Reading: the case for intervention

3rd October 1997 at 01:00
The national will to improve standards of literacy has never been greater, and it is a worthy goal. But we now have dozens of programmes, some making dramatic claims about success rates. So what is the best way to raise standards? Should investment be targeted at literacy summer schools, in-service education for teachers, or glossy textbooks?

One group that is being ignored is the low achievers. While most British children came out well in one recent international study of reading standards, those with a lower ability did not. Furthermore, compared with many other Western countries, too many of our children have trouble with reading.

Our study, published last week by the London University Institute of Education, looks at two teaching programmes aimed at poor readers: Reading Recovery and Phonological Training. Reading Recovery has received much press attention over the past few years, and most teachers will be familiar with it. Phonologica l Training, however, was developed for research purposes and is not being used regularly in any schools.

Our research provides evidence of the long-term impact of both approaches,including their cost-effectiveness. We believe it shows that a national literacy programme should include Reading Recovery for children who fail to make progress in reading after one year at school. We also think that offering phonological training to some children with reading difficulties will produce lasting advantages.

But the programmes do not benefit all the children equally. In our study, for example, the children who gained most from Reading Recovery were the ones who were weakest at the outset. What we fear is that in this complexity, chances to act rationally will be lost. The "sound-bite mentality" will prevail; and a glance at last week's TES headline, "Advantages which fade as times goes by", will be all that remains of the message of our work.

Yet we are not talking about something that is impossible to grasp. Phonological Training improved the spelling of all the poor readers in our study. The reading gains children made from early intervention tended to fade with the passage of time. However, there were two groups who bucked this trend: those living in poverty, and those with minimal reading skills at six years old. (Children with some literacy skills, or from better off homes, were more able to cope in the classroom.) The results of our evaluation offer a way forward for these needy children - and it is not more expensive than existing provision.

We found that children with reading difficulties were already receiving additional teaching, with or without Reading Recovery or Phonological Training. Comparing normal school provision for slow readers with Reading Recovery and Phonological Training, there was not a substantial difference in costs when averaged across a child's school career. And for the two sub-groups of children who particularly benefited from Reading Recovery and Phonological Training, the programmes offered better value for money than existing provision. In fact, we would argue that it is worth extending both of these early interventions to give further boosts as children move up the school, as this could produce even better readers and spellers.

Our very practical educational research provides the basis for "evidence-base d policy". Most initiatives in education find their way into practice without evaluation; a few are subjected to rigorous testing, but this is often in the intervention year or a short time after the programme ends. Our report is based on longitudinal assessments carried out over five years, and using rigorous controls such as "blind" testing and careful matching of children.

The results support the targeted use of Reading Recovery; they point to the value of developing Phonological Training or something similar for use in schools; and they raise possibilities about developing these interventions for use with older children. Will this evidence be taken seriously?

Dr Kathy Sylva is reader in educational studies at Oxford University, and Dr Jane Hurry is lecturer in research methods at the London University Institute of Education

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