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Catch Up Literacy

Tracy Riley
Catch Up™ Assistant Director, Australia

Catch Up Literacy is an intervention for children who have experienced years of reading instruction but still have acute reading difficulties. It is a book-based, structured, one-to-one literacy intervention, addressed to both word recognition and language comprehension for children who are struggling to learn to read. The program is administered by teachers or teacher aides, after training from Catch Up Approved Trainers.

Originating in Britain, Catch Up Literacy was piloted successfully at schools in New South Wales and Tasmania in 2009. Since then it has been applied at a number of schools in both states, where it is continuing to assist students in need. The program providers are now considering ways to make it more widely available in Australia.

Catch Up Literacy was developed by Diana Bentley, Suzi Clipson-Boyles, Wayne Holmes, Julie Lawes, Dee Reid and Sue Walker, based on research at Oxford Brookes University reported in 2000 (Clipson-Boyles). The program is administered by Catch Up Ltd, a newly established Australian not-for-profit charity working to address the problem of underachievement that has its roots in literacy and numeracy difficulties. It is supported by the British parent organisation which was established in 1997.

The operation of the

(Reproduced from Holmes, Reid and Dowker 2012)

Catch Up Literacy is divided into four stages. First, diagnostic/formative assessments to identify a focus for intervention.  Second, choosing a book of an appropriate level of difficulty. Third, two 15 minute individual sessions per week, in which the child reads from the chosen book and completes some linked writing. Fourth, ongoing monitoring of progress.

Stage 1: Formative assessments

Research has shown that children’s attitudes to reading play an influential role in their progress in learning to read (Medwell, 1991; Petscher, 2010). Accordingly, the Catch Up Literacy formative assessments (Catch Up Literacy Stage 1) begin with an informal attitudinal assessment [and] continues with assessment of the child’s capabilities with respect to a range of teaching approaches that they may have encountered including: sight word knowledge (high frequency words), phonic knowledge (including grapheme/phoneme matching, and segmenting and blending phonemes), and spelling knowledge (which high frequency words are they able to spell).

Stage 2: Selecting an appropriate book

Struggling readers need books that are sufficiently challenging but not frustrating, with 80% – 90% of the words known to the reader (Kress & Johnson, 1965 and which are appropriate to their age and interest. All too many resources provided to struggling readers have been developed for beginning readers, that is they are at the right level of difficulty for struggling readers but with stories and illustrations designed for much younger children. Accordingly, Catch Up have graded approximately 7000 books into twelve levels of difficulty referred to as the Catch Up Literacy levels and have identified each book’s age appropriateness – the aim being to enable supporting adults to select a book appropriate to the child’s age that the child can read with at least 90% accuracy. The Catch Up Literacy levels are also used as a proxy indicator of achievement and progress.

Stage 3: The individual session

Catch Up recommend that the child is timetabled for two 15 minute individual sessions per week, during which they are withdrawn from their class and given focused individual support. Each individual session is divided into three parts: a prepared reading (3 minutes).  During the prepared reading, the supporting adult takes the child briskly through the selected book, giving them an overview of the text, page by page, so that when they read it they can concentrate on reading for meaning. The aim of the second part of the individual session is to give the supporting adult the opportunity to identify which reading strategies the child is using, to encourage the child to take responsibility for tackling any less familiar words, and to ensure that the child understands the content and can infer meaning. At appropriate points the child is encouraged to discuss and reflect upon what they have read – so that they are more likely to reflect on meaning when they are reading independently. The final part of the individual session, the linked writing, provides an opportunity for focused support based on miscues and enables the child to benefit from the reciprocal gains of reading and spelling. The supporting adult selects a suitable word, usually one with which the child had difficulty when reading the text and which represents an appropriate next step of learning. The selected word is written out by the supporting adult and underlined in a sentence. The child then undertakes one of a range of brief tasks, depending on whether the selected word is an irregular word or has a phonic feature needing further practice, which concludes with the child writing the selected word, using the ‘look, say, cover, write, check’ procedure (Peters & Cripps, 1978). Finally, the child writes the word in the context of the original sentence.

