Setting up a new literacy project can be a daunting prospect, particularly when it’s 4000 miles away from home
“Illiteracy is no longer a major issue for the schools of Carriacou and Petite Martinique…”. These words were heard on Grenada Broadcast on 5 June this year, at the end of a three year literacy project involving a great many people.
The beautiful islands of Carriacou and Petite Martinique are part of the State of Grenada. Carriacou is about fourteen square miles, and has five primary schools, two secondary schools and one sixth form college. Petite Martinique is only about a mile in diameter and has one primary school. Most of the time the climate is warm and sunny, but the occasional hurricane can cause devastation.
Before the project began, schools were using mixed strategies to teach reading, a situation very similar to that in many English schools at that time. Inclusive education at secondary level, which began in 1997, had highlighted the fact that some children had failed to learn to read throughout their primary education. Teachers were beginning to question accepted teaching methods, and some had read the book Why Our Children Can’t Read by Diane McGuinness. They wondered whether some phonics teaching might improve reading standards. An English lady, Eileen Measey, had helped with reading in school, and was dismayed to find that some children were really struggling.
After some research on the internet, Eileen contacted the Reading Reform Foundation in England in March 2006. Elizabeth Nonweiler, an independent reading consultant, took up the challenge of setting up a synthetic phonics project on the islands and visited in June that year. Shortly before retiring from Reception teaching, she had been introduced to Jolly Phonics, and was impressed with the results. She is now passionate about synthetic phonics, and trains teachers in the three basic skills for literacy: knowing the alphabetic code, blending sounds for reading and segmenting words for spelling.
On her initial visit, Elizabeth accompanied Gertrude Niles, the Education Officer for Carriacou and Petite Martinique, visiting schools and hearing children read. She also discussed the project with the British High Commission, which was prepared to contribute funding if there was a sustainable project proposal. Funding was a key issue, as teachers on Carriacou are paid directly from local government and schools have to raise money for everything else. Donations came in the form of money from organisations and individuals, and resources from a variety of commercial synthetic phonics programmes. Part of Elizabeth’s skill in moving the whole project forward was her determination to identify and communicate with all the key players in education, both in schools and at government level.
Workshops and training began in earnest on a second visit in August 2006. Elizabeth was accompanied and assisted by Maggie Downie and Susan Godsland. Eileen Measey kindly provided accommodation in her Caribbean home. The aim of the training was to teach the effective principles of synthetic phonics teaching, rather than to endorse particular programmes. Teachers asked probing questions, and some were really keen to get started. Elizabeth wrote twelve weeks of daily lesson plans for the initial teaching of reading. Further training visits went ahead in December 2006 and June 2007. Meanwhile, Eileen went into schools annually to assess progress.
I first met Eileen and Elizabeth when they visited to observe me teaching a Snappy Lesson. At the time, I had no idea where Carriacou was and no intention of going there, as I hadn’t flown in 30 years! On her visit, Elizabeth had been impressed with the simple format of the Snappy Lesson, and she felt it would be ideal for an island with scarce resources.
I became involved with the literacy project in May 2008 and telling people that I was going to a Caribbean island over half term to work invariably met with sceptical laughter! By this time, some good practice was in place, but further training was needed and we were also looking towards sustainability. Teachers come and go and, unless people are trained, skills are lost. Elizabeth trained a phonics leader for each school to advise their colleagues and provide effective training for new staff. My task was to visit each school and demonstrate teaching. It was a nostalgic treat to use blackboard and chalk again! As a SENCO, I also gave advice about teaching the “slower learners”. Vertical grouping in schools works well, because there are no teaching assistants.
This year was to be the final visit. Elizabeth was feeling disappointed in the range of results from different schools. How could we ensure that the good practice seen in some schools was replicated in all of them? We had two strategies. One was to monitor the delivery of phonics teaching alongside the phonics leader and school principal. The other was to provide training in assessment, monitoring and auditing progress. Lesson monitoring highlighted several issues that needed addressing, but it was exciting and encouraging to see synthetic phonics teaching actually happening, with Caribbean teachers providing effective training.
Gertrude Niles, the Education Officer, has overseen the project on the islands with great enthusiasm. However, even she confessed to some initial scepticism. The turning point for her was the experience of teaching her young daughter to read using the Jolly Phonics box left in her office. Having seen similar success in her schools, she now speaks eloquently about the success of synthetic phonics in teaching children to read.
The press visited our farewell luncheon hosted by Gertrude Niles to celebrate the project. We were visited by Senator George Prime. He was impressed by two four-year-old girls who read to him, obviously sounding out words they didn’t know rather than reading the book from memory. It is true that illiteracy need not be a major issue for schools on Carriacou. In the same way, since the Rose Report, it need not be an issue in the UK. Both countries need people who really understand synthetic phonics, teach with rigour and are prepared to give every child the practice needed to become a competent reader.
Jackie Day SENCO