Wasting money is undesirable. Wasted time is irreplaceable.
1 Which students is the intervention intended to support?
The needs of students who are up to two years behind their chronological age will be different to those who are further behind. Some secondary students have become careless readers who have developed a practice of guessing and need to learn more accurate decoding ‘through the word’. Other students are able to decode accurately but need specific practice to develop their fluency.
Students who are reading more than two years behind often have more complex needs. They will be inaccurate when decoding, may have poor phonological processing skills and often have low levels of comprehension. They also arrive at secondary school with a history of low motivation and ingrained use of ineffective strategies that have to be unlearned. It takes a skilled practitioner to effectively identify and unravel such problems on an individual basis.
Beware programmes who cite progress rates which include the scores of average and above average students, who did not need intervention in the first place.
2 What is the evidence base for the programme?
It is important to distinguish between the claims that the marketers make and the scientific evidence base. What do formal studies or systematically gathered data show about the programme’s efficacy? What independent measures are used to evaluate impact? If there are no independent studies of the programme, what evidence-based practices is it built on, and how well are these supported in the research literature?
3 Is the intervention based on phonics, whole language, or does it use ‘mixed methods’?
While many children learn to read regardless of the method by which they are taught, a significant proportion need explicit systematic instruction, primarily in mastering phonics. Many programmes which were whole language-based have now been repackaged as ‘scientifically-based’ or ‘including phonics’. However, despite cosmetic changes, such approaches still teach students poor strategies which prevent them from becoming independent readers. Caveat emptor!
4 Does the programme provide an assessment that enables individualised instruction?
For struggling readers who are more than two years behind their peers, it is important that detailed assessment enables the intervention to focus on what each individual student needs to learn. Time spent learning material that they already know is time wasted. This is also essential in order to minimise precious time out of class.
5 Does the intervention track progress in every lesson?
Leaving data collection until the end of the intervention means that many opportunities have been lost for adjustment of the programme in response to student performance. There should be a facility for more rapid advancement or for ‘slicing back’ to work on component skills as necessary. This requires constant monitoring of progress. You can’t do this if you can only evaluate progress on the basis of a pre- and post-test.
6 What is the mean rate of progress for each lesson?
If the programme is devised around daily monitoring, each student’s rate of progress should be clearly visible. Students need to make at least three months’ progress every month if they are to have any hope of catching up on their peers.
7 Is continual, specific feedback an integral element of the programme?
It is important that the student is given specific, immediate feedback on what they are doing right, and that they are carefully corrected when they are wrong. A lack of immediate correction can lead to students practising errors. It is much simpler to learn correctly from the start than to have to unlearn an error. Are staff trained to give rapid, precise feedback?
8 If the programme is computer-based, how do you know that the work is the student’s best effort?
While a computer-based intervention seems easy for a school to implement, students working alone at a computer may not be making sufficient progress. Where teaching assistants are used in support of the programme, it is important for them to challenge students to work at their best – not merely provide prompts and encouragement.
9 Are the teaching materials carefully graded to ensure that the student is neither bored nor frustrated?
It is important that the work is not so difficult that the student becomes frustrated, or so simple that they become bored. Accuracy criteria for moving up a level should be clear and precise, and the level of difficulty between steps should be carefully calibrated. Simply choosing an interesting book will not provide a stepped programme for rapid improvement.
10 Are there enough practice opportunities for the student to become fluent?
For the learning to endure, the student must not only be accurate, but also fluent. Fluency practice is vital with clear-cut ‘criteria for acceptable proficiency’ (CAP). If practice to fluency is important, the programme should include a great deal of practice material.
11 Does the intervention have a spelling and writing component?
Reading should not be taught in isolation from related skills. Spelling is the reverse of the decoding process, i.e. encoding sounds into letter combinations. Some studies have suggested that writing by hand enables students to retain and generalise skills better than using a keyboard.
12 Does the intervention address comprehension needs as an integral aspect of the programme?
Students need to be actively taught to think about what they are reading, particularly at secondary school where they are expected to ‘read in order to learn’. There should be opportunities for students to make links between different parts of the text, their own knowledge and experience, and the author’s purposes.
13 Are teachers trained in how to differentiate between genuine inability and low motivation?
All too often students have been selected for interventions when the problem is not low ability, but poor motivation resulting in low performance. Differentiating between the two is important both at the assessment level, when selecting students for intervention, and while students are participating in a programme. Failure to identify low motivation as a factor results in students receiving time and resources unnecessarily. At the same time, students who have genuine difficulties will often have low motivation as often a consequence of long-term failure. Teachers need the skills to analyse behaviour and motivate students to work at their best.
14 Are there clear exit criteria?
The aim of any reading intervention should be to have the student reading at their chronological age and comprehending what they read. Clear targets should be explicit for each student and when these are reached, they should enjoy graduation with celebration. No one should be in a programme longer than necessary.
15 Is there a systematic approach to checking that gains are being maintained over time?
Often students make progress while taking part in an intervention but these gains are not maintained. It is important to follow up students on a yearly basis to ensure that they are able to employ the skills that they have been taught across a wide range of settings.
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