Could a new reading scheme turn Britain's children into bookworms?

Synthetic phonics can teach children how to read, but getting them to enjoy reading is the next challenge. An American method, currently being tried out in Britain, does just that. Steve McCormack reports
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How do you get children to read well? One way is to introduce synthetic phonics, as Jim Rose, the former head of primary inspection at Ofsted, suggested last week. The other is to borrow a trailblazing initiative from America. That is what 11 primary schools are doing in London, using a system that received rave reviews as it swept through 60,000 schools in the United States.

These schools are attempting to crack a problem that has bedevilled education - children failing to acquire decent reading skills. If they succeed, they will have discovered the Holy Grail of schooling. Poor reading skills are the most persistent obstacle to pupils learning. Children can't make progress if they don't fully understand the textbooks or question sheets that they are given. Once that becomes embedded, things go downhill fast. Poor or reluctant readers fall behind and catching up becomes difficult.

The London schools are using two linked software products, Accelerated Reader and Star Reading, produced by Renaissance Learning, an educational resources company based in the USA that is now breaking into the UK. The approach is an attempt to motivate children to read more, by enabling them to monitor their own progress via on-screen tests taken as they finish each book they read. Every book used in the scheme is assigned a readability level. The theory is that children, particularly boys, will be motivated by the success they feel at passing the tests, and spurred on to read more, and higher level, books. In time, it is hoped that children will become motivated to read simply because they've grown to enjoy it. It should be emphasised that the software is a diagnostic tool for children who can already read, even if at a very low level. It does not teach non-readers how to read.

Among the London children trying out the system are 90 seven- and eight-year-olds in Year 3 at Lordship Lane Primary School in Tottenham. The scheme has been integrated into the half-hour silent reading session that each of the three Year 3 classes does at 1pm every day, and the children seem to have taken to it enthusiastically.

"Who needs to do a computer test?" asks the class teacher Simon Weston 10 minutes into the session. Half-a-dozen hands shoot up, and soon Irfan is sitting at one of the PCs at the front of the class to test himself on Ruby and the Muddy Dog, which has a readability level of 1.4, and Nicole is about to tackle the on-screen questions on Teddybears Get Their Skates On (2.2).

The process of entering a log-in and password, and navigating the Renaissance website to locate the right questions can be a challenge in itself, but it is also part of the learning process. As the pair answer the multiple-choice questions in their own time, Weston tells me why the Renaissance product is a "terrific tool".

"With large classes and a busy curriculum, teachers can't hear everyone read frequently enough. These quizzes really test each child's comprehension of every book, and the computer finds them out if they haven't understood."

Irfan gets four out of five questions right, and goes to choose another book of the same reading level. Nicole has scored 100 per cent and is told to jump up to 2.5 Level books. She beams proudly as she heads off to fetch another book from the child-friendly indexed library box in the corridor. Both children get a certificate, signed by their teacher, to take home. Weston aims to have each child in the class take an on-screen test at least once a week.

Next door, Khatoun Huque's class also have their heads buried in books. Huque's pupils used the scheme for a term last year and she noticed a "huge improvement in comprehension skills". Ajay, now in Year 4, remembers enjoying doing the quizzes. "It made me really happy to be able to go on to another level," he says. Linda, in the same year, tells me proudly that her reading level climbed from 2.7 to 5.0 while she was on the scheme.

The Renaissance products are designed for children aged seven to 14, and of the pilot schools, four are secondaries and seven primaries. The project is being organised by the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, the body representing all secondary schools with a subject-related special status, and all 27 Academies. This is a group that now incorporates around 80 per cent of all secondaries in England. It is part of every specialist school's role to work closely with local primary schools.

The trust chairman, Sir Cyril Taylor, is a particularly enthusiastic advocate of the Renaissance Learning methods, having seen them first hand on a recent trip to the USA. He has often underlined his firm belief that poor reading skills are holding back a large percentage of successive generations of children. He cites internationally recognised research that shows that the single most important predictor of academic success is the amount of time that pupils spend reading. "The cost to the country of poor reading is considerable," he says. "We must do more to increase our literacy levels."

The project is particularly timely as the recent steady improvement in achievement in literacy tests taken by 11-year-olds appears to have stalled. Twenty three per cent of children still go up to secondary school without being able to read well enough.

At the same time, Ofsted continues to emphasise the extent to which poor reading is holding children back, and that reading for pleasure is in decline. "Too few schools have given sufficient time and thought to how to promote pupils' independent reading," said a recent Ofsted report into standards of English in schools.

The project is being evaluated by the National Foundation for Educational Research. Using its own testing methods, it measured the reading and comprehension levels of all pupils at pilot schools at the beginning of this term. The pupils will be tested again at the end of the school year to gauge progress. But if the conclusions of American teachers are anything to go by, the results are likely to show substantial success.

There are some parts of the USA where the Renaissance scheme is still untested, and in a partnership with the London pilot, a group of schools in Harlem, New York City, are also trying out the products. A group of teachers from New York City is due to visit London in February to compare notes with their British colleagues.

Vicki Stephenson, head of Richardson Elementary School, in Fort Madison, Iowa, says that the scheme has worked wonderfully for all age groups in her school. Over a two-year period, the reading scores among Richardson's 10-year-olds rose from 47 to 82 per cent. "I can't say enough good things about this programme," she says. "Our library circulation has increased, and the children are reading more."