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Last Updated: Tuesday, 20 November 2007, 21:08 GMT
Council 'has tackled illiteracy'
By Seonag MacKinnon
BBC Scotland education correspondent

Children in class
Children were encouraged to sound out letters and words
A council claims to have virtually wiped out illiteracy in its schools.

Research charting the 10-year programme in West Dunbartonshire indicates only a handful of children now leave school unable to read properly.

Ten years ago 28% of pupils leaving primary fitted this description.

By the time they left the council's seven secondaries to make their way in the world, 20% were still functionally illiterate - defined as a reading age below that of the average child at nine-and-a-half years old.

That means they are unable, for example, to start a course at a further education college and would struggle to hold down a job.

Consultant psychologist Dr Tommy MacKay, who directed the programme, said a key reason for success was a decision to make it happen then a commitment to follow through.

A lot of time and thought went into winning the hearts and minds of teachers and pupils so that both groups aimed higher.

The programme begins with rhymes and alliteration in nurseries so that children develop an early awareness of sounds.

'Barking at print'

Once in school they are explicitly taught the sounds of the letters in the alphabet.

Pupils are then encouraged to sound out the letters in a word then to run the sounds together so they can work out what the word is. For example S - A - T... SAT. It's a teaching method which can be loosely called, to use the current term, synthetic phonics.

It's a method which about 40 years ago came to be seen as dull and consequently fell out of fashion.

Critics said children were mindlessly just "barking at print".

Supporters said this was just a temporary transitional stage until they could read fluently.

Phonics never disappeared but were marginalised. Children might be encouraged to sound out just the first letter in a word.

For several decades children have generally learnt the alphabet in an indirect way and tried to work out unknown words through clues such as the picture on the page or the theme of the story. These more complex teaching methods were designed to stimulate children's imagination and thinking skills.

Dr MacKay said the recruitment of extra staff had contributed to the new scheme's success. He added that testing was a significant factor. It meant that staff picked up quickly on any problems children had and were able to address them before they became entrenched.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown said councils would do well to copy this scheme.

Adam Ingram, the children's minister, said the Scottish Government would evaluate the scheme and consider asking councils to adopt it.

SEE ALSO
Children to read by six - Tories
18 Nov 07 |  UK Politics
How phonics became easy as a-b-c
17 Mar 06 |  Education
Research questions phonics policy
31 Jan 06 |  Education

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