Evidence Check 1: Early Literacy Interventions - Science and Technology Committee Contents

Memorandum submitted by Professor Robert Slavin (LI 32)


Submitted by Professor Robert Slavin, Institute for Effective Education, University of York

  The full report, Slavin, RE, Lake, C, Davis, S, and Madden, N, (2009), Effective Programs for Struggling Readers: A Best Evidence Synthesis, is available on the Best Evidence Encyclopaedia website www.bestevidence.org.uk


  1.  The importance of getting children off to a good start in reading cannot be overstated. Success in primary school is virtually synonymous with success in reading, and those children who lack the ability to read as they move to secondary education inevitably face problems in every subject as a result.

  2.  The past 25 years have seen extraordinary developments in research, policy, and practice relating to programmes that help children who are struggling to learn to read. This has created a sense of optimism that these children can quickly be brought back into the mainstream. However, although many strategies now exist for these pupils it has been difficult for educators and policy makers to access clear and useful information about the strength of evidence supporting each programme and practice.


  3.  A new review of the programmes available for struggling readers has shown that there is much for schools to be positive about, as a number of approaches have evidence of effectiveness. This is good news in particular for schools that have significant numbers of pupils who need extra help, but limited resources with which to help them.

  4.  The review, Effective Programs for Struggling Readers: A Best Evidence Synthesis (2009), considered hundreds of existing studies, with 96 meeting the rigorous inclusion standards. The aim was to evaluate the evidence of effectiveness of programmes designed to help primary school children struggling to learn to read, and summarise it for educators and policy makers. It also sought to address wider questions, for example the long-term impacts of early intervention.


  5.  One-to-one tutoring by trained teachers and reading specialists is very effective. Children who have failed to respond in normal lessons or to proven small-group tutorials should receive one-to-one tutoring using proven models before long-term special education services are considered. An emphasis on phonics greatly improves tutoring outcomes for low-achieving pupils.

  6.  Reading Recovery, a widely used one-to-one tutoring approach, has had less positive effects than more phonetic programmes. Two UK studies found strong positive effects after one year, but one of the studies followed pupils to Year 5 and found that these effects did not last.

  7.  One-to-one tutoring by teaching assistants is less effective than by teachers, but nevertheless poses a real challenge to the idea that only certified teachers can be effective tutors. The findings imply that schools might use a mix of teachers and teaching assistants as tutors, using the qualified teachers as leaders and to work with the lowest-achieving children.

  8.  Small group tutorials can be effective, but are not as effective as one-to-one tutoring by teachers or teaching assistants. They may be cost-effective, however, for pupils with mild reading difficulties.

  9.  Co-operative learning whole-class models can significantly enhance the learning of low achievers. Cooperative learning is much less expensive than supplemental small-group or tutoring services, and it benefits other pupils in the class.

  10.  Success for All, which combines cooperative learning, one-to-one tutoring, and other elements in a whole-school reform model, has the most positive outcomes of all programmes, especially in the long term. A recent UK study found positive effects from this approach.

  11.  Relatively brief tutoring in the early years of school is not enough to ensure long term success. The research showed that tutoring in the early years of school followed by co-operative learning throughout primary school had the best long-term outcomes for low-achieving pupils.

  12.  Programmes that provide extensive professional development to teachers in proven models are more effective than programmes that provide technology, alternative curricula, or other interventions that do not change daily teaching practices.

  13.  Traditional IT programmes have little impact on reading achievement.


  14.  The message of the review is optimistic. There are many proven and promising approaches for struggling readers, including alternative approaches to those currently supported by government. We have both effective and cost-effective tools at hand. While more research is always needed, we already know enough to make a substantial difference in the reading performance of under-achieving children. As schools are provided with greater flexibility to choose their strategy for children with reading difficulties, it is vital that objective and reliable evidence is available to inform these choices.

October 2009

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