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

Kenny Ireland, pictured in 2010.
peopleActor, from House of Cards and Benidorm, was 68
A scene from the video shows students mock rioting
newsSchool leaver's pic YouTube video features staging of a playground gun massacre
View from the Llanberis Track to the mountain lake Llyn
Du’r Arddu
environmentA large chunk of Mount Snowdon, in north Wales, is up for sale
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
A family sit and enjoy a quiet train journey
voicesForcing us to overhear dull phone conversations is an offensive act, says Simon Kelner
Arts and Entertainment
The cast of The Big Bang Theory in a still from the show
tvBig Bang Theory filming delayed by contract dispute over actors' pay
England celebrate a wicket for Moeen Ali
sportMoeen Ali stars with five wickets as Cook's men level India series
Morrissey pictured in 2013
Life and Style
The director of Wall-E Andrew Stanton with Angus MacLane's Lego model
gadgetsDesign made in Pixar animator’s spare time could get retail release
peopleGuitarist, who played with Aerosmith, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper among others, was 71
Robyn Lawley
i100  ... he was into holy war way before it was on trend
Arts and Entertainment
High-flyer: Chris Pratt in 'Guardians of the Galaxy'
filmThe film is surprisingly witty, but could do with taking itself more seriously, says Geoffrey Macnab
Life and Style
food + drinkVegetarians enjoy food as much as anyone else, writes Susan Elkin
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Education Recruitment Consultant- Learning Support

£18000 - £30000 per annum + Generous commission scheme: AER Teachers: Thames T...

Supply Teachers Needed in Bungay

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Supply teachers neede...

Year 6 Teacher

£111 - £163 per day + £111 - £163 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: The posi...

Experienced Creche Assistant - Lambeth - September 2014

£64 - £69 per day + Competitive London rates of pay : Randstad Education Group...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

Commonwealth Games

David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain