In September 1996, the Government introduced the National Literacy Strategy (NLS) into primary schools in England to raise standards in literacy following a pilot project which involved Schools in 14 Local Education Authorities. The rationale for the introduction of the NLS was based on economic changes. An illiterate population would not meet the demands for a highly educated and skilled workforce in the global economy which would have a detrimental impact on the UK economy. A report by Ernst & Young (1993) found that "60% of all jobs require reasonable reading skillsâ€¦. With UK productivity low compared with major competitors".
The objective of the strategy is for teachers to include a daily 'literacy hour' which involves 30 minutes of whole class teaching followed by group work and is split into three areas: Word level work: phonics, spelling and vocabulary; Sentence level work: grammar and punctuation; Text level work: comprehension and composition. The recommended structure for the literacy hour is:
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First section (15 minutes): As a whole class, the teacher makes the objectives of the lesson clear and uses enlarged text for reading or scribe with the class for writing.
Second section (15 minutes): As a whole class, focus on word or sentence level work
Third section (20 minutes): Work individually or in groups to complete reading, writing or word and sentence work. During this time the teacher will usually work with a group on guided reading.
Fourth section (10 minutes): The whole class comes together for a plenary session, with the children explaining what they have learnt.
The effectiveness of the NLS has always been a contentious issue as the government has been criticised for failing to meet its own target of 85%. Ward (2003) found that only 75% of 11 year old pupils reach level 4 at the end of Key Stage 2. Research by Wray et al (2000) found that in order to teach literacy effectively teachers should organise the classroom using a combination of whole class, group and individual teaching with grouping based on the abilities of the children. Wood & Grice (2006) strongly supports this as their research found that literacy is taught better in primary schools when children are placed in small ability based groups. However the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) suggests that grouping according to ability can reinforce social divisions which could have a detrimental effect on learning (Sukhnandan & Lee, 1998).
During my work experience placement, I found that the teacher used a similar structure but with less time as a whole group during the start of the session and more time given for working in groups or individually (Edwards, 2011). The plenary time at the end of the session seemed to be very beneficial as it gave children an opportunity to clarify what they had learnt.
The school also has a literacy scheme where low achieving children in years 5 and 6 have group sessions with low achieving children from years 2, 3 and 4 where the older children work through tasks with the younger children. The school has found that these sessions have a positive effect on raising achievements with all of the children in the scheme because the younger children look up to the older children which in turn gives the older children greater confidence. These mixed ability sessions work well in isolation but when looking at setting within the classroom, for me, it is hard to see how children can be taught effectively if they are not grouped according to their ability. During placement, myself and the teaching assistant would sit with a group of lower achieving children to give extra support if needed.
Most teaching assistants are employed to take on a particular responsibility of the curriculum such as intervention programmes or to work with specific children, usually those with special educational needs who need extra support, but the use of teaching assistants often receives criticism with many researchers suggesting that the majority are inadequately trained which has a detrimental effect on children's learning.
Recent research consistently shows that teaching assistants who are well trained and managed have a positive impact on the teacher's workload and childrens progress. The NFER (2002) found that when teachers and teaching assistants work together, teaching and learning is more effective especially when teachers and teaching assistants learn and develop their skills together. A similar report by Ofsted (2002) found that teaching assistants play an important role in the implementation of intervention strategies and catch-up schemes which teachers found helps to make teaching less stressful.
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However both reports do suggest that teachers need further training to develop effective ways of working with teaching assistants in order to gain the full benefits that they can provide. HMI for Ofsted (2002) found that teachers need to spend more time planning to make effective use of teaching assistants and if this is not managed well, teaching assistants are not used to their full potential.
A further report by HMI for Ofsted in 2004 found that many schools do not always consider the best way to use teaching assistants effectively though a small number of schools had succeeded in raising pupil's achievements due to the support of well trained teaching assistants who had a "structured programme" and clearly defined responsibilities.
The Institute of Education (2005) claimed in a report that "children who are supported by teaching assistants make less progress than those of similar abilities, gender and social class". Their explanation for this is that children who are classed as requiring special educational needs or under achievers spend more time with a teaching assistant than with the teacher. They found that around two thirds of teaching assistants have not been educated beyond GCSE's and are therefore inadequately trained to be responsible for raising the achievement of low performing children.
However the report does support the findings of the NFER and Ofsted that when teaching assistants are "effectively trained to deliver specific support programmes" there is an overall positive effect on children's progress. Beard et al (2004) published two reports after carrying out research on the Further Literacy Support Programme which is designed to be delivered by teaching assistants. They found that children on the programme improved in reading and writing with 84% going on to achieve level 4 or above in the year 6 national tests. In addition they found the teaching assistants to be highly trained and regular feedback sessions took place with the teachers.
During my work experience placement I found that the teaching assistants worked together with the teachers to make a valuable contribution to the learning and teaching of the children. They knew exactly what was expected of them and took on some of the responsibilities of the NLS and intervention strategies. They kept clear records of children's progress and gave feedback to the teacher when necessary. From my own observations it is clear that with limited teaching time available it would be very difficult for any teacher to successfully implement all the requirements of the national curriculum without the support of teaching assistants.
In 2003, David Green, the then Shadow Education Secretary, suggested that Head Teachers should decide what is taught in their schools because "the national curriculum has got muc h too big and spread too far over the school week" (Telegraph, 2003). I found that teachers have very little actual teaching time after allowing for assemblies, breaks, interruptions and settling down time. But simply having a teaching assistant in the classroom is not enough to effectively implement the national curriculum and raise achievements. Teaching assistants need to be adequately trained and have a structured delivery programme if responsible for specific intervention strategies. Teachers need to manage their teaching assistants by developing effective management techniques through further training and needs to include teaching assistants in the planning and preparation stage.