A WARRACKNABEAL community initiative aims to close the growing literacy achievement gap between its students.
WORDS – Warracknabeal Oral Reading Development Strategy - aims to improve literacy in children up to eight.
Warracknabeal Secondary College principal Tony Fowler said the project started when the school noticed a growing gap between the highest and lowest achievers in literacy and numeracy between years seven and nine.
He worked with Warracknabeal Primary School and collated research and data.
The data showed the gap was increasing in students starting school.
Warracknabeal community leaders have now developed WORDS to fight the issue - and if it works they hope to share the results throughout rural areas.
Mr Fowler said he spent much of last year on data and research.
He said research from the United States and the United Kingdom focused on two aspects in a literacy gap.
The first was the number of words a child was exposed to before school.
“A child from a wealthy family is exposed to about 60 million words by the time they get to school,’’ Mr Fowler said.
He said students from lower socio-economic families were exposed to about 12 million words.
Mr Fowler said the second focus was on the ratio of positive to negative words.
He said research showed children from wealthier families received more positive reinforcement but those from lower socio-economic families had more negative reinforcement.
By the time some children started school, they were already disadvantaged.
"That manifests in poor self-esteem and learning difficulties, often behavioural issues,'' Mr Fowler said.
"The approach we're using is to increase the number of words they're exposed to and building on mentoring aspects.''
Mr Fowler has teamed with Local Learning and Employment Network and community leaders to tackle the issue through the development and implementation of WORDS.
He said the program had three elements.
“First, maternal health workers from Rural Northwest Health have been trained in and deliver the Let’s Read program, supplying age-appropriate books and reading resources to children up to five,’’ he said.
“Second, year 10 and 11 students from Warracknabeal Secondary College are trained by speech pathologist Kelsey Hamilton as ‘reader leaders’, and work intensively for one afternoon each week supporting children identified by the primary schools as needing additional support in the area of reading.’’
The third element involves opening a literacy cafe, where young parents could take their children to be read to and borrow books.
“The difference I’ve noticed has been the change in the primary school children in the program... When we see that we know it has worked.''
Mr Fowler said the committee aimed to open the Hope Cafe at the start of next term.
He said it was too early to have concrete results on whether the strategy worked. But he believed it would.
“The difference I’ve noticed has been the change in the primary school children in the program,’’ he said.
“In the first few weeks of one-on-one sessions, the children couldn’t concentrate. There wasn’t much of a connection.
“Now, they’re sitting there – nearly on their mentor’s lap – and there’s eye contact and interaction. When we see that we know it has worked.’’
Mr Fowler said he had been in contact with Melbourne University about the possibility of a doctorate student doing a thesis on the program. He has also encouraged any interested Wimmera students to follow the progress.
Mr Fowler said it would be three to five years before the group expected to see improvement.
“If the research is right, it’s a model that should work, and if it does work we’ll shout it from the rooftops,’’ he said.
He said the committee would investigate government grants to ensure the program's long-term future.