and children and observed numerous lessons. Two of the five local education authorities we are studying, Birmingham and East Sussex, are well known for their efforts to give a high priority to literacy. It is fascinating, however, to see what happens not only at LEA policy level, but in the classrooms of a variety of primary teachers from reception up to Year 6.

Almost all the schools in our sample (our study will cover 18 schools and 35 teachers) have a language co-ordinator post, about half receiving an allowance for their work. Many heads, especially in infant schools, have taken on the role themselves. Even heads who are disarming about their own expertise are well aware of the importance of language and are keen to support their school's effort. As one put it: "It's not a strength of mine, but I recognise its importance and I've appointed key staff who bring to the school the expertise we need."

Most heads have described intensive efforts to give literacy a high priority, sometimes in the face of pressures from the numerous demands of the national curriculum. Improving children's reading was something that many said must be a concern throughout the school, not just in the early stages.

A written language policy is common in primary schools, though not yet universal. Some small schools have found it difficult to produce policies in every area of the curriculum since the national curriculum was reformed, so they have not always got round to writing a language policy, or they are updating their previous version. Two features stressed by many primaries are the need for all staff to be involved in formulating a policy, so that there is a feeling of ownership, and for it to be expressed in the form of practical advice for teachers.

At individual classroom level, although there is some variety in practice, it is fairly common for schools to use a structured reading scheme alongside other books through the infant school and to about half-way through key stage 2, at which point most children are weaned off them.

During the first term of the present school year, we have already observed a large number of lessons, given reading tests to several hundred pupils and selected six "target" pupils in each class, three girls and three boys spread across a high, medium and low ability range, who will be studied in particular detail. There will be several more visits to each school in the second and third terms.

By the end of the school year, all the pupils in the sample will have been re-tested. From these scores and teachers' assessments, we shall be able to see which children seem to have improved considerably and which appear not to have made much progress. As we shall have assembled a great deal of information about what they have been doing, we should be able to reach some conclusions about factors that appear to be related to progress in reading, at the level of the LEA, school, classroom and individual child. We shall report our preliminary findings in September at the British Educational Research Association annual conference, and in The TES.

* The Leverhulme Primary Improvement Project at Exeter University is directed by Professor Ted Wragg, and the research assistants are Dr Rosemary Chamberlin, Gill Haynes and Dr Caroline Wragg.

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