Pupils show they have the write stuff

Resource type: News

The Sunday Times (London) |

Efforts to increase child literacy has experts flocking to Ballymun, writes Gabrielle Monaghan

Youngballymun and Barnardos are Atlantic grantees.

Across the road from the Virgin Mary Girls’ National School, some of Ballymun’s last tower blocks stand half-empty. Roddy Doyle may have immortalised them in The Commitments, and contributed to an image of the place as a hotbed of drug addiction, crime and poverty, but 12 years after Ballymun’s transformation began, the Virgin Mary girls are rewriting the neighbourhood’s script.

A fifth-class girl is reading aloud a book she wrote in Fighting Words, the creative-writing centre Doyle set up. A line of senior infant girls are listening attentively, and rush to put their hands up when the teacher questions them on words used in the story. On a tiny stool in the corner is an enraptured Timothy Shanahan, a professor of urban education from the University of Illinois who developed a method for teaching reading in a disadvantaged inner-city school in Chicago into one of America’s fastest-growing educational strategies.

The Virgin Mary is one of 12 Ballymun schools taking part in Write Minded, a new literacy-support service set up by Youngballymun that aims to boost literacy levels in the area. It invited Shanahan to Ballymun last week to hold workshops with teachers and children, and advise teachers, principals and community workers how to integrate his methods into their work.

“If our children are going to succeed, we have to do a better job than the other schools,” Shanahan told a group of local teachers at Virgin Mary Boys’ National School. “And if my teachers in Chicago can succeed with this, you folks can do that.”

Reading and writing skills among Ireland’s poorer children have not improved in almost three decades, says a report published earlier this month by children’s charity Barnardos. Literacy skills among poor children are largely unchanged since the 1980s, the study showed, adding that the government’s latest budget cuts will deprive disadvantaged children of their potential, leading to higher costs to society in terms of welfare, health and prisons. Children who don’t learn to read properly fall behind. As teenagers, they drop out at higher rates, and when they become adults, employment often eludes them. “These kids can read, but writing was a bit of an issue, and there were gaps in their oral language,” said Martina Gannon, Write Minded’s literacy coordinator. “If you’re used to simple speaking and listening, later on complex sentences in textbooks can be more difficult.”

Tackling literacy problems among the 3,000 primary-school children in Ballymun is not easy. From Youngballymun’s office above the Axis Theatre there are views of new apartment blocks and offices – and a recently demolished tower that’s unlikely to be replaced soon. Ballymun Regeneration, the company set up in 1997 to revive the area, shelved plans for further buildings after its budget was almost halved to €45m this year. Some 500 families are still waiting in decaying 1960s towers for new homes.

But Youngballymun and Shanahan are confident. Shanahan is the brains behind the Chicago Reading Framework, which is based on research carried out with disadvantaged schools in Chicago. As a member of America’s National Reading Panel he contributed to a report based on 34 years of reading research. It concluded that effective reading instruction combines phonics (connecting the sounds of spoken English to letters or groups of letters), guided oral reading and comprehension strategies.

Shanahan’s basic premise is that teachers should spend a minimum of two to three hours a day simply teaching reading and writing, and he encourages schools to explore ways of expanding instructional opportunity – before-school, afterschool, summer programmes, parent involvement, homework. He says teachers of any subject that involves reading and writing must also focus on literacy. The Chicago Reading Framework includes four components of instruction: word knowledge, fluency, comprehension and writing: basic elements often ignored in schools.

Pupils need to learn how to recognise or read printed words, and know the meanings of large numbers of words, Shanahan says. They must also be able to read texts quickly, accurately and with proper expression. Reading has little value without comprehension, he says. Comprehension instruction teaches pupils what type of information to look for when they read different types of texts, and how various texts are organised. The final component is getting students to write often and compose their own texts. He believes these basics will help Ireland overcome its literacy problem, an issue that is more significant in a larger knowledge-based economy.

“Ireland’s literacy levels were high 30 years ago, which is why companies started to come here,” he said. “But now there’s a larger economy and the system is not used to producing those rates of literacy. But you can’t afford to let levels go down. There is virtually no job now that doesn’t require some literacy. Take farming – there’s a huge amount of paperwork involved.”

CATCH THEM YOUNG

The Prevention and Early Intervention Programme, funded equally by Chuck Feeney’s Atlantic Philanthropies and the Office for the minister for children, was designed to intervene in the lives of thousands of severely disadvantaged children in Tallaght, Darndale and Ballymun by financing three projects in those areas for five years. Youngballymun, which works with the regeneration of Ballymun, is one project. Its Write Minded support service is one of six delivered to locals from birth to adulthood. Another service involves a parents and child support system that mentors expectant mothers and guides the social and emotional development of infants, toddlers and their families.