I wrote this email to Ed Balls recently:
I wrote to you on 13th July 2007 raising the issues about growing discontent in the Early Years and worries about the promotion of your chosen intervention programme, Reading Recovery. Since that date, the government has made announcements that Reading Recovery is to be rolled out nationally under the ‘Every Child A Reader’ umbrella without apparently addressing several significant worries regarding the efficacy of the Reading Recovery methods and regarding the government promotion of a specific programme which is clearly not in line with the Rose recommendations. I have reason to believe that there is a growing number of people seriously questioning government actions and that there is a case for the government to respond to the questions which arise from the national promotion of an internationally discredited teaching method.
You went to some lengths to suggest to me in your response to my worries that those in charge of Reading Recovery are likely to pay regard to research on reading and to come in line with the recommendations of the Rose Report. Please see your comments below (in red) taken from your original email to me. To date, no evidence has been found or provided to reassure me, or others, that Reading Recovery has indeed been brought into line with the Rose recommendations or that there is any intention to change the philosophy of teaching reading from a whole language approach to a synthetic phonics approach. There is evidence, however, to indicate that Reading Recovery remains unchanged from the whole language programme that it has always been which promotes multi-cueing guessing strategies and the use of reading books which are beyond learners’ Alphabetic Code knowledge and blending skills – in direct contrast to the type of reading instruction now promoted by the government for early years teaching for four to seven year olds.
I find it extraordinary that the government would proactively promote an intervention programme which is in direct contrast to the type of synthetic phonics teaching which is reflected in the most recent government programme, ‘Letters and Sounds’.
You wrote to me the following: “We have chosen to roll out Every Child a Reader (ECAR), which incorporates the intervention programme Reading Recovery, for one simple reason - because it works.”
I suggest, however, that the government’s decision to roll-out an intervention programme which is internationally discredited is anything but simple and highly questionable: Here are the most obvious reasons as to why the government’s move is unaccountable:
1. Reading Recovery is a whole language programme which is in direct contrast to the recommendations of the Rose Report. In effect, the government has failed to apply its own recommended criteria for evaluating a reading instruction programme – and contradicted the guidance of its own programme ‘Letters and Sounds’.
2. The promotion of two opposing types of reading instruction will totally confuse both the teaching profession, the general public and the pupils and, at the very least, will undermine the potential effects of implementing the type of teaching described in ‘Letters and Sounds’. Teacher-training (in addition to classroom practice) will be totally skewed as a result of the promotion of both a synthetic phonics programme and a whole language programme for the early years. You have given the nation totally mixed messages which will serve no-one well.
3. Scrutiny of the Reading Recovery programme reveals it is indeed a whole language programme and yet the body of international research on reading instruction DISCREDITS whole language teaching – PARTICULARLY for struggling readers.
4. There is plenty of evidence readily available on the internet to illustrate the international concern about the efficacy of using the Reading Recovery programme. Reading Recovery IN PARTICULAR is highlighted over and again as being a cause for concern regarding both its methods and the lack of rigour and transparency in its reporting of results. It is very strange that the UK government would promote a specific NAMED programme in the first place – but PARTICULARLY a programme which is discredited throughout the international community without, at the very least, conducting rigorous research with properly controlled and comparison groups including modern synthetic phonics taught children. Why does the government pro-actively promote a programme which has not been compared properly with a synthetic phonics intervention programme? Would this happen in the world of medicine? Even if you believe that Reading Recovery ‘works’, do you really know how well this programme would stand up to the leading synthetic phonics programmes when compared transparently?
5. The government was sufficiently impressed with the expertise provided by the Reading Reform Foundation and the leading edge practice of various synthetic phonics programmes across the UK and the international research (including Johnston and Watson’s Clackmannanshire study) to; a) make the move of promoting the simple view of reading which is highly evidenced and to; b) write its own synthetic phonics programme for national use. Why would the government, in effect, imply, We acknowledge your expertise in teaching reading (and spelling) and we are listening to your worries about reading instruction methods to the extent that we are investigating them through a House of Commons inquiry and a national review under Jim Rose as to how best to teach reading. We acknowledge the conclusions of these inquiries to the extent of producing a government guidance manual which tries to emulate your programmes – but we do not acknowledge your expertise and we are not listening to your worries regarding intervention and the government promotion of the whole language Reading Recovery programme. In fact, we are not listening to the points you raise, we dismiss them, and we are too busy to meet with you to discuss your worries about what is best to address struggling readers’ needs. The question is, do we have expertise on teaching reading or not?
