The family literacy courses, funded with pounds 1.8m of government money, will begin in more than 60 education authorities in September. Thousands of parents with poor reading skills will learn with their primary-age children, spending half the free three-month course improving their own literacy skills and half learning how to help their offspring do the same.
The family literacy concept, pioneered in America, has proved overwhelmingly successful in four pilot projects set up in England by the last government. Children made big improvements in writing, reading and vocabulary and continued to make progress at least six months after finishing the course, while their parents also boosted their literacy skills and moved on to further study.
Moves to extend the project countrywide were unveiled yesterday as part of a package of measures aimed at driving up literacy standards. In one of its first announcements after the election, the Government pledged to push up the number of 11-year-olds reaching expected reading standards for their age from the current 58 per cent to 80 per cent by 2002.
Attempts to hit the target will unite the efforts of schools, parents, education authorities and the schools inspection agency, Ofsted. Parents, who will be given advice on literacy via doctor's surgeries and health visitors as well as schools, will be urged to spend 20 minutes a day either reading to their children or hearing them read.
The commitment will be underlined by home-school contracts, under which parents will agree to help with their children's reading as well as ensuring punctuality and encouraging good behaviour.
Primary schools are being told they must play their part by ensuring teachers are properly trained to teach reading and writing effectively, and by introducing a daily literacy hour for all pupils. LEAs will have to demonstrate to the Government their plans for boosting literacy in their schools, and Ofsted will make the subject a centrepiece of inspections.
The school standards minister Stephen Byers, announcing the measures, said parents and teachers shared the responsibility for helping children learn to read, which would be the "first task of the education service". Though there would always be some parents who felt that it was "the teachers' job to teach", spending just 20 minutes a day reading with their child would make a positive contribution.
Evidence shows that literacy levels among children who practise reading with an adult at home improve by between 10 and 20 per cent. However, educationalists are aware that attempts to encourage home reading can founder where parents either have poor literacy skills themselves or are not confident enough about their abilities to help their children.
Parents attending courses in Norfolk, one of the pilot family literacy areas, reported dramatic improvements in their own reading and in their ability to play a role in their children's education. Attending one day a week for 10 to 12 weeks, they learnt how to use activities such as puppet- making, game-playing or story-book writing to encourage their children to develop reading and writing skills.
Andrea Mearing, basic-skills officer for Norfolk LEA, said a simple trip to post a letter could involve a treasure hunt in search of the letter "P" on the front of the post box. At the shops, children could write their own shopping list and recognise words on labels.
Leading article, page 11
Lessons in literacy: the guide to good teaching
How Can I Help My Child Learn To Read?
Let your child see you reading.
Share books together.
Books are not the only way of learning to read - read things like mugs and T-shirts and words on television.
Point out the print that is all around us. Look at street signs, supermarket labels, posters. Find the letters that are in your child's name.
Write things for your child. Make scrapbooks from photos or old magazines. Show what you've written on your shopping list.
Show your child how to find things out by reading. Look for the names of TV programmes in the paper. Look at a recipe together when you are cooking.
How do I share books with my child?
Choose the book together.
Before you begin to read, get a "feel" for the book by looking at the cover and talking about it.
Let your child hold the book and turn the pages.
Read the same book again and again if you both enjoy it.