Journalist and Writer
Hilary Wilce specialising in all aspects of education
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One-to-one makes all the difference when learning to read

Published By: The Independent - 30 Oct 2008

Hilary Wilce

Reading Recovery

Alicia, 7, is reading Father Bear Goes Fishing. “Here – comes – a – fish – he – shouted.” Finger inching along the words, she ploughs slowly through the whole book -- a minor miracle considering that just a few weeks ago, after a year in school, she was not reading at all.

Even more impressive is the fact that she is enjoying it and tackling problems with confidence. “I loved how you went back and checked when you said ‘I’m’ instead of ‘I am’,” says her teacher, Joy Matthews. “Good looking!”

Alicia gets half-an-hour of individual tuition every day with Joy, a teacher who is specially trained to help failing readers. Joy knows that Alicia gets n and h muddled up, has memory problems, and guesses at words without looking at them properly. Despite these difficulties, after between 12 to 20 weeks, Alicia will almost certainly have caught up with her classmates, and go on to cope well in school.

When Alicia leaves, Joy will teach her next pupil, a little boy, using the same fast-paced and varied lesson structure, but entirely adapted to his very different needs. There are all sorts of reasons – mental, emotional and physical – why children struggle to read. Many non-readers show dyslexia-type symptoms, but Joy ignores traditional labels and simply assumes that all the children she sees will succeed.

This is Reading Recovery, a remedial reading programme from New Zealand which has been around in the UK since the 1980s, but which the Government has now decided to give to all struggling 6-year-olds in school. It knows that a failure to start reading leads on to long-term failure in school, behaviour problems, a lack of confidence and ultimately billions of pounds worth of problems to society. The national roll-out began this autumn and 30,000 children a year are expected to be on the programme by 2010.

Reading Recovery also sits at the heart of a wider programme, Every Child A Reader, under which Reading Recovery teachers support other teachers and classroom assistants in their schools, and continuing, less intensive reading help is offered to all children who need extra support.

This, together with a similar remedial maths programme, will cost £144 million over the next three years, but for Alicia’s head, Carol Wakelin, of Diocesan and Payne-Smith Church of England Primary School, in Canterbury, the way that Reading Recovery works is worth every penny. “Our school serves the poorest ward in the city. Many of our parents are non-readers. This breaks the cycle. It is literally life-changing. It’s not just teaching reading, it’s changing attitudes. And it allows the other teachers to focus on the children with not such extreme problems. We have had it for two years now and it has an impact on all my children. I would not be without it.”

The figures appear to bear her out. Under the programme eight out of 10 struggling readers catch up with their classmates, and a study by the KPMG Foundation, which supports Every Child A Reader, has suggested it saves the country £17 in social costs for every £1 spent. Recent research into the progress of 500 children who had gone through Reading Recovery in inner London showed that they not only caught up with the national average, but outperformed it at the end of Year Two.

Yet not everyone is happy. The programme costs nearly £2,500 a child. It is administered by teachers who need lengthy and complex additional training, even using one-way mirrors in their training sessions, and favours the kind of mixed methods of teaching reading that have now been discarded in classrooms.

Hard-line phonics advocates are furious at this reversal. “This is giving schools a really mixed message. It uses guessing words from pictures and context. They are trying to say it’s complementary to phonics, but it has no resemblance whatsoever to synthetic phonics. And a lot of academics internationally are upset about it,” says Debbie Hepplewhite of the Reading Reform Foundation.

She points to evidence that the effects of Reading Recovery don’t last, says it has vocal critics in the United States, and that Queensland, in Australia, has recently withdrawn funding for it. “This is all just a muddle and a fudge and we will fight it to the end.”

But Jean Gross, director of Every Child A Reader, emphasises that Reading Recovery is about the children at the very, very bottom. “We have no problem with synthetic phonics. The better schools get at phonics, the more we see the numbers of children who need specialised help reducing. But these children might have glue ear, speech or language difficulties, all sorts of problems. So it has to be personalised, not done by rote. If they can sound out their own name, we will start from that. And there has to be lots of interesting books and good comprehension. ”

And Jean Douetil (with two dots over the e), of the Reading Recovery National Network, at the Institute of Education, says “These are not children who have failed to be taught phonics. These are children for whom, for some reason, phonics hasn’t worked. They haven’t made the connections. The things we take for granted just haven’t happened. And the problems can be almost unbelievable. One little boy said to his teacher, after a time, ‘Oh, you mean I have to look at the black bits?’ He had been watching what he called ‘the rivers’ of white space running down the text.”

Reading Recovery teachers, she says, are trained to analyse children’s individual needs, have a deep understanding of how reading and writing are learned, and use numerous prompts. “The difference between them and other teachers is the difference between a good GP and a brain surgeon. It’s not cheap, but the Government’s stance is that they will back the cheapest programme that works.”

The KPMG Foundation points to work in West Dunbartonshire, where intensive phonics teaching still left six per cent of children struggling. “Reading Recovery provides language-rich sessions that support comprehension and reading for meaning,” it says, and notes that in the US it has won the highest possible ratings for effectiveness from the independent national clearing house that evaluates different schemes.

Even so its supporters fear that the Conservatives will wield the knife if they come to office. Back in the 1990s they axed an earlier Reading Recovery programme on the grounds of cost, and some leading Tories are known to favour synthetic phonics for all reading problems. But Michael Gove, shadow secretary of state for children, schools and families, says “We’re committed to doing everything possible to improving reading. And that means not just a systematic approach to synthetic phonics but also appropriate individual support for those with particular needs or difficulties.”