Reading Recovery is not a wonder cure for all struggling readers, according to new official research, despite remarkable short-term gains for the children taking part.
In fact, only children in deprived social circumstances and those who cannot read at all had long-term benefit, says the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority. For the majority of pupils "it produces a short-term boost which fades within four to five years".
Reading Recovery was pioneered in New Zealand where it is thought to have produced outstanding results. It is an intensive programme involving one-to-one attention, lasting 20 weeks or so and costing in the region of Pounds 1, 500 per child. It involves special training for the teachers taking part.
A study carried out by academics at London's Institute of Education found that, five years after a Reading Recovery programme, children with acute reading problems and those from poor backgrounds were six months ahead of similar pupils.
The study also found that a different, cheaper regime - a specially-structured phonological approach to reading - was equally effective with deprived children. But the phonics course was of no help to children who could not read at all at age six.
The Government has shown great interest in Reading Recovery's potential to help in socially deprived areas. The preliminary report of Labour's literacy task force recommended expanding it in inner cities.
The latest research finding involved a five-year study of 180 pupils who received specialist support when they were six.
A 1995 progress study generated enthusiasm for Reading Recovery when it disclosed that all participants had "made significantly better progress in various aspects of reading and writing".
The latest study, by Dr Jane Hurry and Professor Kathy Silva, shows that for most pupils, this effect fades with time.
"It seems that the intensive attention to reading which Reading Recovery gives is effective for those children who have not begun to read by age six, and for those from homes where there are likely to be few books," said Sue Horner, English officer with SCAA.
"For others it produces a short-term boost which fades within four to five years.
"This means that Reading Recovery is certainly worthwhile if targeted on the poorest readers," she said, "but is ineffective on its own if it used as a general remedial strategy for children who are slow in reading."
Summer 1993: Reading Recovery children had made twice asmuch progress as the control group. Phonological training did not improve reading.
Summer 1994: Reading Recovery children had a six-month advantage on the control group. It was particularly effective for children on free school meals, and complete non-readers. The phonological training group was reading and spelling significantly better than the control group, although the advantage was only three months.
Summer 1996: On average, Reading Recovery children had a three or four-month reading advantage, but this was not statistically significant. There was no effect on spelling. However, for children on free school meals, or complete non-readers at age six, there was a six to seven-month advantage.
Phonological Training produced a spelling advantage, but no overall reading benefit. Again there was a six-month advantage for children on free meals, but no advantage to those who could not read at six.