The Middle Infant Screening Test and the Forward Together recovery programme are designed to engage parents in supporting children aged 5 – 6 years who are falling behind with literacy skills; then to engage their parents in helping them get back on track. That parental involvement can have a noticeable impact on the development of key literacy skills was demonstrated when four schools in north Bristol used the MIST and the FT programme.
“The Forward Together programme was a great success. The parents really enjoyed the weekly ‘club’ and their confidence grew throughout the weeks. We have noticed a sustained interest and support in their child’s learning and school activities following the programme. The well-structured, practical sessions were ideal and I would love to create further opportunities of this type for more parents.”
This feedback came from a headteacher in north Bristol who took part in an early intervention and crime prevention programme, focused on the development of literacy skills in children aged 5 – 6 years. Unusually for a school-based literacy programme, the vital element of its success was parental involvement.
The project involved 40 children and their families from four primary schools in a deprived area of Bristol. The programme started in January 2007 with a whole class screening assessment - GL Assessment’s Middle Infant Screening Test (MIST) - to identify early literacy difficulties and select children for the Forward Together programme.
Developed with MIST, Forward Together is a diagnostic and recovery package that focuses on reading, writing and listening skills. Lasting from eight to 12 weeks, the programme can increase pupils’ literacy levels, raising confidence and self-esteem.
Forward Together is used in a school to encourage parental involvement in their child’s learning, something which Jan Armstrong, the Reading Recovery Teacher Leader, Primary Strategy Team at Bristol Education Centre, considers to have been essential to the programme’s success in Bristol.
“We were working in schools facing challenging circumstances and some parents were remarkably difficult to engage,” explains Jan. “We decided to hold weekly ‘clubs’ for parents and each ‘club’ was run by a specialist teacher from the Learning Support Service in collaboration with a Key Stage 1 teacher from the school.”
To encourage participation, the parents were approached with a personal invitation from the teachers - Jan believes this might have been a motivating factor in itself. “One parent told me that she couldn’t read or write but wanted to attend the workshops so that her child wouldn’t face the same problems that she had during her lifetime.” Sometimes the grandparents attended. The fact that the programme lasted for 10 weeks was also highly motivating; any longer can sometimes appear daunting.
In the first half of each session, parents were guided through their own Forward Together workbook and were given advice on how to support their children in learning at home. The children then joined them for the second half of the session to learn a new game and read a book. Families taking part were also encouraged to change books daily from a box of special reading books.
Jan believed the informal approach was key to the programme’s success. “The sessions always started with tea and biscuits, which was a good icebreaker. We made huge progress over the course of the ten week programme and it clearly had a huge impact on the parents’ long term relationship with the schools.”
“They talked more to the teachers and were keen to get more involved. Some even went on to volunteer in the schools and listen to children read in class. One parent said that it had helped her work with other children in the family and most commented that they had enjoyed it so much that they wished it could have continued.”
Jan adds, “Whilst some parents came and went, there was always a good turnout. At the end of the course, all parents were awarded with a certificate at an achievement assembly and celebrated with an Easter party.”
Measuring the impact
To evaluate the success of the programme, Jan’s team conducted a second MIST assessment at the end of the Forward Together course in March 2007. The results were significant. The average percentage gain of the children in sentence dictation was 82%, writing vocabulary 50% and letter sounds 23%. The other key literacy skills covered by the programme showed good progress, too – the average gain in both listening skills and three phoneme words was 18%.
The biggest gain was in the development of the children’s writing skills, which parents are always particularly interested in, says Jan. “Writing is a visible sign of achievement and all of the writing activities, such as writing shopping lists and rhyming pairs, were enjoyable and easy to do at home. The parents’ and childrens’ attitudes became far more positive, too, which was a good prognosis for future progress.”
Jan believes that the workshops were successful and popular for a number of reasons. “The MIST assessment was very useful to identify children but the main value was in sharing the results of the test with the parents and working with them to support learning at home. Also telling parents the children would be retested at the end of the intervention seemed to be an effective motivator.”
Jan concludes, “Parental involvement is a perennial issue. I think MIST and Forward Together is an ideal way to involve parents early on and I think this programme should be run in every single school. It needs learning support professionals to work alongside a teacher as you are often teaching literacy skills to adults as well as to children. It’s essential that we provide the support for teachers to do this.”