'We would say Reading Recovery is a wait-to-fail program'.

'We would say Reading Recovery is a wait-to-fail program'. Photo: Lee Besford

The remedial reading program Reading Recovery has failed in New Zealand and needs to be replaced with one that targets children most at risk of failing to learn to read, according to visiting academics.

Reading Recovery is the most widely used early intervention program for poor readers in Australian schools.

It was taught in nearly a quarter of Victorian government schools last year with 2461 primary students (about 5 per cent) enrolled.

However, New Zealand academics will tell a Learning Difficulties Australia symposium in Melbourne this week that the program was designed in the 1970s prior to most of the modern research into how children learn to read.

They say that after more than 25 years of Reading Recovery in New Zealand, there is virtually no empirical evidence to indicate that successful completion of Reading Recovery results in sustained literacy improvement.

Reading Recovery provides struggling readers in year 1 with daily individual, 30-minute lessons from a specially trained teacher.

The program was developed in New Zealand and now operates in Australia, the United States, Canada and Britain.

The Victorian Education Department's website says it has a "strong tradition of success with the lowest-achieving children".

However, Reading Recovery is also controversial in Australia.

A 2002 evaluation by researchers from the Australian Council of Educational Research found the program's benefits for year 1 students did not last until the children reached year 3.

Professor James Chapman, from Massey University, told Fairfax Media that Reading Recovery did not work for children who had dyslexia or were really struggling to read.

"I'm not saying no one benefits from Reading Recovery, I am saying that in New Zealand it is supposed to be helping the kids who struggle the most to read and the evidence shows that is absolutely not the case," he said.

Professor Chapman said these children needed systematic instruction in "phonemic awareness", with children taught to sound out words.

He was also critical of Reading Recovery because it did not help children until they had been at school for a year.

"We would say Reading Recovery is a wait-to-fail program … there is plenty of evidence to show you can predict with a fair degree of certainty the kids who will struggle from the outset," Professor Chapman said.

"Reading Recovery needs to clean up its act and change its approach or be ditched and replaced by a program far more contemporary than one devised in the '70s that hasn't changed," he said.

But Professor John Hattie, the chairman of the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership, said there had been many studies of Reading Recovery and the program "comes out quite well".

"In a sense any program that deliberately teaches reading is worthwhile and there are too few of them," said Professor Hattie, who will also attend the symposium.

However, he said that Reading Recovery had not been improved since the 1970s and the cost of one-on-one instruction was prohibitively high.

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