When political promises were being made in the run-up to the 1992 election, Kenneth Clarke, then education secretary, allocated Pounds 3 million to help 20 urban local authorities implement Reading Recovery, the scheme that helps six-year-olds who are struggling with reading. But after the three-year trial period, government interest waned and funding was reduced, despite Her Majesty's Inspectorate concluding that the scheme could work as well in Britain as it does in New Zealand, where it was developed.
Now, the initial findings of research we have carried out in New Zealand and Australia show for the first time that Reading Recovery pupils not only retained the gains they had made but surpassed their peers by the later primary years. Until now, there has been little or no systematic research into the scheme's long-term effects.
Reading Recovery, developed by Dame Marie Clay, gives a school's lowest achievers half an hour a day of additional one-to-one teaching by specially trained teachers over 12 to 20 weeks. By the end of the period, most are expected to be performing at the average level of their class or group.
In Britain, there has been criticism that the improvement shown by Recovery children is, as with much "remedial" help, likely to be short-lived; that the lack of control groups makes monitoring difficult; and that the concept of literacy achievement is too narrow.
Last summer, we went to Australia and New Zealand to tackle these issues, working in a range of schools where the scheme had been offered to children for an average of eight years.
Our study covered schools in urban and rural areas, teaching pupils from a range of social and ethnic groups. We worked with 242 children (average age 10 years 8 months), 121 of whom had entered Reading Recovery at the age of six. The other half had not been offered the programme. We measured both reading accuracy and comprehension as well as abilities in writing; we also observed and tallied the strategies children used to tackle difficulties with reading. We gave an attitude test and interviewed children about their reading and obtained perceptions of their class teachers.
Compared with children whose reading difficulties at six had been less severe, the ex-Recovery children were found to be superior in reading accuracy, in understanding what they had read, and in writing narrative. They read slightly more, and had more positive attitudes to reading and more independent strategies for making sense of text. This pattern is unlikely to be accidental.
Reading and comprehension scores In accuracy of reading and understanding of what is read the ex-Reading Recovery group performed significantly better than their classmates. Their mean reading age was 10 years 2 months compared with the comparison group's mean of 9 years 2 months, a difference of more than 11 months. The comprehension scores gave a mean of 9 years 9 months for ex-Reading Recovery children compared with 8 years 8 months, a difference of more than a year.
Reading strategies More of the ex-Recovery group used independent decoding and checking strategies. The comparison group made many more mistakes as a result of employing guesswork based on first letterssounds of words.
Attitudes to reading The ex-Recovery group displayed significantly more positive attitudes to reading. They were more likely to say they liked poetry and that reading was enjoyable. They were less likely to say that watching television was better than reading or that reading made them unhappy. Reading was less of a chore for the ex-Recovery group, who were less likely to say they read only if they had to or that they would rather do something else. The ex-Recovery group also read more books over a four-week period.
Reading interviews Students from both groups said they liked interesting, exciting and humorous books, but disliked boring books, "baby books" and difficult words. Both groups valued reading and the help given by parents and teachers. More than a third of the ex-Recovery group believed that the help they had received was crucial to the development of their reading skills. The ex-Recovery group referred more to using effective decoding strategies; the comparison children were more likely to rely on adult help.
Teachers' perceptions Class teachers placed neither group above the other in their estimates of reading and overall ability, and the groups showed similar levels of self-esteem. Most class teachers did not know which children had been through Reading Recovery.
Writing The ex-Recovery group wrote longer pieces of continuous writing and to a higher standard. They also made significantly fewer errors.
The ex-Recovery students had overtaken an initially more able group on several measures of literacy. The results suggest Reading Recovery has been effective in developing and sustaining literacy and self-esteem.
Now we are once again in pre-election promise land it would be good to hear someone suggest funding for a study of the British experience of Reading Recovery. The indications are that the results would be positive.
Dr Barrie Wade is professor of English in Education at the University of Birmingham. Dr Maggie Moore is director of the School of Arts and Social Sciences at Newman College, Birmingham