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This small-scale research project focuses on The Early Literacy Support (ELS) Programme (DfES, 2007) within an urban primary school. Over the past few years there has been a large amount of investment provided by the Government to help raise children’s attainment in literacy. As a result, additional support programmes and interventions have been developed. The ELS Programme is an intervention produced by the National Strategies aimed at Year 1 children, who with additional support, should reach or exceed age related expectations in literacy.

Aims

This research aimed to study the ELS programme to identify how children are selected to participate in in the programme and to investigate the staff and children’s perceptions of the intervention and impacts as a result of the programme. This research examined three key questions;

How is Early Literacy Support supporting children’s specific needs?

What are the perceptions of teaching staff on how Early Literacy Support has impacted on children’s enjoyment, development and attainment in literacy?

What are the perceptions of the children on Early Literacy Support and their enjoyment and development in literacy?

Rationale

I have a keen interest in literacy and am interested in learning about different ways to support children who struggle to easily acquire literacy skills within the mainstream classroom. The main reason for conducting research into this area was to enable me to gain a better awareness of literacy interventions for young children, which will ultimately increase my understanding and inform my future practice as a teacher. The class where I was on placement had a large number of children who required additional literacy support, so it seemed the ideal opportunity to further investigate the literacy interventions that children were involved in. Furthermore, although research has previously identified the positive impact of ELS and other phonics interventions, there is no documented research assessing children’s or adult’s views on the programme. The present research aimed to address this literature gap.

Literature Review

‘Learning to read, write and spell are among the most critically important and empowering skills that children will learn at school’ (Pumfrey & Elliott, 1990, p. ix). Literacy skills provide the grounding for education and future life, however, a large proportion of children in the education system experience literacy difficulties. Children who struggle to acquire literacy skills are a continuing educational concern in today’s modern society (Pumfrey & Elliott, 1990). Browne (2009) identifies that teachers’ largest concern is surrounding children who fail to make progress in reading and writing. There are a wide variety of possible causes of children’s literacy difficulties, for example language delay, visual impairment, absence of books at home and general learning difficulties (Browne, 2009). It is therefore essential for teachers to assess the pupil’s difficulties and identify underlying causes in order to provide support that is tailored towards their individual needs.

At Key Stage 1 in 2009, 84% of children achieved level 2 or above in reading and 81% of children achieved level 2 or above in writing (DfCSF, 2009). These figures remained relatively stable between 2007 and 2009. Although the majority of children are achieving age-expected levels, there is still a proportion of children who are under-achieving in literacy during their early school years. The gap between children who are struggling in literacy during their early years of schooling and their progressing peers will widen as children continue through their school life, which will have a negative impact on their self-esteem as well as educational attainment (Moore & Wade, 1995; Rose, 2006). Graham (2008) states that approximately 35,000 children (6% of Year 6’s) each year are leaving primary school with literacy levels below their age expected potential. Moore and Wade (1995) highlight that difficulties in literacy will also impact attainment in other areas of the curriculum, as reading and writing are crucial skills. It is therefore essential that children receive suitable, individualised support as early as possible to prevent later, exacerbated difficulties (Moore & Wade, 1995; Graham, 2008). Rose (2006) argues that children’s reading and writing difficulties can be avoided through early assessment and by implementing appropriate interventions to support their individual needs. The use of early interventions can be seen as a preventative approach to avoid later difficulties (Burroughs-Lange & Douetil, 2007; Savage & Carless, 2008). This view has been recognised by the Government and schools are now formally required to provide focused support to children before Year 3 (Graham, 2008).

Following the introduction of the National Literacy Strategy in 1998, the Government introduced additional initiatives with the aim of alleviating literacy difficulties in today’s young population, in order to raise attainment (Shiel, 2003; Soler & Paige-Smith, 2005; Graham, 2008). The Government instigated three waves of support to help schools plan and implement adequate provision for every child (DfES, 2007; Graham, 2008). Wave 1 describes the provision of ‘Quality First Teaching’ which consists of systematic phonics and a rich language environment that all children should receive within whole-class literacy lessons. The DfES (2007) argues that ‘good teaching is the most effective way to raise children’s achievement’ (p.9). Wave 2 is designed to help children who have experienced quality teaching but are still behind their peers, although they have the potential to reach age related expectations. This level of support is in addition to daily literacy lessons and usually consists of group work following a structured programme that is delivered by a teaching assistant. Wave 3 is designed for children who have Special Educational Needs and require personalised one-to-one support (DfES, 2007; Graham, 2008).

