Reading into reading recovery

Rose Patterson
Insights Newletter
9 August, 2013

This week, Massey University Professors James Chapman and Bill Turner released a highly critical report of the Ministry of Education’s strategy for improving children’s literacy.

In essence, they argue that the strategy has failed. Data from the Progress in International Reading Literacy (PIRLS) showed no improvements in literacy rates from 2001 to 2011, nor a narrowing of the wide gap in reading ability between Pâkehâ children and Mâori/Pasifika children.

Even more bravely, the professors criticise New Zealand’s much-loved Reading Recovery programme, going completely against the grain of mainstream commentary and research on the Reading Recovery brand that is a source of pride for many New Zealanders.

Every year, around 10,000 6-year-olds are pulled out of class each day for one-on-one reading sessions with specialised Reading Recovery teachers. Designed by Dame Marie Clay in the 1970s, Reading Recovery is now used in parts of Europe, North America, and Australia, and is well supported by international evidence.

But as Professors Chapman and Turner point out, while the programme does help struggling readers, it may not help those who need it the most. They go as far to argue that the approach to teaching reading that underpins both the Reading Recovery programme and general teaching of reading causes Matthew effects (rich-get-richer and poor-get poorer).

How so? To start with, the playing field is uneven from the beginning of school, as children’s experiences with picture books, games that encourage literacy, rhymes and talking, differ greatly. The report points out evidence to show that children who start on the back foot may benefit more from a heavier emphasis on back-to-basics approaches. As far back as 1999, a Literacy Expert Group advised that the Reading Recovery programme should put more emphasis on these approaches.

The advice was ignored. The Reading Recovery is trademarked and copyrighted, meaning that changes cannot be made without approval. The problem with this, as noted by researcher John Church in 2005, is that Reading Recovery ‘was designed in the 1970s prior to most of the modern research into how children learn to read. Not surprisingly, therefore, it lacks a number of elements which have been found by research to be essential in teaching low-achieving children to read’.

Reading Recovery is dear to kiwi hearts. But perhaps what should be held dearer is an openness to constructively criticise and adapt programmes so that they are more effective for those they aim to benefit. This is essential if New Zealand is serious about narrowing gaps in educational achievement.

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