I just read a very disturbing article by Alexandra Smith in the Sydney Morning Herald dated 31st December, 2017. The article reported on the New South Wales (N.S.W.) government’s decision to axe the $50 million dollar Reading Recovery program even though it may have had some impact on students who are really struggling with basic reading. The government claimed that gains were often short-lived.
This is a concern because this very important decision was made with little consultation with educators, policy makers and caregivers. Furthermore, it has been timed to coincide with the Christmas/New Year's break when many educators, policy makers and caregivers are away on holidays. The government does acknowledge that there have been gains and that these gains were not followed up with ongoing support and consolidation.
There are two essential questions that need to be answered: Has Reading Recovery been adequately implemented in New South Wales? and How has it been implemented elsewhere? Reading Recovery Council of North America, for example, wrote a very comprehensive report - ‘What evidence says about reading recovery?” They found there is substantial scientific evidence to support Reading Recovery’s effectiveness with lowest-performing first-grade students. They also stated that Reading Recovery does not claim to be the only solution to the nation’s reading problems. However, it seeks the right to be considered as an early intervention option for state and local educational authorities.
More recently on the ABC Radio National, Life Matters Program (Thursday 11th February, 2016 11:58am) What evidence says about Reading Recovery Amanda Smith asked Dr Michael Bezzina, director of teaching and learning at the Catholic Education Office in Sydney, what he thought about Reading Recovery. He supported the continuation of Reading Recovery and stated, "We have a success rate of 90 per cent. Kids with English as a second language are doing better than the rest of the cohort… We've tracked our ex-Reading Recovery students over 20 years, and by year three those kids who were in the lowest 20 per cent of readers in year one, 20 to 30 per cent are in the top two bands of the NAPLAN test."
If there is compelling evidence for the effectiveness of the program then why axe it? Maybe, I can offer some insights from my own research into literacy and learning difficulties. Many research studies have attested to the efficacy of individualised tutoring program, not only in literacy but also in mathematics as well. My own research has supported this. Reading Recovery is one that has been around since the 1970s and so needs to reflect change in line with ‘evidence based’ research. The reading Recovery Council of North America maintained that ‘policy makers have the responsibility to consider evidence from a wide range of perspectives and validated research models.” The question is, has this change taken place systematically in N.S.W. in the light of recent research?
Reading Recovery is, however, not a panacea for all literacy problems. The reason that it targets children in year 1 is that it is an early intervention program that is meant to supplement other literacy lessons in the classroom. Its purpose is to provide extra meaningful literacy opportunities in a direct and systematic way. It was not meant to replace other literacy activities (such as phonic lessons) in the classrooms but to compliment them. Thus, an early intervention program, such as Reading Recovery should be in integrated part of a comprehensive literacy effort.
Reading Recovery was not meant to be a remedial reading program but a preventative measure for students that are at risk of failure. In most cases these students tend to have poor language exposure and poor experiences with book reading at home before starting school. They usually require extra literacy input to give them the necessary skills to keep pace with their more literate peers. On the other hand, students with specific learning difficulties most likely will not benefit from Reading Recovery as they need to have their specific learning problems addressed, often with a program that addresses their particular needs.
In conclusion: Reading Recovery should:
- be an integral part of an overall year 1 program for students who are considered to be at risk of failure at school;
- not include students that have a specific learning difficulty;
- include ongoing training and improvement in light of recent research;
- offer diversity by being included as one of several approaches, according to need; and
- supplement other literacy activities in the classroom rather than being a replacement for them.