Beyond the book

Learning to read is a crucial skill; without it, the journey through education becomes an uphill battle. Jo Rose and Anthony Feiler are investigating an early reading intervention to help young children who are struggling to master the basics.

Reading Quest

Reading is often seen as the cornerstone of success in education: we use it as a way of learning new information, and those who can read well are more likely to succeed in school than those who don’t. To be able to provide support for reading, it is important to understand how we read and how we learn to read.

There are many different aspects of successful reading. Phonological awareness is about how we recognise, understand and manipulate the sound of words, syllables and letters. Reading vocabulary considers how many words we know and use appropriately. Reading fluency is our ability to read quickly, accurately and with expression. Children can develop different strategies to decode words, such as using phonics (breaking down written words into units of sound), using context clues such as surrounding words or pictures, or searching their knowledge of words that look similar.

Of course, children can pronounce words without necessarily understanding them, and reading fluency does not always imply comprehension. The extent of vocabulary knowledge, responses to text, and the extent to which readers are able to appreciate implicit as well as explicit meaning, are all aspects of comprehension that need to be developed.

Bottom-up and top-down

Over recent decades it has been increasingly recognised that learning to read is a complex task that demands different skills according to a range of factors, such as the type of material being read or the individual child’s level of reading competence. Different models of the reading process can be broadly grouped into two categories: bottom-up and top-down.

Bottom-up models emphasise lower-level processes such as the ability to recognise letters and sounds, how groups of letters can form certain sounds, how to identify whole words, and so forth. Top-down models highlight young children’s knowledge of language and how this knowledge can enhance their capacity to read. From their experience with language as speakers and listeners, children expect language to make sense, so comprehension, contextual cues and picture cues can help them read unfamiliar words and phrases.

Some theorists suggest that rather than taking a polarised view of reading being either bottom-up or top-down, a more productive perspective is one that synthesises both models. Literacy expert Marie Clay’s work, for example, embraced both top-down and bottom-up elements, and when working with children who struggled with reading she underlined the importance of developing highly individualised approaches based on a thorough understanding of each child’s literacy strengths and needs.

Reading Quest

Children enter school with different levels of reading experience and skill, and the gap between children tends to increase as they progress through school. Ordinary classroom teaching does not always close this gap: in any class, some children do not progress as well as their peers. The school has to decide whether to offer extra help to those falling behind, and what form that help will take. Early intervention is thought to provide the best chance of closing the gap. Reading Recovery is a widely used initiative for five- to six-year-olds, which provides individual, structured support in daily half-hour sessions over a period of 15-20 weeks. The focus is on reading comprehension and development of writing. Although much research has found Reading Recovery to be effective, it is resource-intensive, requiring several hours of one-to-one work for each individual pupil.

Reading Quest is a charity based in Oxford, UK, that helps children aged seven to eight who struggle with the early stages of reading. It provides an intervention based on the Reading Recovery model, but is less intense – the frequency and duration of the one-to-one sessions are approximately half that of Reading Recovery. Reading Quest pupils are given a course of 18 intensive, structured, one-to-one sessions in school over a six-week period, and involvement from family and carers is welcomed and encouraged.

Evaluating interventions

We are currently evaluating the Reading Quest programme, in collaboration with the Centre for Education Research and Policy.

Evaluating the effectiveness of any educational intervention is fraught with problems. We need to consider many factors, such as what we mean by ‘effective’; how to measure outcomes; the nature of pupils receiving/not receiving the intervention; interactions between the intervention and the pupils’ class or school; the list goes on - educational evaluation is clearly not straightforward!

One of the questions raised about Reading Recovery is its affordability – it is relatively expensive to provide individualised reading support from specialist teachers for struggling readers over extended periods of time. Our evaluation of the lighter Reading Quest programme is important as it should indicate whether a less intensive approach has a positive impact.

A good evaluation will aim to understand how and why pupils’ reading is changing as a result of an intervention – questions we hope to be able to answer when our evaluation is complete late next year.

Further details of the Reading Quest evaluation can be found here.

Jo Rose and Anthony Feiler belong to the University of Bristol’s Graduate School of Education (Dr Feiler is also a member of CERP’s advisory group). They are collaborating with Kate Tremain of CERP in their investigation of the Reading Quest programme.

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