US professor says recovery programme in schools lacks customised help for kids.

Children's reading ability is held back by a one-size-fits-all approach at school, an expert has warned. The claims are the latest shot in a heated debate over how New Zealand should address its literacy rates, which have flatlined over the past decade.

Professor Jan Gaffney, who last year left her native United States to join the University of Auckland's Faculty of Education, said teaching must go beyond kids simply reading different books according to ability.

Children who were keeping pace would cope with standardised reading programmes but those with the greatest difficulties would be failed.

"They need customised teaching with tailormade steps responsive to their individual needs. We have to find out where they are on their set of steps, rather than trying to fit them into our way of programmes.


"It's not only the material, it's the teaching that occurs with that material. You can have two students reading the same text, and they will approach it differently."

Professor Gaffney will deliver her first lecture at the university today. The address comes soon after a Massey University report slammed the Ministry of Education's approach to reading as "fundamentally flawed".

The researchers said underachievement in schools had not been addressed by the $40 million-a-year Reading Recovery programme, which targets the bottom 15 per cent of learners with one-on-one help. It was developed by New Zealander Dame Marie Clay in the 1970s and is used in Australia, Britain and the US.

Professor Gaffney said New Zealand had a world-renowned approach to literacy education, and needed to take some of the ideas already in place much further. The key principles of Reading Recovery should be extended to help struggling students right through their schooling.

A customised approach was also needed for schools, which might share poor literacy results but for entirely different reasons.

"The things that are impacting them are just as variable as for a child; for schools and children who are experiencing great difficulty, there needs to be a different starting place."

* Struggling children must be given customised reading programmes, expert argues.

* Must go much further than having them read different books from their classmates.

* Ideas contained within the hotly debated Reading Recovery programme should be extended across all school years.