In August 1994, the Reverend Bill Crews approached Professor Kevin Wheldall, Director of Macquarie University Special Education Centre (MUSEC), in the hope that “we could work together to give some kids a more hopeful start in life”. The education of students with severe learning difficulties had been a focus for research and program development at Macquarie University Special Education Centre for many years, and this led to the idea for an educational program for young people at risk of becoming alienated from their schools since
It was decided to establish an academic skills study centre, within the remit of The Exodus Foundation. The aim was to help these students to progress to, at least, functional literacy. This led to the establishment of the Schoolwise Project, so named because it had the aim of providing disaffected students with the opportunity of graduating from being streetwise to becoming schoolwise. The Exodus Foundation provided pastoral support to these students and MUSEC provided an early variation of MultiLit’s Reading Tutor Program.
Over 1500 disadvantaged students have participated in the program over the past 16 years, and the gains in reading skills recorded as a result of the program have been consistently excellent.
Between February 2005 and the end of 2010, 12 successive intakes of students have attended the Exodus Tutorial Centre at Ashfield in New South Wales. Each cohort of 36 Year 5 and Year 6 students received an expanded version of the MultiLit Group Instruction Program for three hours each morning, every day for two terms, in small groups (averaging about six students per group). At the commencement of the instructional program and again at completion after two terms (usually about 18 weeks) of instruction, students were assessed on a battery of tests of reading and related skills. This battery of tests comprised: the Neale Analysis of Reading (accuracy and comprehension); the Burt Word Reading Test; the Wheldall Assessment of Reading Passages; the South Australian Spelling Test; the Martin and Pratt Nonword Test; and the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test (pre-test only).
A small number of children left the program part-way through or were absent when retesting took place and a (very) few repeated the program. Consequently, there is almost complete pre- and post-test data on 398 individual students who undertook the two-term program over the six-year period. Of these 398 students, 239 (60%) were boys and 213 (54%) were in Year 5 (46%). All students were referred by their schools to the tutorial centre on the basis of their being low-progress readers, defined as being in the bottom quartile (bottom 25%) for reading accuracy on the Neale test administered by staff in the schools. (Note: A parallel form of the test was used for this purpose by the schools, not the same form as employed in the test battery.)
At the commencement of the program, the children had a mean chronological age of 11 years and had a mean standardised score of 86 on the PPVT, almost one standard deviation below the population mean. Insofar as the PPVT provides an estimate of general receptive verbal ability, this sample of low-progress readers were shown to be substantially below average. A crude estimate of reading age was made by reference to the mean raw scores for Neale accuracy and comprehension and this was found to be 7 years and 8 months and 7 years and 3 months respectively. Thus this sample of low-progress readers may be estimated to have been (roughly) over three years behind their typically achieving peers in terms of both reading accuracy and reading comprehension.
Following the two-term program, this sample of low-progress readers was found to have made substantial and statistically significant gains on all of the measures of reading and related skills (p<0.0005), with large effect sizes evident ranging from 0.92-1.29 (mean 1.17). In crude estimated reading age terms, these students made average gains of 15 months on the Neale test of reading accuracy and 12 months in reading comprehension, 18 months on the Burt test of word reading, 15 months on the South Australian Spelling Test, and 21 months on the Martin and Pratt test of reading nonwords. On the WARP measure, their average reading fluency was shown to have increased by 46%.
These students were also assessed and placed on MultiLit Book Levels at program commencement and re-assessed during the program as their reading skills improved. At the outset, 88% were placed on book level 5 or below, whereas at the end of the program, 94% were reading texts at book level 6 or above (with 63% on book level 10, the top level).
Older low-progress readers like these would typically make only about two months’ progress in two terms in their regular classes; many have stopped making any progress at all. These excellent results meant that these students were going to be able to make far more sense of what they are asked to read in school, and thus be more capable of benefiting from their regular schooling.
The Exodus Foundation now has a network of these Tutorial Centres. From its beginnings in Ashfield, it has expanded to Redfern, Gladstone and now even Darwin, teaching over 250 students each year with MultiLit’s Reading Tutor Program and MiniLit (Meeting Initial Needs In Literacy) Program.
The MultiLit Research Unit have recently released a report detailing the progress of all students attending various Exodus Tutorial Centres during 2009-2011. The report also covers progress made by Indigenous Australian students attending these centres (see other work by the MRU with Indigenous students here). View the research report here.
Follow-up surveys have revealed that three years after completing the program, 90% of students remained in the mainstream schooling system. Fifty-six per cent of students planned to undertake further study at TAFE after leaving school, while 33% indicate they intended going to University. Indeed, a number of former students have graduated from university.