Stage 4: Ongoing monitoring

Supporting adults are encouraged to monitor the intervention regularly, for example, the child’s progression through the Catch Up Literacy levels. For those children who are not making expected progress, the information can be used by the class teacher to inform decisions about additional or alternative support.

Catch Up Literacy in Australia

In 2009, Catch Up's parent organisation was approached by three Australian principals who had witnessed the intervention in Britain, with an invitation to trial the literacy program in their own schools. A pilot program was organised, attracting interest from other schools. The pilot involved a mix of 14 primary and K–12 schools, operating in a range of socio-economic contexts in NSW and Tasmania.

Staff at the schools identified 148 struggling readers, using criteria established during Catch Up Literacy training sessions. They included both Indigenous and non-Indigenous students. The average chronological age of the participating students was 10 years 9 months, while their average reading age – identified by the Salford Standardised Reading Test – was 6 years 10 months, a gap of almost four years.

After six months of intervention, the participating learners achieved average reading age gains of 15 months. These results were based on an average of less than one session per week (some learners received the recommended two sessions per week while others missed some sessions).

Based on this promising start, Catch Up Ltd established an office in Australia in 2011. The literacy program was expanded at each of the pilot schools and now involves additional schools in NSW and in Tasmania.

Program staff have maintained contact with the schools in NSW to check that all is going well with the intervention and whether additional staff training is required. In Tasmania the program has expanded with further schools asking to take part, and initial training has also taken place at two schools in Victoria.

Catch Up Ltd is currently aiming to extend its literacy program to other schools in NSW, Tasmania and Victoria, with a longer term aim of expanding the program to other states and territories. Other goals include introducing a companion program, Catch Up Numeracy, to Australian schools; investigating opportunities for distance education, to help struggling learners in remote areas; conducting longitudinal research into the literacy program's effectiveness for Indigenous students; and forming like-minded educational establishments and charitable institutes to target children/areas with most need.

What schools can do to take part

For more information about the Catch Up interventions or to book training please email training.au@catchup.org or visit www.catchup.org

For more information about Australian schools delivering Catch Up interventions please email training.au@catchup.org


Catch Up would like to thank all of the school children and staff who contributed to the research.


Bentley, D., & Reid, D. (1995). Supporting Struggling Readers (Minibook 6). Widnes: UKRA.

Brooks, G. (2007). What Works for Pupils with Literacy Difficulties? The Effectiveness of Intervention Schemes. London: DCSF 00688-2007BKT-EN.

Clipson-Boyles, S. (2000). The Catch Up Project: a reading intervention in Year 3 for Level 1 readers (Research Note). Journal of Research in Reading, 23, 1, 78–84.

Holmes, W., Reid, D., & Dowker, A. (2012). 4th World Conference on Educational Sciences, 2012, Early intervention to prevent long-term literacy difficulties: the case of Catch Up Literacy. ScienceDirect.

Kress, R., & Johnson, M. (1965). Informal Reading Inventories. Newark, Delaware: International Reading Association.

Medwell, J. (1991). What Do Children Think About Reading, Does It Matter? In C. Harrison & Ashworth, eds. Celebrating literacy: defending literacy (pp. 104–114). Oxford: Blackwell.

Peters, M.L., & Cripps, C. (1978). Catchwords. London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Petscher, Y. (2010). A meta-analysis of the relationship between student attitudes towards reading and achievement in reading. Journal of Research in Reading, 33, 4, 335–355.

Rose, J. (2009). Identifying and Teaching Children and Young People with Dyslexia and Literacy Difficulties. An independent report from Sir Jim Rose to the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families. London: Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF).

Stanovich, K.E. (1980). Toward an Interactive-Compensatory Model of Individual Differences in the Development of Reading Fluency. Reading Research Quarterly, 16, 1, 32–71.


Subject Headings

Reading comprehension
Reading difficulties