I have been involved in a series of training sessions this past week – a part of my job I thoroughly enjoy.

On Friday I was at North Berwick High School helping to raise awareness of all teachers’ responsibilities to ensure that their pupils develop literacy. Staff from all 6 secondary schools in East Lothian will experience this training before the end of June. NBHS was the 5th.

Teachers were asked to consider what was a literate person at various ages from 0 – 24. There was lively debate about the nature of literacy, and a strong sense that the mere ability to decode was not sufficient. Literacy, as defined in Curriculum for Excellence, is ‘the set of skills, which allows an individual to engage fully in society and in learning, through the different forms of language, and the range of texts, which society values, and finds useful’.

Each group’s thoughts contributed to a growing understanding of what it means to be literate today. Participants charted the progression from the early language user whose major insight is that reading never just happens to anyone. Emerging reading arises out of years of perceptions, increasing conceptual and social development, and cumulative exposures to oral and written language. Next, early decoding: to get there every child must figure out the alphabetic principle that took our ancestors thousands of years to discover. The major discovery for a novice reader is that the letters connect to the sounds of the language. This is the essence of the alphabetic principle and the foundation for the rest of a child’s reading development. Gradually, with support and for most, reading changes from staccato hesitations to expressive and fluid.
Finally, the child is a Fluent, Comprehending Reader. Fluency is not a matter of speed; it is a matter of being able to utilise all the special knowledge a child has about a word – its letters, patter patterns, meanings grammatical functions, roots and endings – fast enough to have time to think and comprehend. At this point children can, in Wolf’s words, decode ‘syllables coupled like railway carriages’ so quickly that they can now infer what the hero’s situation involves, predict what the villain will do, feel what the heroine suffers, and think about what they themselves are reading.

I loathe the term ‘Workshop’ In the immortal words of Alexei Sayle, anyone without an intimate connection with light engineering should have no need for such a thing. So I call the rest of the day, active learning opportunities! There was a choice of activities: Can’t Read, Don’t Read; Developing a literacy rich environment; Happening in a school near you; Use of the web; and mine, How we learn to read. Here, we developed the notion of a progressive accumulation of skills, highlighted by ‘Ah-ha’ moments, that create a literate person (though we agreed, I think, that this was an ideal state rather than a final destination).

I divided the activities into 4 categories: Phonological Awareness, Phonics, Meaning and Fluency and each group was to complete at least 6 activities, doing at least one from each category, and thereby creating a jigsaw of a teenager slouched on his bed reading.

The aim was for the teachers to put themselves into the role of an emerging reader or writer (there was a spelling test spellingand a task to copy The Cat Sat on the Mat in Chinese). Obviously the discussion of the process during and after helped cement understanding, along with a little bit of theory taken from the CfE Draft experiences and Outcomes for Literacy and English.

I won’t delineate all the tasks here although I am happy to share them with anyone interested. However, I thought I’d show some pictures: this is one group working on the Fluency activity focusing on memory. An efficient working or short-term memory system is essential for integration of comprehension and accuracy when reading and writing, and a poor memory is frequently the problem for many learners with dyslexia.
I asked the teachers to recite the months of the year backwards while touching their elbows to the opposite knee. I don’t know how much they learnt about reading but I at least had a laugh.

I shall await the evaluations with interest to see if any teachers are able directly relate these activites with their daily practice.

Alan Coady has blogged here about the afternoon.