The late Dame Marie Clay's contribution to education is based on extensive research and published work, beginning with Observing Young Readers (1982) and ending with Literacy Lessons Designed for Individuals, (2005, Heinemann US and NZ). The first showed that failing six year olds not only read roughly a twentieth as much as successful readers, but were making far more mistakes in what they did read, and correcting far fewer of their errors themselves. They were thinking differently, and less effectively, and so needed different teaching. The techniques used by successful teachers in Auckland were collected, and formed the basis of the manual for Reading Recovery, a scheme designed to improve their thinking so that they could make similar progress to other pupils. The latest book is an update to the manual, and follows criticism that it had not been kept up to date. It has still not been published in the UK, but is available via Amazon, here.
The main change is Dame Marie's acceptance of "phonemic awareness" - conscious knowledge of patterns of sound - (TES, Connecting Patterns, 1.3.88), otherwise known as "onset and rime" - as a key element in relating sounds to letters. The best feature, and one that I recommend wholeheartedly, is the section on getting these children whom she describes, accurately enough, as "hard to teach" to begin to write. This section alone makes the book worth buying, and I've already prestented it to teachers on a training course, alongside Clicker 6, which will make it easier to use.
Phonics, though, remains a blind spot for Dame Marie, who still associates it with the presenting to children the idea that a letter can represent only one sound. She sees a research finding by Kaye (2002) that young fluent readers tend to use letters in clusters rather than one at a time as somehow contradicting the value of phonics, whereas the truth is that it is fast, accurate, application of phonic knowledge that enables them to do this. Dame Marie approves of "word-breaking" - aka analytic phonics - but not "word building" and, while she includes several put-downs of phonics, there is no mention of it in the index. RR has avoided the issue for the whole of its existence, and continues to do so. As a result, it is not eligible for federal funding in the US, much to the organisation's fury. Thanks to Karina Mclachlain for this information.
So, where does this leave Reading Recovery?
First, we need to distinguish between teaching techniques, some of which are very useful in themselves, and their use as a manual. Teaching conscious attention to sounds and their links to letters enables children to proceed to use word-building as well as word-breaking, and RR's refusal to include this, aka synthetic phonics, in its manual, is pure obstinacy. There is a hidden element of look and say in its approach to new words that, at best, slows down the process of learning to read and at worst prevents it. Reading Recovery has a considerable and predictable failure rate that is both expensive and distressing - click for my successful work with a child who had previously had RR to no avail.
Next, the timing and structure of the scheme are inflexible, bureaucratic and wasteful. We know by the time they are five which children are likely to have difficulty in learning to read, and should not let them fail for two years before doing something about it. The best schools tackle the problem by building the necessary understanding from nursery onwards. If schools know their children, spending two weeks "roaming round the known" is a waste of time and money. A skilled teacher can find out what a weak reader already knows in minutes, rather than weeks, and can make an impact on the problem - in most cases, turn it round - in the first lesson. In the Foundation Lesson, the teacher inspires immediate confidence, backed by the fact that the child will immediately begin to get things right and continue to do so. See the examples below.
Picking the weakest six children in a class for RR is also arbitrary - in some classes, fewer than six children will need help, and in others the whole class will. Similarly, the criterion of subsequent average progress for the class is meaningless - in a high-attaining class, a child could be doing well, but still be behind the others. In a class where most of the pupils are failing, doing as well as they are is of no benefit.
The National Foundation for Educational Research found in 1988 that RR pupils in London started secondary school with a reading age of 8.4. Better than zero, but nothing to shout about. RR's response to this finding was a propagandist article in The Guardian saying I should have been pleased with the result. They are easily pleased. They have, unfortunately, succeeded in conning a lot of politicians with their mantra of "accelerated progress first, sustained average progress later". This is salesmanship rather than education, and needs to be resisted.
Reading Recovery gives children who need it the undivided, trained attention of an adult who understands children of their age, and gives them work they can do, rather than forcing them into a pace they can't match. It has, however, become fossilised and needs urgent reform. Until this happens, it should be treated like any other quango, and receive no more public money. Big charities investing in it should ensure that the outcome is evaluated independently, and in particular should track children's progress carefully, at least until the age of 11.