Reading Recovery Revisited

Two years ago I wrote a blog post about Reading Recovery, after two children in their fourth year of schooling were referred to me with the reading and spelling skills of the average six-year-old.

Both had done Reading Recovery, but it obviously hadn't worked.

When I read about what Reading Recovery entails, it was obvious why not.

Only five minutes of each half-hour daily Reading Recovery session involves work on sounds (phonemes) and spellings (graphemes), the areas in which these students (and most young strugglers) needed most help, just to be able to get words off and onto the page.

The rest of the session involves activities that are unlikely to be of much benefit to such learners. Some of the strategies encouraged, like guessing from pictures, context or first letters, are counter-productive.

I kept thinking about these students this week while listening to US literacy expert Louisa Moats talking about the need to improve literacy instruction in schools, and make sure children like these don't fall through the cracks.

Dr Moats expressed her concerns about the ongoing use of Reading Recovery at a meeting I attended at the Department of Education yesterday. I recorded these and had embedded the video in this blog post, but a colleague  then told me that Dr Moats spoke to her about concerns about being understood correctly in the media and not quoted out of context, so I have taken the video down. Sorry if it's what you were looking for in this blog post.

Dr Moats referred to research in New Zealand which is summarised readably in an article called Reading Recovery and the Failure of the New Zealand National Literacy Strategy in the November 2013 Learning Difficulties Australia Bulletin, click here for a copy.

Even further summarising, New Zealand, the home of Reading Recovery, has far too many learners significantly under-achieving on literacy, just like Australia. In the PIRLS study, New Zealand and Australia scored the lowest on reading in the English-speaking world, click here for more details. Of course those most likely to fall behind are from less wealthy backgrounds and Indigenous and Islander communities.

Reading Recovery is an important part of the New Zealand Literacy Strategy, and has been in use with struggling readers in New Zealand for nearly three decades. Its stated aim is to prevent literacy difficulties at an early stage, but there are no data to show that this aim has ever been achieved. The gap between good and poor readers has not narrowed in the decades since Reading Recovery was introduced.

Reading Recovery claims an 80% success rate, but long-term data show that gains are not sustained over time and students tend to remain significantly behind their peers.

Children who don't make progress in Reading Recovery are "discontinued" and some children are considered "too low" for the program and not included in the first place. With such children off its books, Reading Recovery can claim higher success rates.

If Speech Pathologists showed up at schools saying, "Just send me the children with mild and moderate difficulties, the severe ones are too low", we'd be shown the door, pronto, and rightly so. We can and do tailor our intervention to children's needs. But as a fixed program, it seems that children are required to fit Reading Recovery, not the other way around.

Children doing Reading Recovery in the New Zealand research averaged about 40-50 hours of one-to-one intervention. So it's incredibly expensive. Small groups would be a lot more cost-effective, and possibly equally effective for many children. In Response to Intervention terms, in schools with literacy programs still based on the (long-discredited, but it seems you can't kill it with an axe) multiple-cues theory of reading, Reading Recovery is a Tier 3 intervention, but without any Tier 1 or Tier 2.

This is a wait-to-fail and allow-to-fail system.

As the New Zealand researchers and Louisa Moats say, it's long past time to replace Reading Recovery with programs that have been shown to be more effective, and train teachers to deliver them.

Reading Recovery

You can find a lot more information about Reading Recovery in this 2011 edition of Perspectives on Language and Literacy, a publication of the International Dyslexia Association, as well as the paper entitled "Whole Language Hi Jinks: how to tell when scientifically-based reading instruction isn't" by Louisa Moats (see especially pages 22-23).

Whatever happened to those two kids?

In my blog post two years ago I said that I'd let you know how my two students went. They were then reading like six-year-olds at the ages of eight and nine.

Both undertook a program of systematic, explicit phonics instruction, as well as further assessment which showed quite different cognitive profiles. They read a range of decodable texts, carefully graded to match the sound and spelling patterns we'd taught them. They did a lot of writing and word-building work, sometimes disguised as games, and some work on vocabulary, comprehension and fluency. They worked through all the major spelling patterns in one-syllable words, and moved on to longer words.

Both students can now read, thanks mostly to the hard work of their parents and school support staff who did most of the day-to-day slog with them, since my sessions were limited to once or occasionally twice a week, often in a group. Oh, to have the luxury of 40-50 hours of one-to-one time with such students!

Neither has caught up completely with their peers, but according to teachers one of them is now only about a year behind. Being one year behind is still not a lot of fun, especially when you've busted a gut to get there, while a lot of your friends have been in cruise mode all along.

The other student has more cognitive difficulties so progress has been slower, and probably over time there will always be a fairly significant gap between this student and peers across the curriculum.

Both students participate in class, hand in work, and read books. You wouldn't spot them as strugglers in the classroom unless you were quite a skilled observer. Their spelling continues to leave quite a bit to be desired, but they can get their ideas down on paper.

Had they had the type of intervention they needed in their first or second year of schooling instead of their fourth, they would almost certainly be doing better than they are. One of them might not have fallen behind in the first place. But when they needed systematic, explicit, synthetic phonics most, they were instead given Reading Recovery.

A School Improvement Brilliant Example

That was all a bit depressing, so I thought I'd end on a cheerier note. One of the striking examples Louisa Moats gave of how schools can turn their literacy results around in a short period of time was from a school called Hartsfield Elementary School in the US.

Here's the slide she presented, showing that in 1995 they had 31.8% of children falling below the 25th percentile on literacy at the end of first grade.

Hartsfield Elementary School five year literacy improvement cropped

The following year they reduced the strugglers to 20.4% by introducing a research-based, comprehensive literacy program for all students.

The year after that they introduced screening at the beginning of first grade, with extra intervention for the lowest 30-40% of students. This left them with only 10.9% of children struggling.

In the following two years they fine-tuned their core program and specialist intervention, so that in 1998 only 6.7% of children were below the 25th percentile, and in 1999 that figure was only 3.7%.

If American schools can do this sort of thing, I'm sure Australian schools can do it too. I just want them to hurry up!

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4 thoughts on “Reading Recovery Revisited

  1. Anna

    I am a teacher in Queenlsand. When the Education Department stopped the funding of Reading Recovery a few years ago, everyone was outraged and did not understand why. I wish it had been explained to us why this program was no longer continued on and, more importantly, I wish they had replaced it with something that did actually work. Thanks for the work you do. I have bought your materials and religiously follow this blog. Keep up the good work!

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