A recent focus in schools has been on Wave 2 interventions, with the aim of helping children to make progress in literacy (Rose, 2006). A commonly implemented Wave 2 intervention is The Early Literacy Support (ELS) Programme (DfES, 2007) produced by the National Strategies. The approach is used for children in Year 1 (age 5-6 years) whose literacy skills are developing slower than expected during their first term in Key Stage 1 (Shiel, 2003; Graham, 2008). The children identified to participate in ELS are expected to progress to, and possibly exceed, age-related expectations following small, focused group sessions (DfES, 2007; Hatcher et al. 2006a). A teaching assistant delivers the group sessions in close collaboration with the class teacher, which is essential for successful application of the programme (DfES, 2007).

The ELS programme consists of planned, systematic sessions that work alongside the Primary Literacy Strategy and incorporates aspects of Letters and Sounds (DfES, 2007). The sessions focus on supporting and developing children’s phonological skills, helping them to link sounds to graphemes, decode words and subsequently improve their reading, spelling and writing (Hatcher et al. 2006a). This is essential, as studies assessing a variety of interventions have repeatedly identified that successful literacy interventions focus on phonological knowledge as a starting point to reading and writing (Hatcher et al. 2006b; Savage & Carless, 2008). Ehri et al. (2001) conducted a meta-analysis of 52 intervention studies and concluded that phonemic awareness was the most significant contributor to reading and writing development. Rose (2006) stresses that effective interventions must build upon phonic work that the children have experienced within the mainstream classroom. Furthermore, he argues that interventions will only be successful if the work completed in the sessions is sustained and built upon back in the classroom when the intervention finishes (Rose, 2006).

Research has shown that the ELS programme has positive impacts in improving children’s literacy skills, particularly reading (Burroughs-Lange & Douetil, 2007). Soler and Paige-Smith (2005) documented that children who were experiencing mild difficulties in acquiring literacy skills, progressed in literacy following the ELS programme. Further evidence comes from Hatcher et al. (2006a), who evaluated the effectiveness of the ELS programme compared to another reading intervention. They found that the reading skills of 6 year olds were raised in line with their peers by the time they had finished the programme. However, in this study there was no unseen control group, so results cannot be compared to children with low literacy skills who did not engage in the programme (Hatcher et al. 2006a).

On the negative side, a constraint with the ELS programme is that the sessions are delivered by teaching assistants, rather than trained teachers. Researchers have argued that children who are struggling should be taught by skilled professionals who have knowledge of how to support and improve children’s attainment (Stainthorp, 2000) However, research has consistently shown that interventions delivered by teaching assistants can be effective in improving children’s literacy attainment (Hatcher et al., 2006b; Savage & Carless, 2008). Rose (2006) highlighted that successful interventions were regularly carried out by teaching assistants who worked effectively with groups of children. Evidence comes from Hatcher et al. (2006b) who assessed the effectiveness of a reading intervention and found that the majority of children had caught up with their peers by the end of the programme, although a proportion of children still required extra support. They concluded that teaching assistants are more than capable of successfully teaching a group intervention in order to raise attainment. Additional support comes from a longitudinal study conducted by Savage and Carless (2008). They found that the majority of pupils who had engaged in teaching assistant directed interventions in Year 1, achieved national average results at the end of Year 2.

Research to date stresses the importance of early interventions and highlights the success of teaching assistant directed group sessions. However, an important consideration regarding additional support is ensuring that the type of intervention given is related to the child’s specific needs in order to raise attainment (Bradley, 1990). Furthermore, although research has previously investigated the effectiveness of ELS, there is a lack of research that has examined the teachers’, teaching assistants’ or children’s perceptions of the intervention and subsequent impacts. The present research aimed to further examine the ELS programme to address this literature gap by studying the intervention in an urban primary school, where staff had recently implemented the programme in order to raise literacy skills for a group of Year 1 children (see Appendix 1 for project plan).

The research aimed to investigate:

How is Early Literacy Support supporting children’s specific needs?

What are the perceptions of teaching staff on how Early Literacy Support has impacted on children’s enjoyment, development and attainment in literacy?

What are the perceptions of the children on Early Literacy Support and their enjoyment and development in literacy?

In order to answer the above research questions, ELS sessions were observed and staff and children were interviewed. Furthermore, children’s literacy targets were obtained and their reading and writing levels were compared from before and during participation in ELS.

Methodology

Design

This small-scale research project employed a case-study design, examining the ELS intervention within one urban primary school. Demetriou (2009) identifies that case studies enable researchers to collect and record in-depth data within a real-life context.

