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One-to-one makes all the difference when teaching children to read

A scheme from New Zealand is helping English children learn to read – with great success. But would this expensive programme survive a change of Government? Hilary Wilce reports

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

Even more impressive is that she is enjoying it and tackling problems with confidence. Alicia's teacher, Joy Matthews, says to her: "I loved how you went back and checked when you said 'I'm' instead of 'I am'. 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 12 to 20 weeks, Alicia will almost certainly have caught up with her classmates, and will 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 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 programme from New Zealand devised by the late educationalist Dame Marie Clay (see box), which the Government has decided to give to six-year-olds who are having extreme difficulties learning to read. It knows that a failure to start reading leads to long-term failure in school, behaviour problems, a lack of confidence and ultimately billions of pounds' worth of problems in society. The national scheme began this autumn and 30,000 children a year are expected to be on the programme by 2010.

It 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.

Together with a similar remedial maths programme, Reading Recovery will cost £144m over the next three years, but for Alicia's head teacher at Diocesan & Payne-Smith C of E Primary School, Canterbury, the way that the programme works is worth every penny. "Our school serves the poorest ward in the city," says Carol Wakelin. "Many of our parents are non-readers, and this breaks the cycle. It is literally life-changing. It is not just teaching reading, it's changing attitudes. And it allows the other teachers to focus on the children with less extreme problems. We have had it for two years now and it has had 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 ten struggling readers catch up with their classmates, and a study by the KPMG Foundation, an education charity that supports Every Child A Reader, has suggested that 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 had caught up with the national average, and outperformed it at the end of Year 2, which includes those aged six and seven.

And Reading Recovery looks likely to come out well from the major shake-up coming shortly for primary schools, when Sir Jim Rose's Primary Review delivers its long-awaited final report. In a recent analysis of all remedial reading schemes being used in schools, Greg Brooks, professsor of education at Sheffield and one of the review's literacy experts, noted that severe reading problems had to tackled with skilled, intensive, one-to-one interventions, and that non-readers taught via Reading Recovery sustained their gains for at least three years.

Yet not everyone is happy. The programme costs nearly £2,500 per child. It is administered by teachers who need long and complex extra training, and favours the kind of mixed methods of teaching reading that have been discarded in classrooms.

Hardline phonics advocates are furious at this reversal. "This is giving schools a really mixed message," says Debbie Hepplewhite of the Reading Reform Foundation. "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 are upset about it." She points to evidence that the effects of Reading Recovery don't last. She also says it has vocal critics in the USA, and that in Queensland, Australia, funding has recently been withdrawn from the programme. "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," she says. "The better schools get at phonics, the more we see the number 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 have to be lots of interesting books and good comprehension."

And Julia Douëtil, of the Reading Recovery National Network at the Institute of Education, says that these are not children who have failed to be taught phonics. "These are children for whom, for some reason, phonics hasn't worked," she says. "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, '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, Douëtil says, are trained to analyse children's individual needs and have a deep understanding of how reading and writing are learnt. "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 West Dunbartonshire, where intensive phonics teaching still left 6 per cent of children struggling. "Reading Recovery provides language-rich sessions that support comprehension and reading for meaning," it says, noting that in the US it has won the highest possible ratings for from independent assessors.

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 schools secretary, gives the Reading Recovery campaigners cause for hope. "We're committed to doing everything possible to improve reading," he says. "And that means not just a systematic approach to synthetic phonics but also individual support for those with particular difficulties."

Dame Marie Clay and Reading Recovery

The educationalist who created the Reading Recovery programme swam against the tide. Born in 1926, Dame Marie Clay was a primary school teacher from Wellington, New Zealand, who later took up a position at the University of Auckland. In the 1960s, when she began research for her PhD thesis, it was believed that struggling young readers would simply grow out of their problems. But the young Marie Clay believed that all children could be helped to overcome their reading and writing difficulties if help was given early enough. She argued that even if a child's thought process appeared wildly illogical, it was still based upon an internal "cognitive logic". If the teacher was able to understand the individual child's thought process then it would be possible to find a way of teaching the child more effectively.

Her system is based upon teachers being trained to interpret pupil behaviour, and requires that they adjust their theories to the child. Trials of the system began in New Zealand in 1978, and the programme became national standard in 1983. It has been implemented in most English-speaking countries . The early 1990s saw the programme introduced in Britain, but the amount of one-to-one teaching time proved too costly and the scheme was abandoned in 1995. But a 2006 report by the Institute of Education gave new evidence of the programme's effectiveness, and the scheme was adopted in England last month.

Clay was appointed Dame of the British Empire in 1987 and was given an honorary doctorate in literature by the Institute in 2002. She died in April last year aged 81.

Andy Sharman