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New Zealand Import: An Effective, But Costly, Way To Teach Reading

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UPPER ARLINGTON, OHIO--At the beginning of this school year, Sean, a 1st grader in a special program here for struggling readers, could recognize only four words: "I," "a," "no," and his own name.

But on a recent day last month, as a group of teachers at Barrington Elementary School sat behind a one-way mirror and watched, the 7-year-old's difficulties with the printed word were barely noticeable.

"There are four trains in Uncle Buncle's house," the child read aloud, moving his fingers along the page as he spoke. Working quickly during the next 25 minutes, he would read three more books with equal ease, learn to spell the word "on" using magnetic letters, write a sentence with the help of his teacher, cut it into pieces and reassemble it, and read another, slightly more difficult book.

Every aspect of this scene--the boy's rapid progress, the fast-paced, one-on-one lesson, even the observers behind the mirror--is characteristic of an increasingly popular program known as Reading Recovery.

Imported to the United States from New Zealand in 1984, the program is intended to be an academic lifeline for 1st graders like Sean who are having trouble learning to read.

Since its debut in this nation, the program has been adopted by school districts in 22 states. And researchers have compiled data on more than 15,000 children who have passed through it.

The teaching method has managed to draw praise both from advocates of a phonics-based approach to the teaching of reading and those who believe children should be taught by reading texts--two camps that normally are bitterly at odds with one another.

And, according to studies performed in this country so far, Reading Recovery appears to work.

But, for all its success and popularity, the program has a practical shortcoming: its relatively high cost.

Working in weekly after-school and inservice sessions, teachers must train for a full year to learn how to use it. They work one-on-one with no more than five students a day. And the "teacher leaders" who train Reading Recovery instructors must put in a year of full-time study at a university.

The initial investment is substantial, say school administrators who have considered adopting the program. And experts say that kind of expense, juxtaposed with the enormous popularity of the program, promises to make Reading Recovery one of the most closely scrutinized reading programs in the nation in coming years.

"The popularity of this program is so great," said Jeanne S. Chall, a prominent reading researcher who serves as an adviser to current evaluations of the program, "that it could have a real effect on getting help to children early."

The architect of the Reading Recovery program is Marie M. Clay, a New Zealand child psychologist. Using an observation glass similar to the one through which teachers watched Sean, Ms. Clay and other researchers set out more than 20 years ago to identify the characteristics of both good readers and good reading instruction.

From the very beginning, they observed that poor readers lack several basic strategies already possessed by children who become proficient readers. They may not know, for example, that a sentence should be read from left to right. Or they might not think to look at pictures for clues to the meaning of the accompanying text or to reread words that did not sound right to them.

"Sometimes children do not realize what they read needs to make sense," said Joetta Beaver, an Upper Arlington teacher who trains Reading Recovery instructors in six Ohio districts.

Helping a child acquire those skills, a process known as "teaching for strategies," is the job of the Reading Recovery teacher. The goal is to enable the child to read independently after 16 to 20 weeks of daily, half-hour lessons.

The program helps children acquire the skills of a good reader, in part, both by using real literature and by teaching children phonics--the relationships of letters and sounds.

"It's the only program that takes both orientations and philosophies and weaves it into one," said Carol A. Lyons, assistant professor of education and theory at Ohio State University, which has become the hub of Reading Recovery activity in this country.

Ms. Lyons and other proponents of the method caution, however, against categorizing Reading Recovery as a remedial program. While Reading Recovery students typically represent the "bottom 20 percent" of readers in their grade levels, the program seeks to teach them at an accelerated rate, rather than providing them with compensatory help.

Studies conducted since 1984 by researchers at Ohio State suggest that, while Reading Recovery did not work for all children, students who successfully completed the program could read material three levels above a similar group of children who received other compensatory help. Ninety percent of the former Reading Recovery students also met or exceeded the average range of reading ability for children in their regular classrooms.

Moreover, several years later--without any additional help in reading--students who had completed Reading Recovery were still reading at levels above those of children who had been placed in other remedial programs, and on par with children of average ability in their own classes.

"I've had 3rd-grade teachers say to me, 'I had no idea so-and-so was in Reading Recovery,"' said Ms. Beaver of the Upper Arlington district .

Those kinds of results are what attracted Ms. Beaver's school system to the program. So impressed were school officials with the program's track record in nearby Columbus that they agreed to pay Ms. Beaver's tuition for Ohio State's Reading Recovery program after the district failed to be accepted into a state program that would have subsidized those costs.

"This is a community that prizes literacy," said Homer Mincy, superintendent of the affluent suburban district. "Yet, in spite of the fact that we had ongoing battles on the best way to teach reading, and had ar 1 reading program and a reading specialist at every elementary school, we still had people who could not read."

"This is a program that does seem to produce the most success over the longest period of time," he added.

Now, with five years as a Reading Recovery teacher-trainer under her belt, Ms. Beaver works with teachers from six districts and one private school. Her salary is paid in part by the state.

