At my school, we do everything right when it comes to early years literacy. We have really effective provision, an in-house early reading expert and a high-quality systematic synthetic phonics programme. And yet, we still have too many children with low-level literacy.
Too often, when children start in our nursery, they struggle with their oral language, have had a limited exposure to books, and have underdeveloped social and emotional skills for their age.
Our EYFS team are highly skilled and for many children these gaps can be bridged, but achieving this with children who start with a very low baseline is not a quick fix. They need a lot of support to develop the early literacy skills to access the classroom provision at key stage 1, and then progress through school.
Why is this support so important? Well, our own tracking data indicates that problems identified in the early years persist throughout the children’s years in primary school and on into secondary school. And as children get older, the learning deficit becomes entrenched and harder to address.
And it’s not just our own data that highlights the importance of work in this area: a report from the Literacy Trust published in July found that 14 per cent of three-year-olds in the UK were at risk of starting school with “vulnerable” language skills that could hold them back later in life, increasing their likelihood of unemployment and reduced earnings.
Low-level literacy: how schools can tackle it
So how can we address this in our schools, and ensure that every child has the literacy skills they need to succeed throughout their school experience?
Well, research from the Education Endowment Foundation shows that early intervention is the most efficient and cost-effective way to support children who are likely to fail in literacy. And our experience mirrors this: I am a Reading Recovery teacher*, and I’ve learned, from my own work, that fast rates of progress are possible for even the very lowest-attaining children when the teaching is targeted and designed for individual needs.
If we wait until the attainment gap between a KS2 child and their peers has widened to two or three years’ difference, the impact of lower literacy levels can have a huge direct effect on their self-esteem and wellbeing.
As a school, we became determined to find a way to ensure success from the start. I was certain that exposure to more books would make a difference, and knowing the benefit of high-quality, bespoke and well-researched language and early literacy intervention, we combined the two for a research project: Ready, Let’s Read, which was funded by the SHINE Trust.
Ready, Let’s Read: the design
So how did we go about designing and then implementing the project? Well, we had evidence that children who had limited book experience and low oral language were vulnerable to literacy failure, so we already knew which pupils to target.
In the years I spent assessing which children are eligible for one-to-one support with me as the Reading Recovery teacher, I built up a good understanding of the barriers we needed to address. Commonly, I found they are: book handling, conceptual understanding of how print works, phonological awareness, the application of phonic knowledge in reading and writing, building oral language skills and comprehension alongside developing a love of reading books and writing.
Supporting children with literacy needs is complex, and it was obvious that staff needed training and ongoing support. We needed to ensure that everyone involved was focused on the whole child, and was thinking in three dimensions: what each child knows how to do, their early experiences and their attitudes to reading.
I planned a bespoke training package, which includes observation and discussion of teaching, as well as reflection on how theories of literacy acquisition can help us interpret and act on what we see.
Initially, one teaching assistant based in the Reception class accesses the training. For some sessions, the whole EYFS team attend to build a culture of collaboration, and there will be ongoing CPD sessions and coaching throughout the first year of rollout.
Our school has an ethos of encouraging reading for pleasure as early as possible both at home and in school, and the principles of Ready, Let’s Read will support this ethos and further enhance it.
Ultimately, the aim of Ready, Let’s Read is to quicken the rate of progress so that children have literacy and oracy skills to access the KS1 curriculum and beyond.
Delivery on the ground
So how are we delivering it on the ground?
We have a series of daily 20-minute sessions over six to eight weeks with small groups of children in Reception. Led by a teaching assistant, sessions are bespoke and carefully crafted, based on assessment of strengths and barriers for each group of children.
Teaching activities address barriers to literacy development, and the emphasis is on repairing the building blocks for those children who have not been supported by early literacy experiences before starting school. Through success and positive experiences with books, Ready, Let’s Read instils a love of books and literacy from an early age.
Parents and carers are also encouraged to come into school to watch some sessions, so they can learn some of the ways that staff develop language and early reading skills. It’s hoped that some of what they observe will become part of the family’s talk around print and sharing of books.
Teaching assistants work in collaboration with me and the class teacher to write personal targets for each child and for each group. Support for choosing texts and activities are also part of these conversations. Targets are regularly revisited to check progress and inform the next teaching steps. Diagnostic early literacy assessments are done at entry to and on exit from the programme.
How is it going so far? It’s very early days: I started to work with SHINE to develop the project in September and while it’s too soon to measure a definite impact, we have made a promising start. I am already working closely with the EYFS team who are benefitting from the training package I have developed. Feedback from parents and carers has been extremely positive and many are very keen for their children to access the bespoke intervention.
I’m confident from my own experience running similar interventions on a less formal scale in EYFS and from teaching Reading Recovery that the children will improve quickly, and be more able to access the KS1 curriculum. While Reading Recovery will still be necessary for some children, their starting point won’t be as low and progress will be faster for those who still require this support.
We are planning to review in February 2022, and will make any adjustments necessary.
If the intervention proves to be successful, we plan to train staff in other schools across Manchester, including those that don’t necessarily have an accredited Reading Recovery teacher. This is not a one-off programme, but a sustained intervention, and I’m confident that it will target low literacy levels, and close the gaps in literary ability throughout the school and further afield.
Rachel Ward is the Reading Recovery teacher and ECaR lead at Moston Fields Primary School, Manchester
*Reading Recovery is a literacy programme designed by UCL’s Institute for Education for the lowest-achieving children aged around 6 that enables them to reach age-expected levels within 20 weeks.
Rachel Ward was one of the winners of this year’s Let Teachers SHINE competition, receiving £25,000 to fund her project. The competition, which is run by education charity SHINE in association with Tes, awards grants to teachers with innovative ideas to tackle the disadvantage gap.
This article first appeared in Tes and is reproduced with permission. You can read the original article here.