Let me learn to read, miss

Improving levels of literacy is high on the Education Minister's list of priorities, but will he find the cash to reinstate the brilliant Reading Recovery scheme?
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The Independent Online
The lesson is in the statistics. In Britain lots of children do not learn to read properly; the 1996 national tests revealed that no less than 43 per cent of pupils fell below the standard expected of 11-year- olds. In New Zealand, on the other hand, only five per cent of children are still poor readers when they move on from primary school. One reason for the difference is a programme called Reading Recovery.

The New Zealand government keeps standards high by funding a scheme that provides a second chance for six-year-olds who are slipping behind in literacy skills. The programme is available in this country too - but only in fewer than 20 per cent of local education authorities because the Department of Education, having financed a three-year experiment, withdrew funding in 1995. Whether or not Mr David Blunkett, the new Education Minister, restores the lost cash will be a litmus test of his intention to improve the level of literacy among children.

Reading Recovery is an intense experience; each child receives half-an- hour's one-to-one tuition each day for 20 weeks. To a six-year-old, half- an-hour can seem like an eternity. For a teacher who has only 30 minutes a day to impart vital skills of reading and writing, it passes in a flash. This is no-nonsense teaching.

Mary, the six-year-old, was getting distracted and starting to fidget. Her teacher gently sat her up straight, repositioned the book on the desk, and tilted her head so that her eyes focused on the page. Since Mary has nearly completed her course, her teacher tried not to step in too often, and she did well, correcting herself when she stumbled, puzzling out unfamiliar words on her own. When she has finished the course, she should have learned to cope in class without extra support.

Behind a glass screen at London University's Institute of Education, where the British Reading Recovery scheme is based, others watched intently. This was a training session for tutors who will be passing on a new skill to classroom teachers: how to bring up to speed as swiftly as possible six-year-olds whose reading and writing is already dropping below standard.

Reading Recovery began in New Zealand in the late 1970s, and these days 95 per cent of New Zealand children can read and write by the age of seven. An emphasis on literacy means 80 per cent learn to read and write fluently through normal teaching, and a further 15 per cent catch up during Reading Recovery. The scheme was devised by Dame Marie Clay, previously Education Professor at Auckland University, who describes it as a literacy course concentrating on reading and writing. She explains that in New Zealand the programme allows schools to decide how many pupils are involved. "My recommendation across the country is for 20 per cent. In New Zealand it goes to 19.8 per cent of the pupils across the public education system."

After working in schools as an education psychologist, Dame Marie discovered that reading difficulties were best dealt with almost as soon as they were spotted. Barbara Watson, the national director of Reading Recovery in New Zealand, agrees that the extra effort is effective only if it starts early. "Delaying it is impossible. We know that is going to be most unsatisfactory."

The scheme is not about diagnosing disorders such as dyslexia, a word Dame Marie Clay says she does not use. "My approach is wider than diagnosing dyslexia; there are other factors such as having English as a second language or socio-economics at play. But our success rate means those studying dyslexia will have a far purer sample to work on. Early intervention, taking a wide sweep, will clear out as many children as possible. If people in the past have said 15 per cent are dyslexic, then we have taken 13 per cent away."

Reading Recovery is also used in the US and Australia. Between 80 per cent and 99 per cent of children who complete the programme are not referred on for further help.

But the scheme is not cheap, and in Britain many local authorities can't afford it, especially as the infant schools, which would make the investment, have the lowest level of funding. Reading Recovery was introduced in Britain in 1992, with a great fanfare, just before the general election. The Conservatives spent pounds 14m on keeping it going for three years, making the scheme available to local authorities who had already been allocated resources under the inner city challenge initiative. They withdrew central funding in 1995 and left local authorities to pick up the cost. Most decided to stick with the course: an indication of how effective they had found it.

David Blunkett, then shadow Education Secretary, came out in vociferous support of the axed programme. At the time he said: "Gillian Shephard is presiding over lower literacy standards by abandoning support for Reading Recovery. The Government's own agency has confirmed [its] excellence in helping the weakest reading students. Yet this is the moment ministers choose to abandon the scheme."

Now the national co-ordinators of Reading Recovery, the 700 teachers nationwide that provide the lessons for 32 local education authorities, and thousands of parents and pupils, are waiting to see if Mr Blunkett will put his money where his mouth was.

"We are hopeful," says Julia Douetil, one of Reading Recovery's national co-ordinators. "A consultation paper published before the election had specific references to Reading Recovery. It would make all the difference if the costs were lifted from local authorities. It will be hard for us if Government funding isn't reinstated - and difficult for the project to expand. Children who need it simply won't have access."

The main criticism of Reading Recovery is that it costs around pounds 1,000 per child. However, a report published by the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, just as central funding was withdrawn, concluded that while it may cost more than other methods in the short term, pupils do better: "We found that children in control groups who weren't having Reading Recovery were having about half as much spent on them on schemes that weren't working and where the pupils were making little progress," says Dr Kathy Sylva, now Reader in Educational Studies at Oxford University and one of the authors of the report. "Schools should be targeting money towards schemes that are effective, and this one is proven."

Ms Douetil adds: "Reading Recovery is easy to cost, because the money is paid up-front. For older children who need help, costs are masked in staffing figures and more money is eventually spent over a longer period."

Teachers who have been on the course are enthusiastic. One, who preferred not to give her name because of possible repercussions from her education authority, is leaving her job, partly because lack of funds have forced her school to axe the scheme. "Training in Reading Recovery was hard work, but effective. You could see in the children's eyes that they knew they could do it. They were more settled in class, more cheerful. One girl, who always thought reading was too difficult, came and hugged me. Now she's ready to start the rest of the learning process."

This teacher found that the Reading Recovery training course exposed the inadequacies of her previous training. "Everybody who took it was saying things like 'Why didn't they teach us how to teach reading before?' and a teacher from New Zealand who came to visit was shocked that we hadn't learned how to teach reading properly."

The idea is to apply new techniques to traditional methods. The teacher's time with children is spent on working with texts, breaking words into syllables and spelling out the sound of a new word. Children spend a short time looking at letters and how they are formed; the rest of the time is spent reading, and writing compositions.

The Department of Education, which received an extra pounds 2.3bn in the Budget, is keeping quiet about its plans for Reading Recovery, refusing to comment on the future fate of the scheme. "You can say that the Government is making literacy a priority," suggested a spokesperson.

Meanwhile a report published last week by the Basic Skills Agency illustrates the catastrophic consequences of illiteracy. Adults with poor reading, writing and numeracy skills are likely to experience long-term unemployment, depression, family breakdown, low income and social handicap. And, says the report, a poor start in life is difficult to make up later. Which makes Reading Recovery sound cheap at almost any price.