A word in time saves 6-year-olds

21st April 1995 at 01:00
Estelle Maxwell sees Reading Recovery in action, while Francis Beckett, above, ponders the threat to its continued existence.

It is hard to believe that the child who runs eagerly into Nicola Lavell's room once lacked self-confidence. As he races through exercises aimed at bringing his reading up to the average for his age and beyond, six-year-old Paul Walsh is, apparently, a changed character.

Eighteen weeks into Reading Recovery he is no longer intimidated by the printed word. "I like reading new books the best," he declares. "But I find it hard when there are things I cannot remember."

After a year in the reception class of Avonmore school, near London's Olympia, and a term into his second year of schooling, Paul was still not reading. Confused by words and letters he frequently gave up, saying: "I can't do that".

Now he grabs books eagerly, his brows knitted in concentration as he grapples with new words, correcting himself when he knows he has made a mistake and only appealing for help when all else fails. The pace of his Reading Recovery lesson is swift and it appears deceptively simple. But the teaching methods employed by Mrs Lavell are rigorously applied and well researched - and they work brilliantly.

Reading Recovery aims to eliminate illiteracy among low achievers who have had a year in school, and who are aged between five years and nine months and six years three months. Hammersmith and Fulham has set a standard, being one of the few English local authorities to have embraced the scheme on behalf of every primary school, with the aim of training a teacher in each one. Last year, 160 infants benefited from this borough-wide approach.

At Avonmore, the scheme has transformed the reading skills of more than 25 of its 170 pupils in the last three years. "For these children it has been incredible," says Paul's headteacher, Rita Weller. "Some of our children on past programmes achieved level two and even level three in their SAT tests. "

But the local successes don't count in the grand scheme of things, which has brought Government funding to an end after three years. This year, the borough was "bitterly disappointed" when its funding bid for Reading Recovery was rejected by the Government - a bid for Pounds 227,000 from the Single Regeneration Budget which, from April 1, would have paid for another year's training, cover and co-ordination. Seven other local authorities were penalised in this way.

At a time of crisis - Pounds 10m is being cut from the council's overall spending - Hammersmith and Fulham has found Pounds 70,000 to plug the gap for Reading Recovery until the end of the summer term. That way, the aim of training a teacher in every school will be fulfilled and children who are desperate to read will receive tuition. But come September, the future of the scheme rests with the schools.

"Clearly that will be very difficult for them," said a council spokeswoman. Hammersmith and Fulham would be preparing a new bid for SRB funds for l996-97, she said, but there was no guarantee of success. "The most distressing thing is to disappoint the children and parents who have been very supportive."

Advocates of Reading Recovery claim it is different from any other intervention programme because it is pitched at what a particular child can do - if they possess good verbal skills, or a concept of colour, it can build upon that. Specially-trained tutors use a series of complex score sheets to carry out "normative referencing" - marking them for letter identification, the child's concept of print, word tests, written vocabulary, and written dictation - to define their abilities compared with average attainment levels for their year group.

They then draw up an observation summary, strategies to help that particular child and the recovery programme is ready to begin. Books are graded for levels of difficulty ranging from 1 to 26. National curriculum level 2 is broadly equivalent to book levels l8 to 22.

"When he first came to me," says Nicola Lavell, "Paul could write his name and the letters a and i. He was like a nursery child." But as a result of reading recovery he will be reading "at the average level of a six year-old and using all the strategies good readers use by half way through next term".

At the beginning of Paul's individual lesson, Mrs Lavell sets a timer and directs him to the blackboard where she asks him to write the word "look" - one of a bank of words he is learning to spell.

He then chooses The Dolphin Pool, a short-sentenced story . At the third page, he suddenly hesitates on an unfamiliar name. Nicola checks to see whether he is trying to problem-solve and makes notes on his interaction with the text, then prompts Paul to spell it out phonetically: "W-I-L-M-A . . . Wilma," he says.

It seems as if the child is almost taking himself through many of the ensuing tasks, reading selected texts, writing words and creating sentences in his notebook with minimal involvement by his teacher. But this is more a measure of his confidence and knowing what his teacher expects of him.

Throughout the session Mrs Lavell supports, monitors and constantly encourages Paul to problem- solve, to reason and to discover the strategies which will lead to accelerated learning - the key to the scheme's success.

At the Sir John Lilley school in Fulham the uniformity of the scheme and its ability to eradicate illiteracy among low achieving children is visible. Here, teacher Brenda Laver used identical methods to help six- year-old Leon Pizer.

Mary Ann Freshwater, one of the borough's two reading recovery tutors, was observing his lesson and explained: "Leon does a lot of self-correction and does not appeal for help. He has become independent and goes back over and over his mistakes until he gets it right, which is what the programme is all about.

"Reading Recovery is not just about reading and writing. It is about the child's persona. Confidence only comes when a child knows in their head they can do something. They learn to become an active learner and this pervades every aspect of their life."

For headteacher Peter Norman the threat to future funding of the scheme is a crime. He said: "From September we will have to use our own resources for the programme and in our school we could really use two trained teachers. The number of children coming into the system who cannot read or write is increasing, not decreasing, and that is the problem."

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