But to Ms Williams’ dismay, it made no difference.
“It was damaging,” she said. “There was no reading to recover. He lacked the basic ability to put a three-letter word together.”
Ms Williams is among more than 800 parents, teachers and literacy experts who have signed a petition calling on the Andrews government to rid state schools of intervention programs that they claim are not backed by evidence, such as Reading Recovery.
The campaign is spearheaded by Dyslexia Victoria Support, Code Read Dyslexia Network and Learning Difficulties Australia – a coalition of groups that advocate for students with dyslexia and other learning difficulties.
Learning Difficulties Australia member Alison Clarke, who is a speech pathologist, said Reading Recovery taught students to look at pictures and guess words.
“They are teaching faulty strategies,” she said.
“It doesn’t work. I see so many students and they haven’t had phonics instruction.”
Reading Recovery gives struggling grade 1 students daily, one-on-one, 30-minute sessions with a trained teacher. Some schools also offer it to older students, such as Tait.
A recent Monash University analysis of 150 Victorian primary school websites found the program was offered in more than 50 per cent of state, Catholic and independent schools.
But critics claim that the program is flawed because it’s grounded in the “whole language” approach to reading. This method teaches children to read via osmosis, and assumes they will learn words through context.
They are calling for the program to be replaced with systematic synthetic phonics, which teaches students the 44 sounds in our speech and the letter combinations that make those sounds.
This, they argue, would benefit all students, including the 10 to 16 per cent who are believed to have learning difficulties such as dyslexia.
Reading Recovery has courted controversy in recent years.
In 2012 the Victorian Education Department stopped funding Reading Recovery tutors, with schools having to instead absorb the cost in their literacy budgets.
And in 2015, a report by the NSW Education Department found Reading Recovery had few long-term benefits.
Victorian Education Minister James Merlino said the Education Department did not promote or endorse specific programs and schools were best-placed to make these decisions.
“I would encourage the families and carers of children with learning difficulties such as dyslexia to speak with their schools to make sure they receive the support that best meets their child’s needs,” he said.
Primary English Teaching Association of Australia president Robyn Cox said Reading Recovery turned lives around.
The Australian Catholic University associate professor of education said the successful program was particularly beneficial for students who weren’t exposed to many books at home.
“Reading Recovery was never meant to be a clinical program for a student with dyslexia,” she said. “It is meant to engage kids with literacy.”
She said the program taught phonics by exposing students to a “sound of the day” in books.
“If the book was about ships then the sound of the day might be ‘sh’ and then you might think of shops or shirts,” she explained. “They would learn those words within the context of the book.”
Monika Sztendur, a reading intervention teacher at Wattle Park Primary School, said she used elements of Reading Recovery and phonics when teaching struggling students to read.
“I cater to that child’s needs,” she said. “If they aren’t decoding, then I would focus on that. But if a child is decoding and not able to make sense of a sentence then I would use Reading Recovery strategies which look at words in context.”
Tait, who is now eight, received a diagnosis of dyslexia last year and meets with a speech pathologist once a week to practise his phonics skills with decodable readers. These are sequenced so he learns new sounds every week.
Ms Williams said her son was finally making progress.
“He can now read four and five-letter words,” she said.
“While Reading Recovery might work for a portion of children, it didn’t work for Tait.”
Education Editor at The Age