24 May 2024

Children using updated Reading Recovery make double normal progress - research

12:10 pm on 24 May 2024
Child reading a book using their finger as a guide

The government is axing the Reading Recovery programme offered in schools. Photo: Michal Parzuchowski for Unsplash

A report shows the government is canning Reading Recovery just as changes to the long-standing programme have ensured it doubles young children's reading progress.

A companion report showed strong support from teachers and their pupils for structured literacy methods, which concentrated on teaching children the sounds that letters make.

It also showed structured literacy approaches improved children's basic reading skills even when schools did not fully implement them and used them in fewer hours of instruction than desired.

However, the reports also said evaluations of the various methods of teaching reading did not assess children in a manner that would conclusively prove their effectiveness.

One of the reports said international evidence suggested a deliberate focus on phonics, the approach mandated by the government, might be only subtly better than using phonics incidentally in a broader reading strategy.

The second report said children taught with structured literacy made notable gains in the decoding skills they were specifically instructed in, even though the participating schools had little time to implement the approach and many provided children with a lot fewer lessons than desired.

However, it did not assess whether the children could read better in general terms or compare their results against national averages.

And while there was strong anecdotal support from some teachers for the structured literacy approach, others were ambivalent.

The report also cited evidence that children taught to read using the structured literacy approach were much more confident and enthusiastic about their learning.

A summary of the two reports said they showed that all of the literacy initiatives improved students' literacy skills.

The first report considered three initiatives: Better Start Literacy, an approach that makes explicit use of phonics; the Reading Recovery and Early Literacy Support schemes which were revised to include more phonics, small group work, and a broader range of ages; and new phonics-based books for teaching young children to read.

It said children in both Better Start Literacy and the revised Reading Recovery and Early Literacy Support "showed large improvements in foundational literacy skills".

In fact, the data suggested children in Reading Recovery and Early Literacy Support made double the normal progress.

"However it was less clear whether these ākonga's improvements were over and above what would be expected from standard teaching," the report said.

It said the synthetic phonics used by Better Start Literacy was valuable, but using it as an incidental part of a broader reading strategy like Reading Recovery, an approach known as "analytic phonics" was also effective.

"Synthetic phonics may be subtly more effective than analytic phonics, with some recent studies showing the benefits of synthetic phonics may be sustained," it said.

The second report evaluated the effect of three programmes that trained teachers in structured literacy and measured the effects on 625 children.

It said children's ability to "decode" words improved significantly and they were better behaved and happier at school even though the interventions were in some cases rushed and delivered for fewer hours than expected.

It also found the intervention was most effective for the children with the highest needs, who also had the most intensive teaching.

The report indicated many teachers were sceptical about structured literacy, but others were very supportive.

It included comments about the effect of the interventions.

"In all my years at [...] School I have never finished a full book of writing and this year I have because I can spell now," a Year 6 girl with dyslexia said.

"I can finally read their writing," a teacher wrote.

"If we were able to get all teachers participating in this we would see significant gains for all learners," a principal wrote.

Education Minister Erica Stanford stood by the government's decision to end funding for Reading Recovery from the start of next year.

She told RNZ: "The programme has had tens of millions in taxpayer funding for years and ignored the evidence about the science of how the overwhelming majority of children best learn to read. I am concerned the revised offering is too little, too late, and still does not acknowledge or renounce the problematic three-cueing ideology at the heart of the approach."

"The report you refer to states improved efficacy of the programme based on the inclusion of evidence-based structured literacy approaches. As Professor James Chapman notes, the 'and+and' revision of the Reading Recovery offering ignores the flawed ideology at the heart of the practice."

Stanford said if incorporating structured literacy elements in Reading Recovery had made the difference, it reinforced the government's decision to pursue comprehensive structured literacy practice.

Asked if Reading Recovery might be eligible for government funding for structured literacy-based approaches, Stanford said the criteria for funding would be made public in coming weeks.

Nina Hood from research body the Education Hub said the reports showed structured approaches to literacy were effective for teaching children basic reading skills.

But she said the reports focused only on the specific decoding skills that were being taught and not on the bigger question of whether children could read better in general terms.

"The measurement that they're using was around decoding skills which obviously is a foundational part of learning to read. But I'd also like to see the connection between structured literacy approaches and comprehension as well because that's where we're ultimately wanting to get to. We want children to comprehend what they're reading," she said.

Auckland University associate professor Rebecca Jesson from Reading Recovery said the research proved the government should not be cutting funding to the start of the scheme.

"The government is making a serious mistake in taking away a safety net for children who are learning to read," she said.

"There has never been a one-size-fits-all, silver bullet programme. There will always be children who need extra support. We can support almost all children to go at pace so that they catch up with their peers."

Jesson said reading recovery had been overhauled to include group work and aspects of structured literacy.

"[It's] been a big programme of work for years and it's included implementing the structured approaches that the ministry have developed. So we've been very, very pleased that we've been able to implement the structured approaches whilst still not taking our eye off the other important parts of writing and reading."

University of Canterbury professor Gail Gillon from Better Start Literacy, one of the structured approaches covered by the reports, agreed wider literacy skills should be measured.

She said the ministry's research did not do that because it was comparing three different teaching systems.

However, she said Better Start's own data shows it did help with children's wider language and comprehension skills.

"We see that children who have had the Better Start Literacy approach are significantly stronger in their oral language skills such as in their vocabulary skills, their listening comprehension skills," she said.

Gillon said she did not agree that Reading Recovery should be retained.

"Reading Recovery is quite a different approach from structured literacy approaches that are based on the science of reading and while aspects of Reading Recovery will of course include aspects of phonics and phonological awareness, I think it gets confusing for teachers if you're trying to do a mix and match type of approach," she said.

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