A key $55 million-a-year program to teach struggling NSW students to read does not work, with the state's first major review of Reading Recovery warning it is offered in too many schools and has few long-term benefits.
The report, by the NSW Department of Education's Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation, found that Reading Recovery, which is used in about 960 NSW primary schools, should be restricted to the lowest performing students.
While it may have some impact on students who are really struggling with basic reading, the improvements are short-lived, the report found.
Reading Recovery has been in NSW public schools since 1984, ( and Victorian schools for about the same length of time) and is also used in Catholic and independent schools. It was developed in New Zealand in the 1970s to help struggling readers in year 1 with daily individual, 30-minute lessons from a specially trained teacher.
In NSW, Reading Recovery is in 60 per cent of schools and at least 14 per cent of year 1 students take part in it.
The report found that the program is an "effective short-term intervention for remediating reading text skills among the lowest performing students" but is not an effective intervention for "students who begin year 1 with more proficient literacy skills".
"The duration of the program is only 12-20 weeks so it is equally possible that Reading Recovery students do not receive the level of support they need to sustain any short-term effects beyond year 1," the report says.
Despite its widespread use, the program – which is also in the US, Canada and Britain – has its vocal critics and earlier this year, influential US literacy academic Louisa Moats told education bureaucrats in Victoria that it was "indefensible" to spend money on the program.
"The whole approach is based on ideas that have not held up to scientific scrutiny," Dr Moats said in March.
The NSW Department of Education's general manager of strategic information and reporting, Jenny Donovan, said the report found that overall, the program was "not particularly effective".
"It shows there is a positive effect on some students in year 1, the very lowest level of ability students, but for all students by the time they reach year 3, any positive effect that may have been seen by Reading Recovery has been washed out," Dr Donovan said.
"What the report is suggesting is that Reading Recovery isn't the answer for students who have reading difficulties, and increasingly we see students whose levels of reading are not as bad maybe being subjected to a Reading Recovery treatment and it doing no good whatsoever for them."
Dr Donovan said the report found that the year 3 NAPLAN results of students with similar reading abilities were the same, regardless of whether students had completed the Reading Recovery program or not.
Leading literacy academic Robyn Cox, president of the Primary English Teaching Association of Australia, said Reading Recovery was effective for some students but it was not the only remediation program available to schools.
"One way of improving achievement in early literacy would be to enhance teachers' skills in identifying children with reading difficulties and fine-tuning their teaching strategies for this group," associate professor Cox said.
"Reading Recovery is successful for many kids but there will be some kids who have ongoing difficulties in processing print. I wouldn't want to say it is ineffective because for many kids it is just what they needed at the right time.''
A spokeswoman for the NSW Education Minister Adrian Piccoli said the report showed where the program was working and where other strategies to improve reading could be more appropriate.
"The minister has asked the Department of Education for advice on how the report's findings can be used to further refine the effective, targeted delivery of reading support to students needing it most," she said.
It has probably been 12 years since I've used ' Reading Recovery' at Glen Park.( It relied on the parent bringing her daughter to school 30 minutes early for me to run it without distractions and she was far from reliable in doing that so it lasted probably 2 terms with some benefits) My training was truncated because I couldn't commit to full Reading Recovery training, we did a 'small schools' version which lacked a lot of practical experience. It has been more or less de-funded around Ballarat and schools use it if they have a trained teacher, the money and the need. I use some Reading Recovery strategies with struggling readers and they appear to help. I too have wondered about the long term gains. Support from home, parents who model reading and loads and loads of available books are crucial for struggling readers. this year some additional one to one help has paid off with one student but we didn't necessarily use The Reading Recovery program just a few of their strategies. we will also follow it up next year. follow-up is crucial especially over a long holiday break.