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Full recovery

Diana Hinds describes how one school went from 'rock bottom' reading results to 100 per cent success

Last autumn, six-year-old Kayleigh minded the fact that she could not read a single word. Six months later, after 25 hours of individual Reading Recovery lessons, Kayleigh is reading aloud the story of the enormous turnip, with confidence and obvious enjoyment. This is her favourite book, she says, and reading "makes me feel happy". Now coming up to national curriculum level 2c, Kayleigh will soon bid Reading Recovery farewell and move on to Year 2 with every hope of doing well in her Sats next year.

Kayleigh is just one of a sizeable band of children - about 20 per cent - at Victoria Park Infants School, Bristol, who do not take off as readers with early phonics work. Her school draws many of its pupils from severely deprived inner-city estates and some of them have not had the literacy back-up at home to help them into reading. A few have dyslexic tendencies.

Others, says Reading Recovery teacher Debbie Miles, "simply do not latch on" to phonics in their first year at school.

Headteacher Jenny Holt is evangelical about the need for reading interventions in addition to phonics for children like these. "What is very much in the news is that synthetic phonics is the way forward. Phonics has always been a part of what we do, but you can't just come up with that one solution - it's too black and white," she says. "There are many different skills in teaching reading and using Reading Recovery alongside phonics puts in place different strategies and ticks other boxes."

In 1998, 50 per cent of children at Victoria Park left the school unable to read, and the school was rated rock bottom for its reading, writing and maths. The school decided a range of programmes was needed to help children at every level.

First there was Jolly Phonics for all reception children, a scheme which introduces them in a playful way to the 44 sounds, each accompanied by an action. Then the school introduced Phono-Graphix, a highly-structured phonics-based system of teaching "sound pictures", which children move on to at the end of reception. Regular assessment identifies those children already beginning to struggle and they receive extra help with Phono-Graphix through small group intervention from Year 1 into Year 2.

For children who are still having difficulties, the Reading Recovery route was chosen as a necessary "wave three" intervention. From 1999, class teacher Debbie Miles was trained at the Reading Recovery Centre in Bristol and became the school's half-time Reading Recovery teacher. She began the daily half-hour individual lessons with four children, who made rapid progress. The school then extended booster Reading Recovery work - twice-weekly lessons - to 30 more children below average in their reading.

"The two approaches - phonics and Reading Recovery - complement each other and come in at different levels of need," says Jenny. "It's like a virtual cupboard of intervention programmes."

Victoria Park manages these concurrent programmes with apparent ease. On the day of my visit, while Kayleigh does Reading Recovery with Debbie, incorporating synthetic and analytic phonic games, reading from a range of books to build Kayleigh's repertoire of independent strategies and writing and spelling activities linked to her reading, in the small room next door, six children from Year 1 are practising their Phono-Graphix.

This group is taught by higher-level teaching assistant Natalie Smith (the school ensures that all its TAs receive extra literacy training) and today they are using coloured letters to build words such as "long", "bring" and "chin". One girl adds a "g" to chin, but when she listens to Natalie pronounce the word again, she sensibly takes it away. "Well done, excellent listening," says her teacher.

Within two to three years of the combined initiatives, Victoria Park was basking in good results. By 2001, it had climbed from an E* rating for reading to an A in comparison with similar schools and a B in comparison with schools nationally. In 2002, 88 per cent of the cohort achieved level 2+, 79 per cent 2B+ and 26 per cent level 3 in reading. In 2003 and 2004 the numbers achieving level 2+ continued to improve to 94 per cent and 93 per cent.

"Every child now leaves our school reading," says Jenny Holt. This could not have happened, she says, had Reading Recovery and in particular the booster sessions, not been implemented alongside phonics. Reading Recovery has had a bad press in recent years, largely on account of its cost - about pound;15,000 to pound;20,000 a year for a half-time teacher. But for an inner-city school such as Victoria Park, it is a budget priority, Jenny believes, as well as a crucial way of cutting special needs bills later by catching literacy problems early.

Another criticism levelled at Reading Recovery is that reading improvements are not sustained. Victoria Park, however, has convincing evidence to the contrary. Of the 29 underachieving children who received Reading Recovery or booster sessions in 2000, 28 were tracked to Year 6 and 25 of them gained a Level 4+ in reading, and five a Level 5+.

Victoria Park's commitment to Reading Recovery was rewarded last autumn, when the school became one of 10 in Bristol to receive funding from Every Child A Reader, a collaboration between charitable trusts, businesses and the government. As a result, the school can, for the first time, employ a full-time Reading Recovery teacher to work with Year 1 and 2 children.

"If you're looking for something that works, then Reading Recovery is what you need," says Jenny. Or as one of her pupils put it, proudly collecting his certificate at a school assembly, "It's changed my bloomin' life."

Using Reading Recovery

* Make sure you have the commitment of the whole staff.

* Make Reading Recovery a budget priority.

* Employ a fully-trained Reading Recovery teacher (a number are currently unemployed and looking for work).

* Consider sharing the expertise of a Reading Recovery teacher with a cluster of schools.

* Use regular assessment and data-monitoring to identify which children most need help.

* Offer daily Reading Recovery sessions to the most needy children, and less frequent booster sessions to other children.

* Be flexible in moving children in and out of different intervention programmes at different times.

* Maintain high-quality, structured phonics work for all children at all times.

* Train teaching assistants in phonics work and in the principles of Reading Recovery.

* Encourage as much parental involvement as possible, so children have support at home with their daily book.

* Promote the creative side of literacy so that all children learn to enjoy books right from day one.

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