"What I find so exciting about Reading Recovery is the impact it has on both the teacher and the district," Ms. Beaver said, noting that regular classroom teachers in her schools have incorporated aspects of the program into their own work.

The teachers observing Sean's progress last month were among some of Ms. Beaver's charges. They included Ohio teachers learning to use the program as well as teachers from Kentucky and Iowa who had come to Ohio State for the yearlong training program for teacher leaders.

As the group watched Sean work, Ms. Beaver fired off questions at the teachers.

"What do you think his strengths are?" she asked as the boy neared the end of his lesson. "Can you give me some evidence of that?"

These "behind the glass" sessions are the key to sharpening a teacher's "minute by minute" teaching strategies, according to proponents of the method. They say such observation helps teachers learn to recognize children's subtle miscues and act on them immediately.

"You really have to learn to be an astute observer," said Donna Jacobs, who had come from Fort Knox, Ky., to participate in the Ohio State program.

After the session, the observers met with Sean's teacher and Ms. Beaver to discuss the lesson. Other aspects of the training program for Reading Recovery teachers include individual coaching sessions with Ms. Beaver and weekly inservice sessions.

"You just really cannot change a teacher's way of thinking without a yearlong program," Ms. Beaver said. "Sometimes people say, 'I tried Reading Recovery and it doesn't work,' but they haven't had the extensive training."

For the children, the program begins with a diagnostic survey intended to gauge their letter-recognition capabilities, comprehension abilities, and writing skills. Sean, for example, could associate only two letters with their respective sounds--the "b" sound and the "t" sound--when he began the program.

Teachers tutor students individually for two weeks, "roaming around the known," in Ms. Clay's terminology, to observe and get a feel for students' abilities.

They introduce a story composed mostly of words students know. A new book is then introduced each day, with the students rereading previously learned material. Such rereading, supporters of the program said, refines word-recognition and comprehension skills and enhances students' confidence.

"We start with a child's strengths and move from there," Ms. Beaver said. "We're not looking at the deficit in what they know."

"Right away, a child's self-esteem is being nurtured and fostered," she said.

The new books introduced each day are carefully chosen from a supply of 100 or more short stories of increasing levels of difficulty. While some of the books have been specifically developed for the Reading Recovery program, others may be children's trade books, such as the well-known "Spot" series by Eric Hill.

Students also enhance their reading fluency by writing a one- or two-sentence message each day. The messages are then cut up and reconstructed by the children.

Some experts question whether the highly structured program developed by Ms. Clay is something entirely new. While praising Reading Recovery in her new book, Beginning to Read, the researcher Marilyn Jager Adams notes the program contains elements of other research-based, remedial programs long in use in the United States.

Others maintain that the difference between Reading Recovery and other programs is that no other method has taken those elements and combined them in quite the same way.

"It's certainly not like any remedial-reading program we've ever had in the United States before," said Yetta Goodman, a professor of education at the University of Arizona who has observed Reading Recovery programs and written extensively on early-childhood education.

No one argues, however, that Reading Recovery is not getting attention.

In addition to the favorable review in Ms. Adams's book, which was published this year, the program was cited as "exemplary" in a federal study released last January by the Center for the Study of Reading at the University of Illinois. It was also adopted recently by the National Diffusion Network, a federally sponsored program that disseminates research and provides technical assistance on proven educational programs.

And the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation has awarded researchers at Ohio State nearly $750,000 to continue studying the program.

Proponents of the method say all the attention has a simple reason: Reading Recovery gets good results.

"One district will get the program and another district will observe it and say, 'I can't believe how effective this program is,"' said Ms. Lyons.

In Upper Arlington, Ms. Beaver said, between 84 and 89 percent of the 109 children who participated in the program during its first two years of operation in the district have completed it successfully and no longer require special help with reading. A portion of that number, she speculated, are children who might otherwise have been labeled learning-disabled and placed in a special-education program or held back another year.

That kind of success has held the program in good stead with school officials here. Although voters in the community have twice turned down tax levies for the schools, the Reading Recovery program has survived unscathed.

This has occurred, noted the district's assistant superintendent, John Sonedecker, despite the program's initial cost. According to figures provided by local school officials, the program costs roughly $2,000 per student above the district's average per-pupil cost of $6,000. School districts elsewhere in the country have reported spending similar amounts on the program.

The cost has been a cause for concern among some experts and school superintendents from less affluent districts that have considered adopting the program.

"What's important now is to find out what in the method works and also finding out whether a shorter process would also work," said Ms. Chall, who is a professor of education and director of the Harvard Reading Laboratory. "At some point, we are also going to have to find out if it works for groups as well as for individuals."

But Upper Arlington officials and other proponents of the program maintain that, already, the return is well worth the investment.

"For every child who can't read," said Ms. Beaver, "you have to wonder how much society will have to eventually spend on that one individual."

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