The national will to improve standards of literacy has never been greater, and it is a worthy goal. But we now have dozens of programmes, some making dramatic claims about success rates. So what is the best way to raise standards? Should investment be targeted at literacy summer schools, in-service education for teachers, or glossy textbooks?
One group that is being ignored is the low achievers. While most British children came out well in one recent international study of reading standards, those with a lower ability did not. Furthermore, compared with many other Western countries, too many of our children have trouble with reading.
Our study, published last week by the London University Institute of Education, looks at two teaching programmes aimed at poor readers: Reading Recovery and Phonological Training. Reading Recovery has received much press attention over the past few years, and most teachers will be familiar with it. Phonological Training, however, was developed for research purposes and is not being used regularly in any schools.
Our research provides evidence of the long-term impact of both approaches, including their cost-effectiveness. We believe it shows that a national literacy programme should include Reading Recovery for children who fail to make progress in reading after one year at school. We also think that offering phonological training to some children with reading difficulties will produce lasting advantages.
But the programmes do not benefit all the children equally. In our study, for example, the children who gained most from Reading Recovery were the ones who were weakest at the outset. What we fear is that in this complexity, chances to act rationally will be lost. The "sound-bite mentality" will prevail; and a glance at last week's TES headline, "Advantages which fade as times goes by", will be all that remains of the message of our work.
Yet we are not talking about something that is impossible to grasp. Phonological Training improved the spelling of all the poor readers in our study. The reading gains children made from early intervention tended to fade with the passage of time. However, there were two groups who bucked this trend: those living in poverty, and those with minimal reading skills at six years old. (Children with some literacy skills, or from better off homes, were more able to cope in the classroom.) The results of our evaluation offer a way forward for these needy children - and it is not more expensive than existing provision.
We found that children with reading difficulties were already receiving additional teaching, with or without Reading Recovery or Phonological Training. Comparing normal school provision for slow readers with Reading Recovery and Phonological Training, there was not a substantial difference in costs when averaged across a child's school career. And for the two sub-groups of children who particularly benefited from Reading Recovery and Phonological Training, the programmes offered better value for money than existing provision. In fact, we would argue that it is worth extending both of these early interventions to give further boosts as children move up the school, as this could produce even better readers and spellers.
Our very practical educational research provides the basis for "evidence-based policy". Most initiatives in education find their way into practice without evaluation; a few are subjected to rigorous testing, but this is often in the intervention year or a short time after the programme ends. Our report is based on longitudinal assessments carried out over five years, and using rigorous controls such as "blind" testing and careful matching of children.
The results support the targeted use of Reading Recovery; they point to the value of developing Phonological Training or something similar for use in schools; and they raise possibilities about developing these interventions for use with older children. Will this evidence be taken seriously?
Dr Kathy Sylva is reader in educational studies at Oxford University, and Dr Jane Hurry is lecturer in research methods at the London University Institute of Education
SPELLING IT OUT: THE STUDY'S CONCLUSIONS
The London University study began in September 1992, and involved 400 children from 63 schools in London and Surrey, divided into three groups. One received Reading Recovery (half an hour a day for about 20 weeks), the second had Phonological Training (40 10-minute sessions over two terms), and the last group had the normal school programme.
Autumn 1993 After one school year, Reading Recovery children were streaking ahead of the other two groups in reading and spelling, making twice as much progress as the control group. Phonological Training improved those skills, but not reading.
Summer 1994 Reading Recovery children were still six months ahead of the control group in reading and spelling. The Phonological Training group were now also reading and spelling significantly better than the controls, though their reading advantage was less than the Recovery group.
Autumn 1996 Reading Recovery children were still a little ahead of the control group, but the programme was particularly effective for children on free meals and for those who could not read at the age of six. Reading Recovery gave these children a six to seven-month reading age advantage. Phonological Training made children better spellers at 10, and gave those eligible for free meals a six or seven-month reading advantage. But for children who were non-readers at six it was not enough. It would seem that these children need books as well as phonics.
WHAT'S IN THE PROGRAMME?
Reading Recovery consists of daily half-hour sessions with specially trained teachers, for the lowest-achieving 20 per cent of six-year-olds. Lessons include reading two or more books, one familiar and one new, as well as writing a story.
Phonological Training was designed by Peter Bryant and Lynette Bradley, based on their research into the normal developmental stages of phonological awareness. They found that pre-school children who could not read were able both to hear and produce rhymes with evident relish. Bradley and Bryant argued that the most natural division of words into smaller sound units was that of onset and rime, for example "b"+"at"; "r"+"ing". Thus their training placed emphasis on an awareness of various methods of sound categorisation, starting with rhyme and initial sounds. Its aim was to develop the awareness of sound, concentrating at the outset on alliteration and rhyme but moving towards more sophisticated phonic distinctions in response to the child's progress.