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Failure at reading can be overcome

Robert E Slavin reports on a radical programme called Success for all

Almost all children, regardless of their home backgrounds, enter school bright, hopeful, and highly motivated, certain that they will succeed in school. Only four years later, children have experienced the most important years of their school careers.

Some will still be confident and highly motivated. However, many will have failed, and reading far below the average for their age. When students fail in the early years, they begin a cycle of poor self-esteem and further poor performance that all too often leads to despair, delinquency, and dropout.

Research in the United States shows that disadvantaged third-graders (your Year 3) who fail a grade or read well below their grade level are extremely unlikely to graduate from high school.

Waiting for children to fail and only then providing expensive remedial or special education services is futile. Children who have failed hate school, hate reading, and are anxious and unmotivated. Research and common sense tell us that prevention and early intervention make more sense than remediation and special education.

But how can this concept be translated into reality? It is not enough to convince school staffs that it is important to ensure that all children start off with success; schools need proven methods sure to work with at-risk children.

One means of ensuring reading success for most young children is Reading Recovery, the one-to-one tutoring model developed in New Zealand and now used throughout the English-speaking world. Reading Recovery has excellent evidence of effectiveness with first-graders having difficulty learning to read, but it serves very few students (at great cost). What can be done in schools with many children at risk of school failure?

This question led our group at Johns Hopkins University to develop Success for All. It began in the Baltimore City public schools in 1987 and now exists in more than 420 schools in 90 districts in 28 American states. Adaptations of it are in use in Canada, Australia, Israel, and the Netherlands.

Most Success for All schools are among the highest-poverty schools in urban and rural districts, but many others also use it. The idea is simple: focus resources, attention, and the best instructional methods known in the early grades to make certain that no child ever falls behind, especially in reading. The key ingredient is relentlessness, a commitment through the school to see that every child makes it, no matter what this takes.

The commitment to success for every child must be backed up with the best available programmes and resources. Students in Success for All schools start at the age of four or five with programmes designed to build language, self-esteem, and pre-reading skills. In first grade they start in an innovative structured reading programme that emphasises unlocking the reading code in the context of meaningful, enjoyable stories.

Students work in co-operation with each other on reading and writing activities. By the end of first grade, almost all students are well on the way to successful reading and in most schools move on to work with novels, short stories, and social studies and science content in small groups.

Top-quality early childhood programmes and reading and writing instruction prevent most reading problems from arising, but not all. The next level of intervention is tutoring. Tutors are certified teachers who work one-on-one, primarily with first-graders who are having difficulties learning to read. The tutoring model is somewhat similar to Reading Recovery.

One difference, however, is that the tutors work in close collaboration with classroom teachers; if a child is struggling with lesson 37, the tutor works on that lesson so that the child will be ready for lesson 38. The tutors teach a reading class during a common reading period, both to reduce class size and to make sure that tutors are familiar with the reading programme.

Family support is also a key element of Success for All. A family support team in each school works to involve parents in the education of their own children in a variety of ways and also deals with such issues as attendance, behaviour problems, health problems, and connections with social agencies.

One of the most important individuals in a Success of All school is the facilitator, a teacher who usually works full-time to help other teachers to implement the programme. The facilitator visits teachers' classes to give feedback and support, organises an eight-week assessment programme to monitor the progress of every child, makes sure that teachers, tutors, and family support staff are all communicating, and so on.

Success for All is being evaluated in 19 high-poverty schools in nine school districts across the United States, plus an evaluation in Houston involving 50 Success for All schools. The Success for All schools are compared to matched control schools on individually administered tests of reading.

The results are remarkable in their consistency, breadth, and power. In every district students in Success for All schools are reading better than students in control schools. In addition to consistent effects for English-speaking children, strong positive effects have been found for a Spanish version of the programme used in bilingual classes, and for special education students.

Most high-poverty schools in the United States can afford the programme by restructuring federal funds they would have received anyway. Of course, savings in need for special education and remedial services more than pay for the initial investment in a few years (not to mention probably later savings in reduced crime, welfare needs, and so on). At present, no schools in Britain have adopted this approach.

What is most important about the findings of research on Success for All is its clear demonstration that reading failure is fundamentally preventable. Studies of other programmes incorporating one-to-one tutoring of first graders, such as Reading Recovery, show the same thing. If we know that reading failure can be prevented, then it must be prevented. We have shown that students from the poorest families and those who are at risk for special education can become confident, enthusiastic, and skilled readers, and therefore successful students.

Dr Robert E Slavin is director of the Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed at Risk, at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland. He is visiting Britain next week to work with teachers, researchers, OFTSTED and the DFEE and address a national conference on school improvement. Details from Professor David Hopkins at Nottingham University (0115 951 4431) or Ralph Tabberer, National Foundation for Educational Research (01753 574123).

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