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.

16 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!

    Reply
    1. Lyn

      About decade ago I was offered the opportunity to train in Reading Recovery(RR). Some colleagues I held in great esteem told me it was the most valuable training they’d ever received. I was teacher-trained in the era of “miscue” analyses and “whole language” (and was truly let down by that!). So, not understanding why there were children who continued to struggle ,despite my whole-hearted efforts, I thought, “What a great chance!” ,”I’ll finally discover the secret of getting children to read!” There was literally no other training available to me at that time. I also held a leadership position on the school’s Learning and Support Team(LaST). I was across the data , had taught and led kindergarten in the school for a number of years & so knew nearly every child quite well. I honestly couldn’t have been working any harder or longer. I can’t express my sadness enough of how I felt in that training. The trainers and teachers were so passionate and dedicated to doing their best but I felt Iike I was in a parallel universe! Nothing made sense from the selection of students to the lesson structure to the what I felt odd responses we were trained to give as feedback. It was obvious to me the students coming out of Kindergarten with the least phonemic awareness and phonic knowledge were not succeeding. There were a few students who made terrific progress but they had missed lot of school, they certainly didn’t have learning difficulties & probably would have caught up without RR anyway.
      So, due to school circumstances I was in that role for 6 years! I used my position to build support structures in the school based on evidence so every one of those students got support after RR. I researched/read everything, including your blog, about how to turn things around. I also trained in dyslexia & discovered the great online support community with fantastic information and resources. What an awakening! I was instrumental in getting RR out if the school and mentored staff in systematic synthetic phonics. I purchased decodables readers and downloaded what free ones I could, too, spending endless hours compiling suitable resources in a school with abundant “levelled” readers. I was thankfully placed back in kindergarten as the relieving assistant principal(AP) and did so on the proviso that I could teach my way and not undergo L3 training as the other staff were encouraged (made) to do. What a tough year that was being the odd one out and having few resources to do my job well. I had time off for surgery and relinquished my AP position because I didn’t like the leadership team’s continued love affair with the status quo(L3 in particular). I persisted with the SSP, decodables readers etc. The only consistent data ,not related to reading levels,we used was ACER. (The other data we collected was mandated at the state level and followed L3 guidelines). Well, out of 85 kindergarten students from that year, 9 of the 15 top ACER scores in the grade were from my class. More telling was that not one of the 20 lowest-scoring students were from my class! The proof was evident that what I was doing was working! The shift was slowly coming? What followed broke me. The school used the money saved from canning RR for “alternative programs” despite the LaST campaigning for the funding of an effectively-delivered Tier 3 intervention, and the scrapping of L3. Teachers continued to teach the “L3 ” way but incorporating SSP( the so-called “balanced literacy ” approach). A lot of it, I believe, was motivated by career opportunities. (Apparently it’s better to be popular than right.) No-one outside the LaST seemed to feel the “moral imperative” of bringing about change.
      I had to retire due to medical reasons. I have no doubt the stress of working in such a difficult structure (at every level) contributed to my ill health. I now look back on a career I loved feeling terribly disappointed. I feel I wasted precious time with my family (and ignored my own well-being). Trying to affect change was akin to bashing your head into a brick wall.
      So after that long story, I also feel as you do, wanting change to come about faster! However, knowing how schools operate, how funding decisions are made, the largely disappointing training available, the love of the status quo and of fads , I am sadly pessimistic. I only can only hope it all improves rapidly now I have grandchildren and wish for them to receive an education based on evidence and best practice.

      Reply
      1. Carina

        Thankyou for sharing your story, Lyn. Your disappointment is real and I have some sense of it too. I resigned from my Learning and Support job late last year after too much stress and damage to my well-being in the struggle to move my school towards necessary change.
        The children who are benefitting from your passion and your instruction are so lucky they had you as their teacher.
        The ‘hangover’ effects of RR (and L3) are still felt in many schools and will be felt for years to come. Indeed, we know many schools are still delivering both programs today in Australia (either formally in some schools or informally because that’s all that some teachers have ever been trained in and they still ‘believe’ in them). The kids who did RR before NSW DoE withdrew its official support at the end of in 2018 (fact check? I know that’s the last year my old school delivered it) are now in yr 3. We know they still need help, and we know about the disturbing numbers of students starting high school each year without adequate reading skills.
        Despite all of the research, evidence and incredible resources available to all – not to mention generous experts like Alison Clarke and many others that are so readily accessible online, too many teachers (and leaders in schools) are still in the dark about effective literacy assessment and instruction and are yet to see how or why they need to change.
        It is so sad – scandalous even, that this fundamental task of teaching kids to read is taking so long to get sorted in all schools for all students. Not to mention the collateral damage to many teachers along the way.
        Though I was subjected to appalling hostility and vitriol which nearly broke me (from a RR-trained teacher/AP in charge of Kindergarten) in response to my efforts to effect change, it was the realisation that leaders and decision makers were still not well-informed enough to have any sense of urgency to support real change despite what the data was showing – that was the final straw for me.
        I’m quite ok now – happily found a fabulous new job where I can train teachers to deliver evidence-based instruction and intervention. I hope you are ok too.

