Natalie Solent

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Friday, December 08, 2006
Reading Recovery is a programme designed to help children who are failing to learn to read. In this post for Biased BBC I argue that it is not as universally admired as an article on the BBC website suggests. Spot where I veered off into General Rant Mode.

UPDATE: On second thoughts, since it was about more than just the BBC article, I've decided to cross-post it here.


Curb your enthusiasm. This article by the BBC's education correspondent, Mike Baker, was published in November: "A way all children can be readers." The article is one long exhalation of praise for a reading scheme called Reading Recovery aimed at children who are failing to learn to read. Mr Baker writes:

Is this the biggest missed opportunity in education?

Imagine if virtually no child left primary school unable to read.

Or if no teenager bunked off school and ended up in trouble with the law because their reading skills meant they could not cope.

If these things could be changed, how much might be saved?

The article talks as if all that stopped heaven on earth being established in 1995 was John Major's Conservative government pulling the plug on funding. Later, confounding hopes placed in it by supporters of the scheme, Tony Blair's Labour government did much the same.

Not everyone thinks Reading Recovery is wonderful. Most of the critics don't think the programme is bad in itself. They just think it costs a fortune for the effect it has, and the money could be better spent.

Here are a few links pro and con.

An oft-quoted paper attacking it is Reading Recovery: An evaluation of Benefits and Costs by Grossen, Coulter and Ruggles.

Here is a response from Gay Su Pinnell supporting Reading Recovery.

Reading Recovery: distinguishing Myth from Reality by Tunmer and Chapman. Critical.

Reading Recovery: Anatomy of Folly by Martin Kozloff. Very critical.

Evaluation of Reading Recovery in London Schools by Sue Burroughs-Lange. Supportive.

Every child a reader: Results of the first year. This report is not pretending to be anything other than advocacy in favour of Reading Recovery. That does not make it wrong, of course, and there is plenty of information there. I think this is the document upon which Mr Baker's article was based.

Although there is evidence that Reading Recovery is helpful it does not justify Mr Baker's uncritical enthusiasm.

For instance, the paper by Sue Burroughs-Lange compares the results for 234 of the lowest achieving children at several primary schools. It says the group getting RR did better than the control group "who received a range of other interventions." So the control group was really several very different groups with small numbers of children in each. Furthermore, so far as I could see from the information on page 21 onwards none of the alternatives were anything like as intense as Reading Recovery, so it is hardly surprising that they were less effective. A similar criticism was made on page 7 of this paper by Jonathan Solity of the control groups for Slyva and Hurry's 1995 favourable evaluation of Reading Recovery.

Although Mr Baker writes,

It [Reading Recovery] is not an alternative to the general teaching methods for whole classes but is, instead, a highly structured intervention strategy for rescuing children who are struggling to take even the first steps towards reading.
True, but in the real world any one use of money excludes other uses of the same money. The strategy of taking children out of class for one-to-one instruction by people specifically trained in Reading Recovery is very expensive. It also (and in the context of teachers' interests the expense may not be a bug, but a feature) can be used as an alternative to having general teaching methods for whole classes that might gain better results with the use of fewer trained personnel.

(My personal opinion is that the history of the teaching of reading over the last century could be described as one long epic struggle by educators of every clime and tongue to avoid admitting that progressive methods don't work. A century of toil has almost sufficed to bring us back to the standard reached by the Victorians.)

In the US, Reading Recovery is more politicised than in the UK, there having been a big bust-up over its inclusion or exclusion from a government programme called Reading First. It is seen there as being on the anti-phonics side of the Reading Wars. This is not quite fair. The founder, Marie Clay, sought to mimimize the explicit teaching of phonics, but the phonics component has been increased since.

One wouldn't necessarily expect all that detail to be discussed in this one BBC article, and one certainly wouldn't expect the state broadcaster to rant away like a common blogger. But the BBC could have done better than just "For the last 10 years there has been no shortage of research evidence showing its effectiveness."