Participants

A purposive sample (Burton et al. 2009) of three Year 1 children from an urban primary school were recruited for the study as they had been selected by their class teacher to participate in the ELS programme. The sample also consisted of the Year 1 class teacher and teaching assistant who delivered the programme.

Data collection methods

A mixture of qualitative and quantitative data collection methods was used in this study. Mason (2006) recommends using a mixture of qualitative and quantitative research methods to enable a clear view of the data. Furthermore, Evans (2009) highlights that using different categories of participants (teachers, teaching assistants and students), alongside a range of data collection methods enables triangulation and therefore increases validity and reliability of the methods and data collected.

The majority of the data collection involved qualitative research methods, in order to gain rich, detailed data regarding individuals’ beliefs and opinions surrounding the ELS programme (Evans, 2009). Semi-structured interviews were conducted with the class teacher, teaching assistant and three children who participated in ELS. This form of interview enables the researcher to respond to interviewees’ answers to gain more detailed information (Burton et al. 2009). A set of key questions were planned (Appendix 5, 6 and 7) and additional questions were asked during the interviews depending on the participant’s response. Open-ended questions were asked to enable participants to express their own opinions, leading to more detailed, in-depth data (Burton et al. 2009). All interviews were recorded using a dictaphone and later transcribed.

Three sequential ELS sessions were directly observed, with the observer as a non-participant. Although this is a time consuming method, Burton et al. (2009) argue that ‘observation can be one of the most powerful tools in research’ (p. 95) as it can yield rich, real-life data that can be essential for the research. The observations were noted using a continuous narrative and were also recorded using a dictaphone to ensure objectivity.

Quantitative methods were used to examine children’s literacy targets and attainment levels. Children’s literacy levels before participating in ELS (Autumn Term 2010) were compared to levels after completing a few weeks of the programme (Spring Term 2011). This data was also compared to adults’ and children’s perceived improvements as a result of the programme.

Data analysis

Observations and interviews were transcribed and coded using the open coding method, by identifying emerging codes from the data related to the key research questions (Burton et al. 2009). The observations were transcribed and coded according to the ELS session activities that the children engaged in, such as sounds, spelling and writing sentences (Appendix 8). All interviews were transcribed and systematically coded according to themes related to the key questions, for example children’s needs, development, enjoyment and attainment (Appendix 9).

Ethical considerations

Before conducting the research, an ethical consideration form was completed (Appendix 2) using Bera (2004) guidelines, which was signed off by my MA Tutor. As the research was being completed in a school, the research proposal was explained to the Head Teacher and she gave informed consent for the research to be carried out in her school (Appendix 3). As the research involved children under 16 years of age, parents of the three children involved were sent a letter explaining the research and asking for their permission for their child to be interviewed and observed. All parents returned the letters signed (Appendix 4). The research was also briefly explained to the children and they were informed that they didn’t have to answer any questions if they didn’t want to. Interviews with both staff and children were completed at a convenient time for the participants and were kept short so as to not impact on their usual school/work routine. Interviews with children were conducted in a quiet room that children were familiar with to ensure that they were comfortable. Furthermore, observations of ELS sessions were conducted during normal timetabled sessions to minimise intrusion or distress for children. All data collected was coded to ensure confidentiality and anonymity. Once the data was transcribed and reported, all interview recordings were deleted (Bera, 2004).

Results

Observations of ELS sessions are shown in Appendix 8. Interview transcripts with the class teacher (CT), teaching assistant (TA) and three children (A, D, and E) are shown in Appendix 9. The three children’s writing targets are shown in Appendix 10 and their literacy levels from September 2010 to April 2011 are shown in Appendix 11.

How is Early Literacy Support supporting children’s specific needs?

Children’s needs

During the interview, the class teacher (CT) stated that the ELS programme was implemented at the school as there was a need in Year 1, particularly to raise the levels in writing. The three children were selected to participate in ELS as they were working on a W level in literacy and they lacked confidence in reading and writing. She said ‘they all have potential, they are beginning to use their sounds but need more input with decoding words to read and sounding out words to spell….independently they weren’t able to produce a sentence on their own.’ Furthermore, child E had a lot of time off school so was selected in order to fill the gaps in his learning that he had missed.

The children’s writing targets prior to starting the programme (Table 1), were all focused towards using sounds to spell and writing a simple sentence with correct punctuation independently. The teaching assistant (TA) said she was unaware of the children’s literacy targets, but knew the children has been selected for the programme to increase their confidence in reading and writing.