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!

2019 update: Please watch this video from minute 1:03:43 on the video clock for some analysis of recent research on Reading Recovery. Please also read the 2015 CESE report on Reading Recovery, which found that it did not have a lasting impact.

8 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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  5. Lyn Stone

    Fantastic piece as usual, Alison, You put it so well.

    I recently also blogged about Reading Recovery and was accused by someone of tearing the program down to sell my own programs. She wrote, “Blowing out someone else’s candle doesn’t make yours shine any brighter.”

    But here’s the thing: I wouldn’t dream of criticising Spelfabet, or LETRS, or RAVE-O, or Phonics International, or Little Learners Love Literacy, or Sounds Write, or Read Write Inc., or MultiLit, or Spalding etc. etc. They might all be in some form of competition with me or each other, but you know what? There’s room for all of us and I promote you all wherever I get the chance.

    What there isn’t room for is woo, whole language, whole word and analytic phonics. They are candles that need blowing out.

    Keep up the great work, Alison!

    1. alison Post author

      Thanks, Lyn, I agree. One in five children means a LOT of children, and they’re just the ones for whom explicit instruction is crucial, not just helpful.

      There is no need to fight over them, what we need to do is fight FOR them to get the kind of intervention they need, and I don’t care whose program/materials their teachers/parents end up choosing, as long as they choose one.

  6. Stephanie Grant

    When children are not making progress on the Reading Recovery programme, the are referred to RTLit, not discontinued. Discontinued means that they have successfully achieved reading and writing levels where they can fit into a group of peers in the classroom. I don’t know where you’re getting your information from, but you are incorrect when you state that “some children are considered too low” for the programme. We take in the students with the lowest overall results when tested on the Observation Survey. I agree that the programme does not suit all students, but more succeed than don’t. Your description of what takes place in a Reading Recovery lesson is simplistic and misleading.

    1. alison Post author

      Hi Stephanie, glad to hear that in NZ children get referred on to other intervention when not making progress with RR. This has not consistently been the case for children in Australia, I have direct experience over many years of children who did Reading Recovery and then the school said it had used up its intervention budget, and the parents were told to seek outside-school assessment and intervention. I know that Marie Clay wrote that no child was too low for the program, but again that is not how RR has been implemented here, a fact Marie Clay acknowledged in 1991 when she wrote “It is sometimes argued to exclude this or that category of children or to save places for children who might seem to ‘benefit the most’ but that is not using the full power of the program.” Of course my description of what takes place in the program is a simplified version of what RR teachers know about it, as this is only a summary in a blog post, but it is taken straight from RR documents. The following is still on our Education department website:

      Structure of a lesson

      A 30-minute Reading Recovery lesson includes six core activities in text reading and writing.

      Text reading: Reading familiar books. Two or more familiar books are read in a phrased and fluent manner at the beginning of the lesson, providing an opportunity for the student to practise good reading behaviour.

      Text reading: Taking a running record of yesterday’s new book. The teacher takes a running record of the new book from the previous lesson: first the student reads the text without help, and then the teacher teaches the student. The most powerful teaching points from the book are selected to obtain the quickest progress possible.

      Working with words and letters. A short time is spent using magnetic letters to help the student extend his or her letter knowledge and word understanding.

      Text writing: Writing a story. The student writes one or two sentences about a book or a personal experience. The teacher supports the writing process while teaching flexible writing strategies that will encourage independence.

      Text reading: Reconstructing the cut-up story. The teacher writes the story on a strip of cardboard. It is then cut up and the student searches and checks for information to help them reassemble the story.

      Text reading: Reading a new book. The teacher introduces a new book, providing information about content, how language is structured and some words to help the student use their reading strategies. The student reads the book with appropriate support from the teacher. A culmination of the lesson’s reading and writing work is linked to the new book.

      Since I understand that repetitive/predictable texts are used and picture-guessing is encouraged, most of this seems to me to be, frankly, a waste of valuable instructional time. I have met Reading Recovery teachers who tell me (off the record) that they include many more phonics activities in their sessions than the RR recipe suggests, but they generally then say “don’t tell the Reading Recovery police”. Bless them and all other teachers who are seeking out and following the reading science, and not allowing themselves to be tied to outdated, ineffective, prescriptive approaches.


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