Does it really matter which one we choose?
Surely it’s the fact that we are doing something that matters? And Reading Recovery has been around for years, hasn’t it? It’s been tried and tested in primary schools. It’s the government approved early reading intervention in New Zealand – they must be onto something?
It’s funny how we are swayed by the familiarity of a product. By its very ubiquity we assume that something must be valid and effective.
I have had Thinking Reading continually described by one headteacher as being ‘reading recovery’ purely because, for him, that was the generic term for all reading interventions. He regarded me as a little precious when I pointed out the inaccuracy of the descriptor. This was not a one-off: I have repeatedly heard primary school LSAs say that they have supported children with ‘reading recovery’ which was, in fact, just one-to-one tuition. At my first interview in the UK, I was also asked if I was trained in Reading Recovery. The advice given to the school when they were writing the advertisement was to try to find someone who was Reading Recovery trained because it was considered that such a person would have the necessary skills. But would they?
The fact is, the great majority of school managers do not know enough about reading to be able to discriminate between different interventions, let alone choose the most effective. At least that is my experience with secondary schools. For students, it is very much a lottery as to whether they will be given the support they need. Too often, they are given labels, reasons why they can’t make progress, or ‘one size fits all’ programmes which are aimed at primary students, but in secondary simply undermine self-esteem (and bore the life out of them).
All reading interventions are not created equal. Reading Recovery, for example, is based on a ‘whole language’ (mis)conception of reading: top-down meaning-based as opposed to bottom-up code-based approach. Despite its widespread brand recognition, Reading Recovery does not have nearly as good a track record as its proponents would suggest. For a good outline see here.
Synthetic and linguistic phonics programmes on the other hand have a good track record, not only of addressing reading problems early, but also having a powerful long-term effect on students’ reading at Year 4 and beyond. This is crucial because this is the point at which children generally move from ‘learning to read’ to ‘reading to learn’. Whole language teaching fails to get 20 – 40% of children over this hurdle.
There are extra complications when addressing reading problems at secondary school. In addition to extensive knowledge of language and the phonics code, tutors also need to be able to address motivation, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. They need to be able to pick apart learning problems, which may be long-standing, and to address these at fundamental levels (such as that of phonemic awareness). And all this must be done in the context of a large organisation with a complex timetable and where few, if any, staff view reading as a priority.
This checklist of 15 Tests for Secondary School Reading Interventions identifies the critical elements of an effective reading programme for adolescents. As school budgets are squeezed, and as the focus for progress shifts to include that of ‘low attainers’, it is increasingly important to ensure that resources are directed in ways which produce rapid and sustained improvements for those who arrive with long-standing reading problems. Just choosing a familiar brand won’t do.
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