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Intensive care rescues pupils from illiteracy

It is expensive but it works. For pound;2,500 per child, Reading Recovery saves pupils from a life of failure and likely exclusion. Biddy Passmore reports

Each year, in England, some 35,000 children leave primary school without the most basic reading skills. They fail to reach level 3 of the national curriculum. That means they cannot even read The Sun.

These children, the bottom 6 per cent of readers, will struggle at secondary school. Only about 500 of them will reach the magical benchmark of five good GCSEs. Many will give up and drift into truancy and offending.

Some will end up in prison.

Four in ten of these children are from deprived backgrounds and more than two-thirds are boys. Thus two of Britain's greatest education problems, the attainment gap between social classes and that between girls and boys, seem set in stone by the age of 11.

But Jean Gross and her colleagues in the Every Child a Reader project argue that it does not have to be this way. They say that Reading Recovery, tailor-made, one-to-one lessons for those struggling to make progress after a year in primary school, can help nearly all catch up with their peers.

And, once they have, they do not fall behind again.

First results from their three-year, pound;10 million project to bring Reading Recovery to 5,000 children in deprived parts of the country suggest they are right.

For the first time, researchers at London university's Institute of Education have been able to compare the progress of children in schools with the programme with those in schools without. The difference, they say, is startling. They have found that struggling six-year-olds given skilled tuition advanced 21 months in reading age over four to five months - well over four times the normal rate of progress. Their writing also improved markedly, as did their confidence and behaviour. Children in schools without Reading Recovery, but receiving help from teaching assistants, not only failed to catch up but fell further behind their peers. On average, they made only seven months' progress over a year.

Dr Sue Burroughs-Lange, leader of the research team, said that intensive reading tuition also narrows the gender gap. "At the end of the year, although girls in schools without Reading Recovery had pulled three months ahead of boys, in schools with Reading Recovery both girls and boys were doing equally well," she said. Almost as significant, results from the first year of the project last academic year suggest that standards rose for all children in Every Child a Reader schools, not just those directly taught, because of the presence of a skilled literacy expert.

The project is the brainchild of Mrs Gross, an educational psychologist and former senior director of the national primary strategy. A longtime supporter of the project, she was concerned to see it in decline after funding stopped when the national literacy strategy was introduced. So when the KPMG Foundation was looking for a literacy scheme to support, she jumped at the chance to expand it again.

"Reading Recovery waned in England because it was thought that better classroom teaching under the national literacy strategy would mean there was no need for it," says Mrs Gross. "Well, the strategy helped, but it didn't always reach the children who struggle most. Now some reading experts think that if you just do synthetic phonics well enough, you don't need further intervention. They are simply wrong. Good phonics teaching reduces the number of children needing extra help. But some still won't learn without the intensive, one-to-one support provided by Reading Recovery. And they need this help early, when they are six, before their reading problem has too much effect on their self-confidence."

Why is Reading Recovery so effective? Is it the quality of the training teachers receive, the techniques they use, or simply the intensity of one-to-one tuition?

"What is powerful is the particular mix," says Dr Burroughs-Lange. "The teacher can tailor it to the particular child. It's assessment-driven, personalised learning that builds on what the child knows."

A key element of Every Child a Reader is that it helps schools take a layered approach to literacy. The expert teacher helps reception teachers provide "quality first" teaching for all pupils in their first year, by helping them to assess pupils and choose suitable reading materials. Then they train and support teachers and teaching assistants to help pupils needing further intervention: group tuition for the just below average; one-to-one tuition with a teaching assistant for those who are struggling; and one-on-one help from a Reading Recovery expert for those experiencing the greatest difficulties.

The only problem seems to be the cost, estimated at pound;2,000 to Pounds 2,500 per child. For a primary school, it is a heavy burden to bear. But the intervention is short and, in eight out of ten cases, brings the child up to the level of their peers, with no need for further action. Research tracking 600 children given support at six, found they had maintained their progress through to 11.

The KPMG Foundation has now commissioned economists to assess the cost to public funds of Britain's poor literacy levels and to estimate the return on investment of Every Child a Reader. The report, due by the end of the year, is expected to show that Reading Recovery is a bargain.

See the TES magazine this week and next for further expert advice on literacy


Reading Recovery, intensive literacy help for children struggling to read after a year in primary school, was brought to the UK from New Zealand by Dame Marie Clay in 1990.

Between 1990 and 2004, more than 3,300 teachers were trained as Reading Recovery teachers. But numbers began to decline in England in the late 1990s as the national literacy strategy was introduced.

Its use spread rapidly during the 1990s, mainly in deprived areas, encouraged by specific government grants.

By 2004-5, some 5,400 children in the UK were receiving intensive Reading Recovery tuition, of whom only 1,700 were in England. Of the 600 teachers trained in the technique in England, only 60 practise it today.


Ten London authorities are piloting the Reading Recovery project:Barking and Dagenham, Brent, Greenwich, Hackney, Hammersmith and Fulham, Haringey, Islington, Lambeth, Southwark, and Tower Hamlets The scheme is also being introduced in 12 authorities nationwide:Birmingham, Bradford, Bristol, Derbyshire, Devon, Kent, Leeds, Leicester, Liverpool, Manchester, Middlesbrough and Sheffield.

The result is a partnership between KPMG, the DfES (which is providing Pounds 4.5 million of the total pound;10 million), the Institute of Education, and other charitable organisations, including the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation.

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