A Darndale school shows that an innovative literacy programme can work


TALK BACK:The decline in literacy levels can be stopped if systems are put in place, writes BRIAN MOONEY

The annual EU education report published last week revealed that the number of children in Irish schools who attained low achievement levels in reading increased from 11 per cent in 2000 to over 17 per cent in 2009.

Part of this can be attributed to the mainstreaming of children with disabilities into schools where the EU assessments of reading levels took place.

A further factor is the arrival of large numbers of immigrant children with poor to non-existent English literacy skills into our school system over the survey period.

A third and vital factor in explaining declining literacy levels is the increasing influence of electronic media. As any parent will confirm, there has been a dramatic increase in online activity among school-going children. Facebook is part of the everyday life of our children and they are texting or playing video games. It all makes the task of parents and teachers more difficult as they try to foster a love of reading.

That said, the literacy picture is not an altogether gloomy one. The period from 2000-2009 also saw JK Rowling achieve sales figures of over 400 million books in the Harry Potter fantasy series, and the sales of children’s books have never been stronger. So it is clear that the advances in social media have not completely undermined the love of reading in the lives of many children.

But how do we address the decline in literacy standards in schools with the much diminished educational resources?

Dr Eithne Kennedy, a lecturer in literacy at St Patrick’s teacher training college in Drumcondra has shown the way in a literacy project among second-class students at Our Lady Immaculate Junior National School in Darndale, Dublin. In only two years, the proportion of first and second-class pupils performing among the best for their age has jumped from zero to 20 per cent.

At the same time, the number of children scoring among the lower ranks fell by three-quarters. The pupils have also made statistically significant gains in both writing and spelling, reaching the national norms in spelling.

The “Write to Read” pilot project involved a dedicated 90 minutes a day devoted to literacy, which included a daily writing workshop, using a wide variety of textbooks, allowing pupils to explore their creative sides. Critically, teachers were given professional development in the task of imparting literacy.

The results are hugely encouraging. Teachers reported a major improvement both within and outside school among the children. Central to the success of the project was the active engagement with parents who were encouraged to read to and with their children at home.

It is clear we must intensify our efforts both locally and nationally to actively engage parents in socially disadvantaged communities in the reading lives of their children. The success of the Darndale project also underlines the importance of increasing the time spent on building literacy and numeracy skills in our primary school classrooms. The Programme for Government in setting new time limits for literacy in our classrooms is on the right track.

There is no alternative to this approach. If we do not reverse the low achievement levels in reading among this 17 per cent of our children, it will have severe long-term societal effects. It will also will blight their family lives into the future.

Brian Mooney teaches at Oatlands College, Stillorgan, Dublin