Since 2012, Write to Read has worked with teachers in some of Ireland’s most disadvantaged communities to narrow the literacy achievement gap that exists between affluent and disadvantaged communities by supporting children to develop as readers, writers and thinkers.
With research by the Educational Research Centre showing that almost 1 in 5 children in the most disadvantaged schools leave primary school with low levels of literacy, Write to Read has worked in partnership with schools over the last nine years to support them in addressing this underachievement.
The closure of schools in the first quarter of 2021 due to the Covid-19 pandemic had serious implications for children’s learning and development, especially in the area of literacy. Many children from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds experienced a ‘digital divide’, lacking adequate access to high-speed internet or devices on which to complete their work. Without access to school and local libraries, motivation and encouragement to engage with reading and writing was also diminished.
In January 2021, the Write to Read team launched the “Reading Together while Staying Apart” initiative in conjunction with 11 schools in Dublin and Dundalk, Co. Louth, to support schools and teachers during this time of home school learning.
Over 1,000 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th class students who took part in the initiative, each received a free book sponsored by O’Brien Press, Gill Books and the Community Foundation RTE Does Comic Relief Fund. Participating teachers also received chapter by chapter guides from the Write to Read team which focused on development of key literacy skills: comprehension, vocabulary, fluency skills and writing workshop craft lessons.
Students in 3rd and 4th class read Jason Byrne’s “Onion O’Brien: The Secret Scientist”, while students in 5th and 6th class read Brian Gallagher’s “Resistance.” A key element of the initiative was to engage students with the books. Students were invited to send questions to each author on a weekly basis and received a video response.
Speaking on his weekly engagement with participating students, author Brian Gallagher noted:
“As a writer, I’ve always been keen to encourage reading, and I’ve been actively involved in many outreach programmes, school and library visits – ‘Reading Together While Staying Apart’ – however, has been special. At the outset of the project my hope was that they would find ”Resistance” an exciting adventure story – but also that they might be spurred into engaging in the sort of thought-provoking moral dilemmas that people – even children – have to face in times of war. As it turned out, I needn’t have worried about their degree of engagement with the novel. There were scores of questions from the young readers, many of them incisive, and I had to give considerable thought to the answers I provided in the videos that I recorded by way of response.”
Speaking on the initiative, Dr Eithne Kennedy, Write to Read Director, said:
“As learning moved online for the second time in the space of 12 months for primary school students in Ireland, we wanted to continue supporting teachers and schools in developing children’s literacy skills virtually. Learning from home can be a challenge for some children, so incorporating the authors into the project was a great way to engage students and create an excitement for them around the initiative. We are very thankful for the support of O’Brien press, Gill Books and the Community Foundation RTE Does Comic Relief Fund, who provided funding for participating students to receive Jason Byrne’s and Brian Gallagher’s books.”
A sixth class teacher, David Tonge, commented on the initiative, saying:
“The Reading Apart Initiative was an amazing experience to continue literature circles during school closures through online learning. We had put so much work into our book clubs in Francis Street School, so it was fantastic to be able to continue this with the support of our Write to Read associates in an online capacity. It was also very special knowing we were part of a community of readers who had the privilege of the added involvement of the author. We love Brian Gallagher’s books and “Resistance” was no exception. It was an amazing experience for the students to engage with the author as it gave the children an insight into writing books they wouldn’t usually have, which definitely added to the project.”
Ronan Hickey, a third class teacher participating in the initiative also observed:
“The Reading Apart Initiative has been amazing – we’ve been reading Onion O’Brien, The Secret Scientist and have laughed out loud, debated, bit our nails and struggled to put it down! It is exactly the tonic that was needed to keep imaginations healthy, vibrant and entertained, now more than ever!”