6. The Reading Recovery programme is an extremely expensive intervention programme. Whilst I am not endeavouring to ‘put a price’ on the importance of children learning to read well, nevertheless from an economic perspective, once again the government’s decision to promote Reading Recovery IN PARTICULAR has to be questioned. The contrast is VAST between what leading synthetic phonics programme designers consider is necessary to at least get parents and teachers aware of the main teaching principles concerned for them to implement synthetic phonics teaching – even for intervention. Jolly Phonics, for example, has often been used for intervention purposes for the cost of the main handbook ‘The Phonics Handbook’ which is around £20. All synthetic phonics programmes can be used for intervention purposes but implemented more intensively in small groups or one to one contexts. The Sound Reading System (SRS) provides special needs tuition for all ages and provides a week long training programme for around £500. It does take some time to gain greater understanding and proficiency to become the most effective teacher possible – but teaching assistants, parents and volunteers can become effective with good training and supportive resources which are much less expensive and convoluted than Reading Recovery training. So, not only is the Reading Recovery methodology highly questionable, the time-consuming and elaborate network of teacher-training is also questionable. SO MUCH MORE could be achieved if synthetic phonics interventions were SUPPORTED with the kind of government backing being given to the Reading Recovery organisation. Why does the Reading Recovery organisation merit special treatment?
And what cost to the learning where pupils themselves get mixed messages and a mixed methods start because they are encouraged to guess words from clues which contradict the very teaching which has now been endorsed in the mainstream classrooms?
The government’s concern about our weakest readers is laudable – it is the subsequent action of the government which beggars belief.
However even when we get there, and all children have access to quality first phonics teaching, we will still need early reading interventions in place for the minority of children for whom that is not enough to enable them to become skilled readers and writers. This is acknowledged in the Review itself - “while interventions for children with reading difficulties will always be necessary, the need for them is likely to be much reduced by quality first phonics teaching.” There is always going to be a minority for whom intervention is necessary and, in the case of early reading, the Review is clear that high quality phonic work should form a key feature of intervention provision.
We have chosen to roll out Every Child a Reader (ECAR), which incorporates the intervention programme Reading Recovery, for one simple reason - because it works. The success of ECAR and Reading Recovery is well evidenced. For example results from the first year of the ECAR pilot, involving some of the hardest to teach children in the most disadvantaged areas, showed that children made on average four times the normal rate of progress.
In terms of high quality phonic work, Reading Recovery has in recent years had a strong phonic component. ECAR promotes the importance of a high quality, consistently taught, explicitly secured approach to segmenting and blending, with a left to right approach to word analysis secured early. This is emphasised as every child’s entitlement during day to day teaching as well as during additional literacy intervention sessions.
We acknowledge that we need to ensure compatibility between the phonic teaching in additional intervention sessions and phonic teaching undertaken in the classroom. It is important to understand that Reading Recovery is not a static, fixed programme but one that will continue to evolve to take account of new research findings.
Why is the government apparently relying on the Reading Recovery programme to, “…continue to evolve to take account of new research findings…” when it has never done this to date despite decades of research showing whole language is damaging? Why is the government apparently relying on the Reading Recovery programme when there is such exciting potential for developing synthetic phonics teaching across our country? The government stands poised at an incredible historic moment, achieving the Rose Report – and then undermines the progress to date!
I request, once again, a meeting to discuss these issues and suggest that, at such a meeting, the Reading Reform Foundation committee members could be invited plus some leading experts on synthetic phonics teaching such as Rhona Johnston and Marlynne Grant.
We would all be very grateful for the opportunity to fully explain to you our range of work – and its potential - and which includes intensive teaching for the weakest readers; and why we continue to worry enormously for the welfare of children who receive mixed messages and mixed methods of learning to read.
I look forward to hearing from you.