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A clear road to Recovery

We can teach children to read, we just need the funding back to provide the means, says Huw Thomas

Occasionally the teaching of reading causes a public pantomime. Politicians cry: "You can't teach reading," and teachers respond: "Oh yes we can," and the politicians come back with: "Oh no you can't," like a bunch of Twankeys.

Two weeks ago MPs on the education select committee bounced on to the stage with the tale of a failed literacy strategy.

"At age 11," they reported, "20 per cent of children still do not achieve the success in reading (and writing) expected of their age." Then, with a bit of a fee-fi-fo-fum they added: "This figure is unacceptably high."

The committee was taken with research on the teaching of phonics at Scottish schools in Clackmannanshire. And, if you live in a county with a name like that you need good phonic skills.

The project tracked 300 five-year-olds who undertook a synthetic phonics programme in which children build letter sounds into words. Another group began their school careers learning through analytic phonics, which the researchers refer to as "the predominant method in the UK".

Joining this panto, like Jack climbing his opportunistic beanstalk, Conservative education spokesman Tim Collins hastily announced that he would scrap the national literacy strategy (NLS) and introduce "new guidance based wholly and exclusively on synthetic phonics".

Sorry to disrupt the amateur dramatics, but may I point out this pantomime is actually a fairy tale? The "analytic phonics" method referred to in the research bears scant resemblance to the methods promoted in England's NLS programme, Progression in Phonics.

The researchers themselves acknowledge that there is a peculiarly Scottish brand of analytic phonics. In this variety, each of the letters is taught in an initial position, then in a final position. Children then move on to sounds in the middle of words. It sounds like torture.

The NLS recommends the teaching of six letter sounds in an initial position, then in a final position, then adding vowels in a medial position, moving swiftly on to the essence of good phonics work - blending and segmenting in both reading and spelling.

In another move from fairy stories to reality, could I mention that the NLS actually increased levels of reading attainment? They rose from 67 per cent attaining level 4 - the standard the Government wants - in 1996, to 83 per cent in 2004. The much-cited 78 per cent figure for 2004 refers to overall English scores, which incorporate writing results as well.

Now, to address the percentage who did not attain level 4 in reading, let us turn to another interesting statistic. When asked by The TES to "make a wish" to feature in the paper's teachers' manifesto for education a few weeks ago, 100 of the 1,300 respondents called for more Reading Recovery to be funded in schools. And in this week's TES readers' ballot, half of primary voters ticked reading recovery programmes as the top investment priority.

National research showed 81 per cent of children who went through Reading Recovery caught up with their class. Most of them were, like the children in the Clackmannanshire research, from disadvantaged backgrounds.

However, since 1995, when national funding was pulled, Reading Recovery's survival has relied on schools or local education authorities scraping their own funds together for the programme.

Sadly, less than a quarter of the teachers trained to run it between 1990 and 2004 are now delivering it.

In many schools the scheme is too costly to run. In Sheffield last year, children who were able to access the scheme showed a 90 per cent success rate. However, to gauge the real success of Reading Recovery, talk to those of us who have had it in our schools. Talk about the children who went on to make excellent gains during the rest of their time with us, about the classes in which a group of non-readers was transformed and where attainment was raised.

Crucially, there was the targeted early intervention into a year group, with researchers finding Reading Recovery teachers, on average, managing to boost the chances of between seven and 13 children a year.

Now average that out. Call it 10 kids. Now apply the 80 per cent success factor - you get eight kids. Eight kids out of a class of 30. I make that more than 20 per cent - more than the gap in attainment causing so much consternation to the select committee.

Like in many pantomimes, as our politicians stumble around the stage seeking a way to tackle the gap in reading attainment, at least 100 of us want to look at a programme that has been abandoned in the past and shout:

"It's behind you!"

Huw Thomas is a headteacher in SheffieldA report on the Clackmannanshire research can be downloaded at Reading Recovery National Network is at

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