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10 April 2000

Literacy? It’s really very simple

A reading scheme is flourishing in Canada, the US and NZ. Why not here, asks Francis Beckett

By Francis Beckett

Professor Marie Clay believes that Britain needs to do just two things, both quite modest and affordable, if we are to end our unenviable record of having a higher proportion of illiterate adults than any other country in western Europe. She has already persuaded the whole of New Zealand, all Canadian states bar one, three Australian states and a majority of US states to do both of them, and rather more besides. She is having more difficulty with our new Labour government.

Clay, who is a university professor in Auckland, New Zealand, explained what should be done during a short detour to encourage her beleaguered followers on her way home from Vancouver. She is the creator of Reading Recovery, which detects reading difficulties at the age of six, and provides a child with individual tuition for half an hour every day for up to 20 weeks from a specially trained teacher. There are some technicalities but that is really all there is to it . It has to be done that early: after the age of six, reading problems become harder to cure with every passing year. And it has to be that intensive. If you skimp, it won’t work.

But if you do it properly, all the studies show that it works better than anything else yet discovered. It gets children up to the average level of reading for their age, and the knowledge sticks. A child who has been through Reading Recovery is extremely unlikely to grow up illiterate.

In Britain, according to a Basic Skills Agency report, more than one in 20 adults struggle to read the shortest and simplest of sentences. Another one in eight has the reading skills of an average 11-year-old. Illiteracy is utterly disabling. These adults, the report claims, are strongly represented among the unemployed, the lowest earners and the prison population. There is no place for them in the new knowledge economy. And it is largely a disability of the poor. Children eligible for free school meals are four times as likely as other children to require Reading Recovery.

In 1992, the then secretary of state for education, Kenneth Clarke, in order to fulfil an election pledge, found £10m for a three-year trial of Reading Recovery in 20 inner-city local education authorities. When the three years were up, there was no general election in progress, so the government said that the money had been “pump-priming” and it was up to local authorities now. It had ensured that they did not have the money.

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So today, there are Reading Recovery programmes in only 26 local authorities throughout England, Scotland and Wales. Northern Ireland alone is developing a comprehensive programme, giving every primary school access to a Reading Recovery teacher. We have trained 2,000 Reading Recovery teachers, but only 700 of them are doing the scheme’s work.

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Clay is not saying that we must have a full, national Reading Recovery programme. She knows the cost would terrify ministers. But she believes that if we do two things, it will transform our prospects. First, she wants central funding for tutors to support Reading Recovery teachers. Without these tutors, she argues, the teachers become isolated and rigid. Second, she wants us to ensure that the programme reaches the 20 per cent poorest readers in the age group. “The benefits are terrific when you get to the full 20 per cent,” she says.

This would still leave vast swathes of the country without Reading Recovery. It would not begin to put us up there with New Zealand, where the programme extends to the whole country and practically every six year old; where 18 per cent of the nation’s six year olds receive the intensive tuition every year; where there are 1,200 trained Reading Recovery teachers for a population that is 15 times smaller than ours.

But it would be a start. Will we get it?

Our National Literacy Strategy is masterminded by a ministerial adviser, Professor Michael Barber, who defends it as imaginative and redistributive. But so far, at least, it is not a strategy for helping children who are struggling with reading; it is for improving the overall level of literacy in primary schools. It is based on the assumption that the first problem to be tackled is bad teaching.

Its centrepiece is the literacy hour, during which teachers have to follow precisely a lesson plan provided by the government. There are no extra resources, unless you count the mountain of paperwork supplied to tell teachers how to run the literacy hour. It is a different, and supposedly more efficient, way of using the teachers we already have; nothing more. Meanwhile, the government supports all sorts of schemes designed to bring volunteer mentors into schools after a couple of days’ training.

In other words, so far the government’s attack on illiteracy has not cost much. Will the government now take the very small steps Clay has suggested, which will increase the effectiveness of the resources we already have? If it wants to make a real assault on illiteracy, it will start to spend some real money. If it doesn’t, expect more calls for volunteer mentors and more glossy packs for teachers.