Granny was knitting some knickers.
Not the typical discussion between a fourth-class pupil and teacher of a summer Tuesday morning.
But this was the sentence being repeated and memorised by Luke Scannell before he typed it into the laptop computer.
His tutor was not a staff member at Sunday’s Well Boys National School, but Roy Brazzill who works at one of Abtran’s three centres in Cork.
Looking for patterns in the sentences, Luke spotted that there were a number of words with the ‘kn’; kneel, knee and knife had preceded the fictional underwear.
Their partnership finished last week at the end of a month-long project that saw Roy and seven colleagues visit the school half an hour each morning to work as mentors, each spending the duration with an individual pupil.
The boys were chosen to take part in the Suas Literacy Support Programme as they needed a bit of a leg-up with their reading. But by the end of the month, they were brimming with confidence and eager to read more books at home.
Prompted by the voice in the headsets which reads back what pupils have typed, the young participants soon learned to recognise if they have made a mistake and to correct their minor errors.
The AcceleRead AcceleWrite system also helps them learn to break up words into smaller chunks, and recognise where they might have gone wrong typing them in. Without having someone looking over their shoulder when reading or writing to always correct them, it develops their own literacy skills.
At the next table, Patrick Walsh recognised that a number of words in the sentences he had just typed ended in ‘ly’, such as ‘lovely’ and ‘lonely. Asked by his mentor Shane Forde to think of other words with the same ending, he soon volunteered and typed: ‘quickly’ and ‘quietly’.
The words happen to describe very well how the boys ranging from third to fifth classes have become accomplished readers over the past few weeks.
“Sometimes I found it hard, but Shane has taught me loads of new stuff,” said fifth-class pupil Patrick.
The opportunity to take part was jumped at by Shane who is very interested in becoming a teacher.
“It was a great chance to get a bit of insight into teaching. Patrick was always very good from the start, but he has gone from strength to strength in the past few weeks,” he said.
The Suas Literacy Support Programme has worked with 200 children in Cork and over 700 nationally in the past year. As well as working with local employers, schools also welcome college students on a paired reading scheme that encourages young people to develop their own reading skills through one-to-one interventions.
For Suas project manager in Cork Aoife Collins, one of the most rewarding things is seeing the bond that has developed between pupils and mentors like those who received certificates for their work at Sunday’s Well Boys National School last week.
“The programme not only develops the pupils’ confidence at reading, writing and computer skills, but their social skills are often boosted as well,” she said.
Adam Duncan and Caroline Kelleher described each other as pilot and co-pilot with their headsets, working on the laptop each morning in principal David Cashman’s office.
“When some people said I wouldn’t make it on the soccer team, she told me to keep my head up and I did. I’m on the team now,” explained proud young Adam.
The general confidence in pupils also manifests itself very well in the classroom, as witnessed by Tomás Horgan who teaches fourth and fifth class boys. Some have just completed the AcceleRead AcceleWrite programme, while others took part during the past year in a paired reading project in which UCC students visited once a week.
“The one thing I’ve really noticed is that their confidence levels went up a fair bit from interacting with the people from Abtran and UCC. Even just socially, in how they talk to other boys in the class,” he said.
“But there’s also a definite improvement in their reading. A lot of history and geography would involve reading, and they are a lot more confident standing up and reading in class,” he said.
The school’s home school community liaison teacher Anthony McSweeney said he has never seen such great personal interaction between adults and children.
“It’s benefitted them in an educational way, but also in an emotional and heartwarming way as well, it just means the world to them,” he said.
He met one boy just after his half-hour mentoring session, who told him: “I love doing this” which showed Anthony just how much the programme meant.
“I don’t remember ever coming out of a class in primary or secondary school and saying that.”
Development projects shown to have significant benefits
Projects like the one used at Sunday’s Well Boys NS on the northside of Cork City are shown to have significant impacts.
Suas Educational Development had similar work evaluated at six schools, including one second-level school, in 2013. This found that reading ages increased by over five months for participants in all projects over the four to five weeks that they took place.
With research to show that children in schools in disadvantaged communities are three times more likely than others to have serious difficulties with reading, Suas programmes work specifically with such schools.
David Cashman, principal of Sunday’s Well Boys NS, said the school benefits from some extra supports from the Department of Education from its placement in the second band of its DEIS programme. But while this allows them offer programmes like Maths Recovery and Literacy Lift Off, they do not get the same increased staffing that those in DEIS Band 1 classes have to help provide smaller class sizes.
“We have a fantastic team here committed to teaching children with a range of abilities and using different methods. And it’s great that Abtran would release staff for such an important project like this,” he said.
Niamh McAuliffe, a HR lead for the call centre firm which operates at three locations around Cork City, said Abtran sees the pupils that staff work with as its potential future employees.
“The mentors in the first few schools came back and told others how much they enjoyed it, it’s close to many of their hearts because some are going into their old schools,” she said.
Last year, 200 children aged eight to 14 at 10 DEIS schools in Cork City and suburbs were helped by mentors from Abtran, Starwood Hotels and Resorts, and the social and health education project, SHEP based in Ballincollig.
For Suas project manager in Cork, Aoife Collins, the work is not just in training the mentors.
“We have lots of schools who want to sign up so we’re constantly looking for new organisations to come on board who can give a little something back in their communities,” she said.