        Reply
        1. Lyn

          Thank you Carina. I don’t think anyone outside of the system can begin to understand the entrenched beliefs that underpin teaching practices, and, what it is like if you don’t follow along. I am happy you are doing well and found a new position.

          Reply
      2. alison Post author

        Dear Lyn, so sorry to hear you’re feeling disheartened, change is hard and it takes a long time. I’m sure your efforts and the efforts of many others like you helped start the sea change we seem to be seeing now in our schools (despite ACARA still not ‘getting it’, grrr). It’s been amazing to me over the nearly 10 years since I set up this website how many more people tell me they are switching their practice and tossing out predictable texts and multicueing and starting to have more success and satisfaction, and encouraging others to do likewise. Of course there will be vested interests who will fight back, but with science on our side and a genuine belief that teachers and schools can do better, we’ll have to prevail eventually. Thanks for being a pioneer and don’t give up yet, you’ll be able to make sure your lucky grandkids are fine, but we need to make sure everyone’s grandkids are! All the best, Alison

        Reply
        1. Lyn

          Thank you Alison. Your blog, website and resources are so valuable. I really appreciate your amazing generosity sharing so much if what you have done, and continue to do.

          Reply
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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!

    Reply
    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.

      Reply
  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.

    Reply
    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.

      Reply
      1. Kimmi Sorg

        Unfortunately, if you are not trained in Reading Recovery you do not understand the implications of all of the complex strategic behaviors that are done during all of those procedures during the lesson.

        For example, yes- the familiar reading time is used to practice good reading behaviors. But did you know that we are also locating letters and words in text, practicing them in isolation, and then putting them back in text? We ask children to do work on words during this portion of the lesson.

        Yes- the specific “board work” time is a short amount of time, but we integrate word work throughout the entire lesson. There are specific and systematic procedures that Marie Clay outlines in Literacy Lessons Designed for Individuals.

        Also, did you know that in the writing portion we work on letters, words, and syllables, along with oral language? Did you know that the cut-up story encourages matching speech to print and can be used to focus on word parts by cutting words into pieces? All while still being embedded in text.

        During the new reading of the book, did you know that it is never acceptable for a child to just “guess” while solving? Children need to be using visual (print) information, along with the meaning of the story and the English language structure to confirm their decision making. Some of the lower level books are repetitive, but their purpose is for understanding how books work and to use known words while reading. I know that is a goal in strictly decodable text, as well. The strategic behaviors are more complex than what you have described.

        Have you considered joining a Reading Recovery class to learn more? I have been trained in Wilson, as well. Understanding how words work is important and helps me to be a better teacher of literacy.

        You are right- “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.” But you interpreted it incorrectly. She meant that people argue to exclude children because they are tricky- BUT that isn’t the power of the program! She believes that all children could be included. If a district is doing otherwise, that is not typical. Clay also said that “If children are apparently unable to learn, we should assume that we have not yet found the right way to teach them.” Which means that we need to be a reflective teacher that follows what the child needs. Reading Recovery is individualized so that it can support the child sitting in front of you at that moment. She also said “Reading Recovery encourages networks of teachers, schools, teacher leaders/tutors and trainers to critique and support each other’s problem-solving. The search for solutions has no end” in terms of doing what the child needs.

        There are children that may be “recommended” for more support. However, one of the positive outcomes is that now we know what this child knows and can put other things in place for them. If the district doesn’t have a system in place to support other interventions or special education- that sounds like a system issue. But I do not know one, singular intervention that has 100% success rate for every type of learner. Do you? This includes Lexia, Wilson, Take Flight, just to name a few.

        Please reach out if you’d like to join my training class. I’d love to have you.

        Reply
        1. alison Post author

          There are some programs backed up by strong scientific evidence, and others that are consistent with what scientists now know about how the brain learns to read, but unfortunately the owners of Reading Recovery have not as yet agreed to allow their program to be compared with one such program in a properly controlled research design, so perhaps you can persuade them to permit this. This book provides an overview of current research on reading: https://www.springer.com/gp/book/9783030265496. It provides a clear description of the kinds of programs that are most effective, and the kinds that are not, and having observed Reading Recovery being implemented in schools since I first started working in them in 1989, I’d include it in the latter group. Perhaps you use it in a more effective way, but I’d urge you to investigate other programs such as PhonoGraphix and Sounds Write which are a much better match for the category of highly effective programs.

          Reply
    2. Lyn

      I taught RR for 6 years. I had 6 students a day, one year even 7 students. I know for a fact that schools in my area were very selective in who they entered into the program so their RR data looked good. I would sit at our professional learning days and wonder why I had to “refer” some students off the program when other schools had glowing results! I blamed myself for not doing a good enough job. After we had left the training venue some teachers told me not to beat myself up, that they did not “waste ” RR spots in students they knew wouldn’t succeed. I suspect the “referral” process is what Alison is speaking of.

      Reply

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