I've just started work with a couple of students aged eight and nine who have both had extensive testing of their language and cognitive skills, which were found to be in the average range, but neither of them can read or spell beyond a Grade Prep level.
On the standardised tests I use most often to assess phonemic awareness and spelling pattern knowledge – the Lindamood Auditory Conceptualisation Test and the Martin and Pratt Nonword Reading test – they both scored at six-year-old skill levels, on both tests.
They've both done Reading Recovery, but it obviously didn't work. This started me thinking about what Reading Recovery provides and doesn't provide, who it's most suitable for, and what else schools and/or parents need to be doing to make sure smart, keen kids like these can get cracking on literacy.
Reading Recovery is a literacy catch-up program used widely across the English-speaking world, although in my local schools it has been cut back significantly in recent years, possibly because of question marks over its effectiveness and whether it represents good value for money.
Children who are struggling to learn literacy are referred by their class teachers to Reading Recovery in Grade 1. It's a 12 to 20-week program, taught 1:1 for half an hour per day by a specialist teacher who has done a year-long inservice program. So it sounds just what the doctor ordered.
The Reading Recovery lesson has six core activities:
- Reading familiar books,
- Reading the book that was new last lesson,
- Making words with magnetic letters,
- Writing one or two sentences about a personal experience,
- Reading and reassembling a cut-up-story,
- Reading a new book.
If the thirty minute session is distributed evenly among the tasks, this means that the learner gets five minutes making words with movable letters and five minutes writing, but the writing is unstructured and child-led, so the words most likely to be written are words the child already knows.
The rest of the lesson is really a Whole Language lesson, focused on words rather than sounds and letters. A lot of the reading strategies encouraged by Reading Recovery are ones that I actively discourage, like looking at the picture and first letter and guessing words. These days I usually put my hand over the picture in picture-books until the words have all been read, and then we look at the picture.
When a learner is clearly looking at the first letter and just guessing a word, I say, "That was a good guess, now please read it". However, the only words I present learners with are ones I know they actually have the blending skills and pattern knowledge to read right through, because we work with decodable books. In Reading Recovery, spelling patterns seem not to be so tightly controlled, so for some words, guessing may be really all learners can do.
If a learner's key problems are hearing sounds in words and understanding how these sounds are represented by letters, only one of Reading Recovery's activities – building words with magnetic letters – really targets these problems. If the magnetic letters used are just the standard set of 26 letters, and they're only used to represent 26 sounds, Reading Recovery won't help learners with the other 18 sounds, with two, three and four-letter spellings, or with spellings shared by more than one sound (see this earlier blog post for more details).
Five minutes per day, five days a week for 12 to 20 weeks adds up to between five and eight-and-a-half hours of work on sounds and letters. Simply not enough.
Although Reading Recovery is meant to be delivered in a consistent format, a lot of experienced Reading Recovery teachers will tell you over a cup of tea in the staffroom (if you promise not to report them to the Reading Recovery Police) that in their sessions, they do a lot more phonics than in classic Reading Recovery, because they find that's what most of the kids coming through need the most.
I always say a big hooray for them. One size does not fit all, and if the learner was in a Whole Language classroom and failed to learn, why would you give them another dose of Whole Language? It's time to try a different tack, based on careful assessment of skills and understanding of the literacy research.
One of Australia's key critics of Reading Recovery is Professor Kevin Wheldall, the person behind the Making Up Lost Time In Literacy (Multilit) program, and for many years the Director of the Macquarie University Special Education Centre. He recently wrote a blog post called "Small bangs for big bucks: The long term efficacy of Reading Recovery", the title of which speaks for itself, and which should concern all of us as taxpayers and members of a society in which you can't really participate if you're illiterate. It should also be of particular concern to all of us who work with learners with language and literacy difficulties, and need programs that produce significant and lasting improvements.
My eight and nine-year-old learners, and many others like them, send a clear message to parents of struggling learners: Reading Recovery may not be the intervention your child needs. It's vital to find out if their key skill deficits are phonemic awareness and spelling pattern knowledge, and if they are, make sure they get intervention specifically targeting these areas. This may be able to be negotiated over a cup of tea with an experienced and flexible Reading Recovery teacher, or the school's Speech Pathologist, you might be able to do it yourself at home, or you may need to seek help elsewhere.
As for my two learners, I'll see them for an hour each week to work on their sounds and letters, plus any extra time I can find e.g. when other students are absent. The school and their families will do follow-up activities on a regular basis, so that by the end of term they should have done at least a dozen really solid hours of this work at school, plus whatever time their willing and able families can do at home. Allowing for sick, strike and sports days we can probably get through at least another 20 hours of work at school in second term. I'm aiming for them to get a total of about 60 hours of intervention, since that's what the research suggests is needed. This might be achievable by mid-year.
Let's see if that gets these kids cracking on literacy, where Reading Recovery did not. I'll let you know how they go.