A fair chance for all
A primary headteacher recently explained why his school did not invest in Reading Recovery - the early intervention programme for children with reading and writing difficulties. "I meet and exceed my government targets", he said. "I only have one or two children a year who don't learn to read, and I can live with that."
There's the problem for our most vulnerable pupils - children in care, travellers, asylum-seekers and refugees - once they get to school their numbers are so few that, if any failure rate is acceptable, they are easily overlooked. Unfortunately, that head doesn't have to "live with it", the children do. Those with poor literacy are disadvantaged in just about every aspect of life - low income, menial jobs and financial insecurity, as well as health, housing and community involvement.
Men with low literacy are twice as likely to be disappointed in life, distrustful of others and diagnosed as depressed. Women with low literacy are five times more likely to be depressed (www.basic-skills.co.uk and www.cls.ioe.ac.uk).
The reasons why children in care and other vulnerable children are particularly at risk of failing to learn to read and write alongside their peers are as individual as the children themselves. Maybe parents can't support their literacy or carers don't have the time to make reading the intimate pleasure enjoyed by parents and children everywhere. How can they build up that treasured collection of books read to them since their earliest memory? How can learning build when they are moved from pillar to post, constantly starting again or missing school altogether? Then there is the emotional trauma that has made them vulnerable in the first place; research confirms what good teachers have known for years: children can't learn if they are unhappy, mistrustful or unable to focus.
Last year, 28 children in care, 47 traveller children and 16 asylum-seeker children completed a series of lessons in Reading Recovery at around the age of six. They were phenomenally successful, with 78 of the 91 (86 per cent) progressing from an average reading age of four years and 10 months at the age of six, to an average reading age of six years and seven months within 18 weeks, making four times the normal rate of progress. Intervening early, swiftly and powerfully has been shown to be the best way of preventing our lowest attaining children from falling behind in literacy.
Reading Recovery supports vulnerable children on a number of different levels. First, it works, and it works fast, which is essential for those whose lives are unsettled. Children who had made almost no progress in their first year at school caught up with their peers and maintained the gains they had made - six months after the end of their programme they had an average reading age of seven years, one month. They had made six months'
progress in six months.
The children who had struggled most were back on a normal trajectory. They had learned how to learn. At the end of key stage 1 - a full year after the end of Reading Recovery - seven out of 10 children who would have been anticipated to reach level W or 1, attained level 2 or above in national assessments.
Reading Recovery works for vulnerable children because lessons are designed for that individual and taught individually. There is a routine, which brings security, but the lesson content is infinitely flexible, determined by the teacher's skilled observation of how this child responds, what he or she knows, says, thinks, does and is trying to do.
Individual lessons can provide a haven of calm and reassurance in a turbulent life, but that is not enough to guarantee accelerated learning.
The Reading Recovery teacher starts with what each child can do, however little, carefully controlling the challenge so that the child, often for the first time, experiences the motivational power of success and a sense of control of the task, and of his learning. In the context of reading dozens of delightful books, and writing his own messages, the child is taught how to make decisions for himself and how to judge the effectiveness of his decisions - something these children experience rarely in their everyday lives. Even the most vulnerable children blossom when they learn that they can work things out for themselves, and discover that not knowing isn't a failure, but an opportunity to learn.
Julia Dou til is Reading Recovery national co-ordinator, Institute of Education, University of London www.readingrecovery.org.uk