In praise of a kiwi iconoclast

Dr Michael Johnston
Insights Newsletter
4 August, 2023

It can be hard for a country to admit that one of its idols has feet of clay. As it happens, one of New Zealand’s educational idols not only had feet of clay, but her name was Clay.

In the 1970s, Marie Clay developed the Reading Recovery programme, an intervention to assist primary-aged children struggling to learn to read. The programme involves daily one-on-one lessons for up to 20 weeks. It is based on the now discredited, ‘whole language’ philosophy, which holds that learning to read comes naturally, like oral language.

Early on, Reading Recovery seemed to work. In fact, it became New Zealand’s most famous educational export. The programme was adopted throughout the English-speaking world. Marie Clay became Dame Marie Clay, OBE.

But in 2002, an international group of reading experts, including New Zealand’s Professor James Chapman, wrote an open letter criticising Reading Recovery.

The experts pointed out that the programme does little for the poorest readers. They noted that it was not adapting in response to new research findings.  Most troublingly, they observed that the students who made initial gains in Reading Recovery tended to slip back when the intervention was over.

One by one, the countries that had adopted Reading Recovery dropped it. The only country that still runs the intervention is New Zealand. Despite ever-mounting evidence against its effectiveness, the Ministry of Education continues to fund the programme.

The cult of Reading Recovery has, arguably, been the greatest roadblock to New Zealand’s adoption of structured literacy. Structured literacy recognises that reading does not come naturally. It uses the correspondence between spelling and sound to help kids read words they have never seen in print before. Its effectiveness is supported by a wealth of scientific evidence.

The trouble is that the theoretical underpinning of structured literacy is antithetical to that of Reading Recovery. And questioning Reading Recovery in New Zealand is tantamount to heresy. Until recently, anyway.

James Chapman has led the fight to ditch Reading Recovery and adopt structured literacy for decades. Finally, late in his career, it looks as if victory is in the air. Ministry funding is now available to train teachers in structured literacy.

Professor Chapman may not be an idol like Dame Marie. In fact, when it comes to Reading Recovery, he’s an iconoclast. But he has science on his side, and a steely determination to do what’s best for our kids.

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