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Small is best for literacy

A new intervention scheme has produced significant improvements among struggling young readers at little cost, Karen Thornton reports

AN EARLY intervention scheme for struggling young readers can produce big improvements in literacy skills - at a tenth of the cost of programmes such as Reading Recovery, say researchers.

The programme, developed by psychologists and researchers from Sheffield and Manchester universities, used short, small-group teaching sessions to help struggling five and six-year-olds.

The "trained" children advanced five months in reading skills over the four months of the programme. This compared to a control group which made only three months' progress, effectively going backwards.

However, around a quarter of the trained children remained "at risk" readers, and in need of further, targeted support.

The research team adopted an interactive programme which was designed for special needs. It covers both reading and writing with a focus on meaning, phonics and fluency.

Two schools in Sheffield and two in Harrogate took part in the pilot. The targeted pupils were all weak readers.

The children worked in groups of four in twice-weekly sessions which each lasted around 30 minutes. Children were tested at the beginning and end of the 10-week training period, and their results compared to a control group of similar pupils who did not get extra tuition.

At the end of the study, a quarter of the trained children remained problem readers. Further tests suggested some had a specific learning disability, such as dyslexia.

But overall, over the four months of the study, the trained group showed a five-month improvement in reading skills, and a 4.4-month improvement in spelling.

Moreover, they were improving with the equivalent of only 3.5 hours per child of teacher time -compared to 35 hours per child under more expensive and comprehensive programmes such as Reading Recovery, which has effectively been phased out of British schools largely because of cost (around pound;1,000 per pupil).

The greatest improvements seemed to be in the schools in more affluent areas, and with younger pupils.

"It is feasible to pick out children at risk of reading difficulties before the age of six and to provide adaptive, cost-effective support in small groups. It seems that a stitch in time saves nine, even for literacy," said Professor Rod Nicolson, of Sheffield University.

More details of the research are in the British Journal of Educational Psychology, March 22 edition.

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