Lifting literacy needs more than just money

school readingAn unpublished evaluation by the NSW Department of Education has revealed the $50 million a year Reading Recovery program – the main early intervention reading program used in NSW public schools – is ineffective for many students.

Numerous studies and evaluations have provided similar findings during the past two decades or more, yet it remains the department’s preferred intervention program: about 100,000 NSW students have been enrolled in the program during that period.

Reading specialists have also been voicing their concerns about another NSW reading program – Language, Learning and Literacy (commonly known as L3) – which, like Reading Recovery, has few of the hallmarks of effective evidence-based reading instruction identified in research. In particular, there is an absence of explicit and systematic phonics instruction.

Limited information about Language, Learning and Literacy is publicly available, but a freedom of information request last year confirmed no proper evaluation had been conducted on the program. The only evaluation data were pie charts showing the percentages of students in this program who had achieved reading and vocabulary “goals” in the 2007 pilot schools. In 2012, this program was being used in 456 NSW public schools, but a 2013 report by the Australian Council for Educational Research said “no formal research evidence or program evaluation was available to assess the efficacy of [it] in improving student achievement”.

The latest edition of the Learning Difficulties Australia Bulletin includes a detailed critique of the Language, Learning and Literacy program by Dr Roslyn Neilson and Dr Sally Howell. Howell raised concerns about the program at the time. Her questions about the literacy standards against which the program was being assessed remain unanswered and access to the teaching materials was denied.

Howell and Neilson nevertheless obtained information about this program, and their assessment is alarming. Its guidelines claim it uses explicit instruction and includes phonics, but this is debatable. Neilson and Howell report there is “no planned sequence to the introduction of letter-sound correspondences, and no opportunity for children to practise mastering the skills of letter-sound identification, phoneme segmentation and blending”, and the program’s guidelines discourage the use of any other formal phonics instruction.

Howell and Neilson commend the wealth of literature-based activities for building vocabulary in the program. This is essential, but not enough for many children to become independent readers – especially those without literacy-supportive home backgrounds. That the program is deliberately targeted at socioeconomically disadvantaged schools adds greater weight to Neilson and Howell’s warning that the program is “potentially a recipe for disaster for at-risk students”.

Reading Recovery and Language, Learning and Literacy are both at odds with the department’s own evaluation unit, The Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation. In 2014, this unit produced an excellent report, What works best: Evidence-based practices to help improve NSW student performance.

Explicit instruction is second on the list of effective practices. According to the report, “The evidence shows that students who experience explicit teaching practices perform better than students who do not. Worryingly, data shows that students from low socioeconomic status backgrounds are less likely to experience these practices”.

The report was similarly clear about the importance of explicit, sequential and systematic phonics instruction in early reading.

The Department of Education gets many things right, but some critical areas of policy require scrutiny. Early reading instruction is the foundation of educational success. The 2015 Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation priority work plan lists a project called Evaluation of Literacy and Numeracy in the Early Years of School: Identifying What Works.

Reading Recovery has been put under the microscope, now it’s time for a rigorous and objective evaluation of the Language, Learning and Literacy program.

Jennifer Buckingham is a research fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies and director of the Five From Five reading project.