New Zealand's iconic one-to-one Reading Recovery programme may change to include small groups after an evaluation found that it is not "spilling over" to help other children who miss out on individual tuition.
The programme, which began in New Zealand in the 1970s and has spread to other English-speaking countries, provides daily half-hour one-to-one tuition for 20 weeks for children with the weakest reading and writing at age 6, one year after they started school.
The evaluation, commissioned by the Ministry of Education, has found that the programme is effective at boosting literacy for the 23 per cent of children who take part in it at the schools that use it.
But it found there was no statistically significant difference between literacy gains of all children in schools that use Reading Recovery and schools that don't.
"Reading Recovery does not appear to lead to 'spill over' effects for the wider class," it said.
"Reading Recovery did not support improvements in the literacy development strategy or capability development of other teachers outside the specially-trained Reading Recovery teacher."
The evaluation follows an Education Review Office call in 2018 for an investigation of the programme after it was abandoned in New South Wales.
Massey University literacy expert Professor James Chapman has long argued that its stress on teaching children to recognise whole words is less effective for children with poor literacy than teaching them how to "decode" separate letters and sounds.
However, the Education Ministry continues to fund the programme, giving schools $2600 for every child in the programme in 2017.
Despite this incentive, the proportion of primary schools using it has fallen from 67 per cent in 2005 to 55 per cent in 2017.
A survey of schools for the evaluation found that some schools with high needs have dropped the programme because it did not reach enough of their pupils.
"We decided that having a very small number of children in the Reading Recovery programme did not effectively change the results of our school," one school said.
Another said: "Reading Recovery only catered for one child. Our groups are based on this style, with a mix of other approaches, and we are looking at the whole child and catering for more children than Reading Recovery could."
The evaluators from the Synergia consultancy said the ministry should consider "adapting the delivery of Reading Recovery to include small groups", integrate it better with other literacy work in the schools and allow more flexibility on the age when children start the programme.
Hay Park School, a multicultural decile 1 school in Mt Roskill, said 70 per cent of its children spoke English as a second language but only about a quarter of all Year 2 pupils get into Reading Recovery.
One of the school's two Reading Recovery teachers, Lara Fraser, kept working with her pupils, such as 6-year-old AJ Tausili and his 8-year-old sister, right through the lockdown.
"I saw them every day on Google Meet. I did simple books. I gave them a pack [of books] and every third day I went to the home and took away the old books and supplied new books," she said.
When AJ returned to school this week she started half-hour sessions with him again, asking him each time to read four books, identify magnetic letters on a whiteboard, write a sentence and put words back into order after she cut them up into separate words on cardboard.
"When AJ started with us this year he was at level 2 [of the colour-coded reading books]," she said.
"Now we're at level 10, which is extremely good." The children are expected to get to around level 17 by the end of the 20 weeks.
Hay Park principal Sheree Campbell said the Reading Recovery teachers worked closely with classroom teachers, but added: "It would be good if there was the opportunity to have small groups as well as individuals."
"It would also be good if schools had some flexibility so it was not always the lowest children," she said.
"Sometimes there could be another intervention that is more appropriate for supporting children who are very, very low, and letting other children have the opportunity of Reading Recovery who need that little push.
"You might have some who only need it for 10 weeks. You could then have other children come in.
"You stop them at either level 17 or after 20 weeks, but sometimes there are kids on say level 6 or 8 who need that push and might only need Reading Recovery for maybe 10 weeks or 15 weeks."
Education Ministry associate deputy secretary Pauline Cleaver said the ministry "supports the continued use of Reading Recovery where schools choose to use it as part of their literacy approach".
"It is one of a number of supports that schools choose to use for additional support learners who need it in the early years of schooling," she said.
"We are actively reviewing the findings of the report and will use them to strengthen the implementation of Reading Recovery in schools, and to inform the further development and design of literacy learning approaches."