Some 25 years ago now, Keith Stanovich popularised the concept of Matthew effects in reading. The Matthew Effect takes its name from a passage in the St Matthew Gospel:
“For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath” (Matthew 25:29)
Often translated as “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer”, this neat analogy clearly struck a chord with reading specialists. Because if you start off by learning to read well, you will indeed get richer and richer; certainly metaphorically, but probably quite literally too.
You will read far more than your less fortunate peers, you will have greater exposure to a wider variety of books, you will learn far more new vocabulary words, you will pass from learning to read to reading to learn much more quickly, and so on. If, on the other hand, you come to school ill-prepared for learning to read, with poor language skills as a result of social disadvantage for example, and you do not latch on to what reading is all about quickly, in that first year of schooling, you are likely to experience continuing failure throughout your educational trajectory. Because literacy underpins everything. In other words the gap between the reading haves and the reading have nots, the literacy rich and the literacy poor, widens over the years creating social division and perpetuating social disadvantage from one generation to the next. Teaching children to read, then, is not just an educational issue; it is a social justice issue.
And it is this concern with social justice that has motivated our work in MultiLit from the outset. Our aim has always been to help those who struggle to learn to read for whatever reason, but particularly those students from socially disadvantaged, culturally diverse and Indigenous backgrounds, as well as those with other special learning needs. Our non-categorical approach to teaching asserts that what all of these children need is effective scientific evidence-based instruction.
It is a source of continuing bewilderment to me, that so many professionals in education continue to resist the idea of direct, explicit and systematic instruction in phonics, while at the same time shedding crocodile tears about the plight of the disadvantaged children struggling in our schools. But they are often the cause of the problem. To use a medical term, the problem is iatrogenic; it is the ‘treatment’ the students are receiving, or rather the lack of effective instruction in schools, that is often the cause of the reading problem. Low-progress readers are frequently simply ‘instructional casualties’.
It is a concern with helping all children to learn to read, regardless of the apparent reason for their difficulties, that has been the driving force behind our work. This is why we launched the Making Up Lost Time In Literacy or MultiLit Initiative in 1995. We were initially concerned with trying to help older low-progress readers in the final years of primary school so that they could stand some chance of making a success of high school. The MultiLit Reading Tutor Program was our solution, a one to one program of direct, explicit and systematic instruction in the basics of reading comprising a focus on teaching word attack skills, teaching a bank of frequently occurring sightwords and providing a supportive context for book reading in which to generalise these newly acquired skills.
We worked with older low-progress readers because this is what we knew; this is what we had been researching for a number of years. But we were always aware that we were the ambulance picking up the instructional casualties while also lobbying for more effective initial reading instruction in schools. As we often said, our aim was to make ourselves redundant! We naively thought that the effort we put into pressing for the National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy might bring this about. But we all know what happened as a result of the Inquiry … very little indeed.
Whatever the case with initial reading instruction, and even if scientific evidence-based teaching of reading were to be introduced, there will always be a minority of children who will struggle to learn to read. We currently estimate that we should target the bottom 25% of students as being in need of additional remedial support. Consequently, it makes good sense to intervene early with children who are struggling to learn to read in their first year of schooling, before the Matthew effect becomes entrenched. Whatever reservations one might have about aspects of Reading Recovery (and we have certainly not been bashful about expressing our own reservations), the late Dame Professor Marie Clay deserves enduring credit for her pioneering work on the importance of intervening early with children who are seen still to be struggling in the key skills of learning to read after their first year of schooling.
While we can admire Marie Clay’s pioneering work, it has to be remembered that Reading Recovery has remained virtually unchanged in over thirty years now. An awful lot has happened in that time. We now know far more about how reading works and how it should best be taught. But we always thought that someone else would come up with an alternative program that would ideally be at least as effective but more cost effective than Reading Recovery, predicated as it is on daily one to one tutoring by a highly trained Reading Recovery Teacher. We waited but nothing happened and so, over five years ago now, we started to think about how MultiLit might be adapted to meet the needs of this much younger target group.
The MiniLit Early Literacy Intervention Program is the product of an ongoing program of research and development carried out by our specialist team of academic researchers and special educators. A continuing process of refinement by trial and revision was employed until the program met the stringent efficacy criteria to justify its release to the wider community. We do not just write and hope! This final published version of MiniLit entailed a major revision of previous experimental versions and represents what we believe to be scientific evidence-based best practice.
MiniLit is informed by the findings of scientific research, carried out over the past 40 years, into how reading works and how it may best be taught. It is also completely in accord with the recommendations of the various national reports into effective reading instruction that have emphasised the five key pillars of reading instruction (sometimes known as the ‘five big ideas’), namely: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension.
It consists of 80 carefully structured lessons (sufficient for at least two terms of instruction) in an easy to hard sequence and is divided into two levels, Levels 1 and 2, with 40 lessons at each level. There are three main components of each lesson: Sounds and Words Activities; Text Reading; and Story Book Reading. It is very important that all three of these components are taught daily, as specified in the manual.
But does it work? A recent analysis of the progress of 90 struggling young readers who had attended MiniLit programs for four days per week for 15 weeks showed that they had made substantial and statistically significant gains on all of the measures of reading and related skills with large effect sizes evident. ‘Gold Standard‘ randomised control trials have also been completed supporting the efficacy of the new MiniLit program.