Northern Ireland's poorest children are gaining relatively little from the Reading Recovery remedial programme, researchers at Queen's University have found.
Weak readers in advantaged areas had reached much higher standards than those in deprived areas, says a report issued by Making Belfast Work, the agency charged with revitalising the city.
Worse still, pupils entitled to free school meals - but not their more prosperous peers - are likely to slip back within a year of finishing Reading Recovery, which gives extra daily one-to-one tuition to the 20 per cent poorest readers in a school's group of six-year-olds.
The findings are likely to be scrutinised by the political parties on the mainland where literacy is a key election issue. Labour is committed to increasing the use of recovery schemes to help children who have difficulty in learning to read.
While noting "a fair degree of success", the Queen's results did not support the highly favourable assessment by a School Curriculum and Assessment Authority study in 1995 of the impact of Reading Recovery in deprived areas.
A study of the first two cohorts of pupils in 51 Northern Ireland primary schools believes this is due to weaknesses in normal teaching rather than in the Reading Recovery system. It notes that three-quarters of children who successfully completed the course were able to tackle normal class work without extra help. The Queen's researchers - John Gardner, Anne Sutherland and Colette Meenan-Strain - believe this shows considerably better progress than that achieved by traditional remedial methods. But they say that dull and unchallenging teaching and lack of parental support means the benefits are only short-term.
"Low expectations and a lack of opportunities to use the skills learned in Reading Recovery in their normal classes were two factors which were considered to have a serious adverse affect on the progress of some pupils after leaving the programme."
Some teachers showed surprise and mild shock at the progress made in reading and writing by pupils of whom they had very low expectations.
It was difficult to convince other teachers of their pupils' newly developed capabilities. "Some class teachers were extremely reluctant to promote a Reading Recovery child to a more advanced reading group, even when the Reading Recovery teacher thought such a step overdue.
"As a consequence, the Reading Recovery pupils were not always being included in mainstream activities or were not being challenged to use their developing strategies," the researchers say.
Some teaching was non-challenging for all pupils. Researchers noted instances of little or no independent writing, the automatic giving of unfamiliar words on request, a narrow use of phonics and undue time spent colouring in pictures.
"Clearly such a context would likely be particularly damaging to Reading Recovery pupils who had become accustomed to stimulating intensive teaching in which they were given as much responsibility as practicable for their work. "
Another problem was unsupportive homes. One six-year-old stayed up until 1am watching Sky television in his bedroom. Another child could not take books out of a bag because he was used to his mother doing everything for him.
A spokesperson for Making Belfast Work agreed the study showed a difference in the performance of pupils in deprived areas. "These are very early findings and we are confident that Reading Recovery will bring benefits. There is a very steep learning curve for teachers," she said.
Those involved in the programme felt it was very worthwhile. On one reading test, for example, two-thirds of former Reading Recovery pupils and 72 per cent of those who successfully completed it gained scores at least as good as the year-group average.
The scheme also had a positive impact on teaching, especially when classroom teachers observed their pupils' progress. This helped raise expectations and introduced teachers to a wider range of strategies to teach reading.
"There is a certain complacency about the way reading is taught," said John Gardner. "Low expectation is a killer. It is a culture shock for some of the teachers when they observe pupils on Reading Recovery."