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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
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Gateways to Literacy©: catering for children’s diversity through an integrated professional approach

Nancy Batenburg
Project Manager, Early Years, Curriculum Services Branch, Northern Territory Department of Employment, Education and Training. Email Nancy.Batenburg@nt.gov.au


Millner Primary School, like many other schools, faces the challenges of catering for students with a vast range of learning and educational abilities, interests, difficulties and commitment.


Despite the best efforts of the school community, in 1994–5 a significant proportion of students at the school were not achieving basic benchmark levels of literacy and numeracy. There was only one option: something had to change. As a result of initial funding through the Commonwealth Disadvantaged Schools program, and as a starting point to more effective practices, a small project was developed, with the assistance of the principal at the time, Mr Ron Argoon, whereby a speech pathologist and an occupational therapist were employed as part-time consultants to assess all ‘at risk’ students and, at the least, inform teachers of more appropriate educational pathways.


Not only was this done comprehensively, but by the end of that first phase of the project, all students in Early Childhood (five to eight year olds) had been assessed and analysed. The results were heart-wrenching: from the perspective of speech pathology and occupational therapy, at least a third of the Early Childhood students of the school would never develop functional literacy and numeracy skills if they remained on their present path, with another third of the students on the cusp. This was just not acceptable to the school community and serious commitment by the whole school community led to the development of the Gateways to Literacy© program[1].



The Gateways to Literacy© Program


The key outcome of the Gateways to Literacy© program has always been to optimise the conditions for success. If a child has a strong base of understanding and no longer has to think about basic/ foundation skills, thinking space is freed for other skills which will develop much more easily when the child is ready. While the program is more complex than the following examples, these give an indication of the thinking behind the program, and the basis for the success that the program has had over almost ten years. For example, an analysis of:


·         perceptual motor skills: A child who needs practice to balance and use his/her eye-hand coordination and visual perception skills will find it difficult to sit at a desk (established centre of balance) and write (eye-hand coordination/visual perception).

·         oral language sequencing skills: A child who does not truly understand the concept of sequences and the allied vocabulary such as ‘first’ or ‘and then’ may also not understand sequences and routines of classroom organisation, behaviour management, spelling, writing, reading and Mathematics programs.

·         phonological awareness: A child who is not differentiating between the sounds, rhymes and patterns that he/she is hearing may be a child who struggles with visual literacies such as writing, reading, phonics and spelling programs.


The educators at Millner Primary have been using effective assessment and analysis strategies as the first phase of the teaching and learning cycle: the difference is that the strategies have been informed and fine tuned with knowledge and expertise from speech pathologists and occupational therapists as well. The Sutherland Phonological Awareness Test – Revised[2], by Dr Roslyn Nielson, has been used to assess each child’s phonological awareness. Other pro formas for assessment and analysis were developed with the resident speech pathologists and occupational therapists, with additional resource and organisational lists.  


The program is now a stand-alone package, self-published by the school, and has recently been reviewed and edited with support from the current Early Years teachers at the school. Key features of the program include:


·         separate sections outlining key understandings underpinning the development of oral language, phonological awareness and perceptual motor ability

·         seventy-five cards of photos and photo sequences of perceptual motor activities. Outlined on the back are descriptions of the key areas of perceptual motor skill development that each activity provides practice in (to allow a teacher to pick and choose appropriate activities catering for specific delays). Also on the back are the developmental levels of oral language that students might use in explaining the activity to his/her peers, and the type of language that a teacher might use to scaffold and model for the next phase of development.


What the approach and program look like today: almost ten years on …


Today, heading into the tenth year since embarking on this journey, this integrated and effective approach is embedded within the Millner Primary School ethos and philosophy.


·         Action research processes are alive and well within the school: other projects have developed and evolved as other needs were identified, and the concept of a living, breathing learning community is evident at the school.

·         The key outcome to maximise the conditions for success for every learner has been met comprehensively over a consistent number of years. Within four years, all learners who had been involved with the program consistently were achieving literacy and numeracy benchmarks at their appropriate level or above. Due to the transience of the school population, there were few of the original children left at the school by Year 5, but their results indicated they were still achieving to benchmark or above. These results have been maintained over time, and qualitative and quantitative evidence indicates that similar results were achieved this past year.

·         In 1999, based on the extensive collection of verifiable evidence, the school received the major prize for the Northern Territory in the inaugural National Literacy and Numeracy awards. Five years after that national recognition, the program continues to evolve and develop to meet the changing needs of the learners. While Gateways to Literacy© might have appeared to be a product, it is in fact a process, embedded within the school, of responding to student needs in a very positive and analytical way.

 ·         To ensure that the school was operating within current research directions, the program was externally evaluated by Dr Rod Campbell, who, with David Green, mentions this program as an exemplar in Literacies and Learners: current perspectives. [3]



What can Early Years teachers learn from the development of this program?


An effective relationship with other professionals, such as the speech pathologist and occupational therapist, is often undervalued within a school, but there is a richness of knowledge, skills and strategies that can inform best practice in classrooms if allowed, nurtured and protected. It takes time to speak ‘common’ language, but purposely planning for those exchanges of professional dialogue in a meaningful way (not just in ten minutes while eating a sandwich at lunch) are worth their weight in gold in terms of providing quality programs to improve student outcomes.


Catering for the diversity of learners is not easy. Despite the rhetoric and demands about what teachers ‘should’ be doing in their classrooms, a single teacher cannot achieve this on his/her own. Whole school ownership of the challenges facing students – and their teachers – is essential: if even one section of the school is involved in the development of alternative pathways, that subsection of the school needs consistent and quality support to allow it to do its professional best.


Empowering teachers and education staff in a realistic, paced, meaningful and appropriate way over time and in an ever-changing educational environment is essential for change to occur. Most teachers are exceptionally hard working, well intentioned and determined to make a difference: empowering them and ensuring systemic recognition of their capability to do so is critical to ensuring dynamic and lasting change.


There are ways and means of getting innovative programs up and running. There are philanthropic organisations, pockets of government grant monies and opportunities to enlist the assistance of a variety of paid and unpaid people. The directions that students need are only limited by professional imagination: committed and concerned teachers are always able to ponder the possibilities. Not all of the possibilities require dollars: many involve different and creative levels of commitment, leadership, entrepreneurial tendencies and skills and searching for practical solutions. In education, there are never definitive answers: there are only solutions for today.



This article was prepared with the assistance of educators and other staff at Millner Primary School. (Contact admin.millnerps@latis.net.au.)


[1] Gateways to Literacy©, integrating Oral Language, Phonological Awareness and Perceptual Motor skill development, Millner Primary School / NT Department of Employment, Education and Training

[2] Dr Roslyn Nielson, Sutherland Phonological Awareness Test Revised (SPAT-R), Self published, revised edition published 2003

[3] David Green and Rod Campbell, Literacies and Learners: current perspectives, Pearson Education Australia, 2003, ISBN 1 74009 832 3


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