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Forest gumption

Preview of the National Exhibition and Conference, Cardiff International Arena, May 27-28

From cover to recover

A reading programme from New Zealand catches pupils before they fall too far behind

Good girl, Payton, you read that well. Now, what are these marks? What do they show us? That's right. That someone's speaking. And what's that? That's right, a full stop. And that? Good, a comma. Well done!"

Then it's off to the board for six-year-old Payton Smith, to make the words cake and bake and take with magnetic letters. Then back to the desk to write a story, then tackle one final reading book.

Reading Recovery lessons go at a quick pace, and for Newport these daily, half-hour, one-to-one sessions are proving a fast track for picking up faltering readers and getting them to a level where they can keep up with the class. This, in turn, has helped the local education authority to boost its pupils' achievements significantly at key stage 1.

Reading Recovery (widely used in England before the National Literacy Strategy was introduced in 1998, but now much less prevalent) came to south Wales seven years ago after primary adviser Claire Watkins went to New Zealand, its homeland, to see how it works.

Teacher Jayne Clark, who is working with Payton at St Julians infant school, is a fan. "We use specific prompts and phrases," she explains. "We have to stay on the straight and narrow. It is a form of brainwashing, I suppose, but it's the most rigorous training I've ever had, and every child on the programme moves on."

Reading Recovery trainer Gaynor Brimble points out that although it's seen as expensive, it solves problems before they become entrenched and enables children to be taught in mainstream classrooms. "It gives them strategies and teaches them to be independent of us," she says. "We say, 'What can you try? And if that one thing doesn't work, what else can you try?'"

She says the system also boosts children's self-esteem. Every year, about 150 of them go through the 12- to 20-week programme, with eight in 10 reaching a reading level of 2C or above at the end of key stage 1.

The system works with children aged between five-years-nine-months and six-years-three-months. Parents are asked to sign a contract. "This is a very formal, very serious thing," says Lesley Ilott, head of St Julians.

"We explain that this costs a lot of money and their child is very lucky to be getting it."

With two Reading Recovery teachers at the school, it aims to cover the bottom 20 per cent of pupils. The policy is part of Newport's determination to address issues of basic skills. Although the authority has some of the worst child poverty in Wales, it is now near the top of the national league table for its key stage 1 English results. Eighty-seven per cent of pupils (the Welsh average is 82 per cent) achieve level 2 or above.

Not that Payton Smith worries about that. The grin on her face as she finishes reading out a story tells its own success story.

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