Education: Reading can be easy with a little teamwork: Group exercises are helping pupils' literacy skills, with poor performers gaining the most benefit. Diana Hinds reports

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Ten- and 11-year-olds at May Park Primary School in east Bristol are comparing their interpretations of a poem called 'The Bully Asleep'. They sit in groups of four or five, papers on their knees, quietly absorbed in discussions that are forceful but polite.

'We know the boys didn't like Bill because they were plotting to do bad things to him when he was asleep,' Ahmad says. 'That's the same answer as mine,' Amarjeet says. 'Maria, do you agree?' Maria nods, and Lucy concedes that this time the boys have come up with a better answer than her own.

The pupils have already written individual responses to questions about the poem, and after group discussion they can amend or elaborate on these. Their teacher, John Trimble, goes from group to group, prodding a pupil where necessary into a more careful consideration of the poem's meaning.

'Now, why did the children lift his head timidly?' he asks one group. 'You've answered, 'To see if he was asleep,' but I suggest they may have been frightened of him.'

Despite attacks on group work by academics, education inspectors and politicians, Mr Trimble is convinced that this approach can play an important part in improving children's reading abilities. He says group work acts as a supplement to, but not a substitute for, other kinds of reading work.

He has been closely involved in a research project on collaborative reading, carried out by the National Foundation for Educational Research in conjunction with Avon Local Education Authority and five inner-city Avon schools, and was so impressed by the results that he is pursuing the group approach at May Park.

The 1992-93 project concentrated on 10- and 12-year-olds whose reading abilities were categorised according to low, medium or high. Like the May Park pupils, they answered questions individually on a poem or passage of non- fiction, discussed their answers in mixed-ability groups, then had the chance to revise them. They were also asked to comment on their reaction to the exercise.

Although this approach to reading is still in its infancy, early results appear to be encouraging. Pupils of all abilities improved their scores after group discussion, and in each case poorer readers improved more than the others.

In the poetry task for 12-year- olds, for example, the low-performing readers improved their average score from 2.6 points out of 14 to 5.9, the medium performers from 6.1 to 8.3, and the high performers from 10.4 to 11.6. In the non-fiction task for 10-year-olds, low performers improved by an average of 3.7 points out of 24, the medium performers by 1.6, and the high performers by 0.3.

Researchers say collaborative reading encourages pupils to develop greater open-mindedness to what they are reading. Reluctance to modify initial impressions of a piece of writing, or too close adherence to a literal interpretation, is thought to be a major factor in low reading ability.

Mr Trimble is organising a weekly group-reading task for his class. One of his poorest readers has just begun to make progress, but he believes the task helps all his pupils.

He insists, however, that pupils need carefully structured training in group work before embarking on the reading tasks. His method, which involves the class in writing group poems, is based on an adult management approach: prepare, plan, action and review. 'If you tried to do group work without some sort of structured approach, it would be bedlam,' he says.

Mary Rose, local education authority adviser for Avon, agrees that children need to be taught group skills. 'They don't automatically work in this way,' she says.

The project's findings support earlier research showing that group work has not always been productive, because it was not sufficiently structured. 'Sitting together does not necessarily mean working together,' Wendy Hiscock, head teacher of May Park, says. 'There is an enormous difference between working in a group and as a group.'

Jane Davies, head of English at Whitefield Fishponds secondary school in east Bristol, which took part in the project, now favours collaborative reading, and is introducing it for 11- to 14-year-olds. She says the group approach has helped her pupils to concentrate on the task at hand, and to think about what they are doing and why they are doing it. 'I have seen children becoming more confident about approaching a text. They are looking more closely for clues to back up what they are saying.'

Another advantage of this method, its supporters say, is that it is far more cost-effective than, for instance, Reading Recovery, an expensive scheme based on one-to- one tuition for six-year-olds, first developed in New Zealand. The Government has helped to finance a three-year Reading Recovery trial, but serious doubts remain about its long-term future.

Teaching collaborative reading does require special training, but Ms Rose says this can be accomplished within seven days. Twenty-four schools in Avon have subscribed to the authority's training course, and she hopes to see the approach spread more widely.

'It helps teachers look at what learning to read is all about, and it frees them in the classroom to monitor and observe each child,' Ms Hiscock says. 'Teaching reading involves much more than just saying to a child, 'Come and stand next to me and read this page.' '

'Reading in Reform: The Avon Collaborative Reading Project' by Tom Gorman, Dougal Hutchison and John Trimble, pounds 4, from NFER, The Mere, Upton Park, Slough, Berks SL1 2DQ.

(Photograph omitted)