New research takes a close look at programmes for slow readers. Elaine Williams talks to its author, Dr Greg Brooks, and his critics
However good the National Literacy Strategy turns out to be in raising standards in primary schools, there will always be children who struggle with reading and who need special help. But how can schools judge what type of scheme for slow readers is best for them? There are dozens of schemes, but their effectiveness is a matter of controversy.
A new publication from the National Foundation for Educational Research, What Works for Slow Readers: the Effectiveness of Early Intervention Schemes, seems to be a consumer guide to "successful" programmes. However, Dr Greg Brooks, the author and a senior NFER research fellow, says many schemes have not been evaluated with enough rigour to be included in the book. What's more, careful interpretation of evaluation studies that did come up to the mark yielded surprising results - some highly acclaimed schemes are not as effective as they appear to be.
The book analyses 20 studies which provide evidence on the effectiveness of 30 approaches. Among the most strongly criticised by Dr Brooks are schemes that concentrate on word sounds to the exclusion of marks on the page, meaning and story. He also criticises some IT schemes - such as the acclaimed Docklands Learning Acceleration Project and Integrated Learning Systems - for achieving non-significant results. "In one primary school where an Integrated Learning system had been targeted on children with special needs, children on the project made significantly less progress than the controls."
Under the Docklands scheme children use the latest multi-media teaching software for English to enhance and reinforce learning as well as improve enthusiasm, behaviour and attendance. However, Dr Brooks found that, at best, children made an average 13-month gain in 12 months. Although teachers argued that this was a good result, as such children would usually only make a few months progress in a year, Dr Brooks points out that it was no more progress than could be expected on average.
He compared such results with a Jersey scheme, the Computer Assisted Reading Development Programme, where significant gains were made and where children's IT work was backed up with detailed guidance and instruction from teachers. This, he says, implied that the use of technology to boost literacy attainment (an expensive option) needed to be targeted as precisely as possible to be effective.
However, the book's overall criticism is that evaluation generally is poor. Dr Brooks says: "It occurred to us three years ago that nobody had pulled together the evidence on interventions for struggling readers. Reading Recovery was getting a lot of publicity but we wanted to know what was backed up with proper quantitative evaluations.
"The literature surveyed for this book varied from the meticulous to the appalling. The number of studies excluded from the analysis I was considerably larger than the number retained. Most of the excluded studies contained no quantitative data at all, and many of those which did provide such data were unusable, either because of basic design faults I or because the data were unclear."
Dr Brooks also regrets that while Reading Recovery, a popular early intervention scheme that has attracted widespread praise, appeared to be effective, only a small quantitative evaluation (89 children) was of a high enough standard to be quoted.
Dr Brooks says many initiatives were evaluated exclusively on the "feel-good" factor. However, Roy Blatchford, director of the National Literacy Trust, which is running the Reading Is Fundamental campaign, believes that truly meaningful evaluations should include feel-good as well as quantitative factors. He says: "It is vital that progress should be measurable, but it is also vital that we find ways of measuring things that are not easily measurable. So we look not only at whether reading ages are improving but whether children have joined the library, or started visiting bookshops and started talking about and sharing books with parents and siblings."
Kevin Jeffrey, assistant director to the National Literacy Strategy (which has also been criticised for proceeding without a proper research base) says Dr Brooks is making a "useful point" in highlighting the onus on people extolling the virtues of a particular scheme to be prepared to evaluate and publish results. But he also feels that there was a clash of cultures between researchers and practioners. He says: "It is probably the case that many schemes have proved effective as far as teachers and local education authorities are concerned but without the objective evidence to satisfy a researcher."
Roy Barker, project co-ordinator with the National Literacy Association and director of the Docklands IT scheme, says the scheme had been independently evaluated by the London University Institute of Education (contrary to the book's claim that it has been evaluated by the project team) and that in addition to the quantitative measures, it had taken in qualitative, anecdotal evidence from talking to teachers, parents and children. Mr Barker believes this is equally valid and important.
"It is true that the children made 13 months progress in a year, but these are inner-city children who normally made no more than eight. In our view this was a highly successful scheme.
"I think Dr Brooks's arguments are misguided. This is a researcher's perception. He is concentrating on the nature of data which is just one small part of the story."
'What Works for Slow Readers' costs pound;8 from Mandy Dalrymple, Publication Dept, NFER, The Mere, Upton Park, Slough SL1 2DQ
FEEL GOOD ABOUT READING
Not only does Dr Greg Brooks's "What Works for Slow Readers" highlight the ineffectiveness of some popular schemes, it also takes down from the shelf and gives a good dusting to projects that have gone out of fashion.
In particular, the book gives some prominence to the work of Denis Lawrence, who in the 1970s was chief educational psychologist for Somerset and who combined reading initiatives with work on children'sself-esteem throughcounselling and drama. Mr Lawrence was convinced that low self-esteem had a detrimental effect on children's attainment. In 1973, he wrote: "It is curious that despite the fact that the retarded reader's most outstanding characteristic appears to be his poor emotional adjustment, remedial teaching so often takes the form of a direct attack on the mechanics of reading."
Mr Lawrence proceeded to set up a series of projects which involved training counsellors who would see children in pairs for games and activities on the basis of a non-judgmentalrelationship. These counselling sessions would be tied in with specific reading schemes already used by the schools.
In addition, one project replaced counselling with drama sessions, where small groups were taken by the county drama adviser for improvisation, again concentrating on the improvement of self-esteem.
Mr Lawrence's evaluations showed that both counselling and drama brought about significant gains in reading ability. Dr Brooks writes: "We believe his approach has potential, has been undeservedly neglected and should be revived. Motivational factors in poor reading need to be re-explored because of the current anxiety over boys' low achievement compared to girls, and the possibility that part of the reason may be boys' negative attitudes to reading."