Researchers from the Universities of Delaware and Pennsylvania have written a paper describing a large, multi-site, randomly controlled trial of Reading Recovery. The effect size is impressive: 0.69 when compared to a control group of eligible students. This is above Hattie’s effect size threshold of 0.40 and so suggests that we should pay attention. As a proponent of evidence-based education, you may think it perverse of me to question such a result.
Reading Recovery involves taking students out of normal lessons and giving them a series of 30-minute one-to-one reading lessons with a Reading Recovery trained teacher over a period of 12 to 20 weeks. So the intervention packages together a number of different factors including:
– the specific Reading Recovery techniques
– additional reading instructional time on top of standard classroom reading instruction
– one-to-one tuition
Each of these factors could plausibly impact on a child’s reading progress. For instance, we might expect a series of 30-minute one-to-one reading sessions with an educated adult volunteer to also improve students’ reading performance.
However, the implicit claim is that it is the specific Reading Recovery techniques that are responsible for any effect. Otherwise, why would we spend considerable amounts of money training and hiring Reading Recovery teachers? Indeed, the abstract suggests that, “the intensive training provided to new RR teachers was viewed as critical to successful implementation.”
It would be very easy to test the effect of the actual strategies. A good model is a study carried out by Kroesbergen, Van Luit and Maas on mathematics interventions with struggling maths students. They created three randomised groups. The first were given a ‘constructivist’ maths intervention, the second were given an ‘explicit’ maths intervention and a third control group were given no intervention (at least, during the study). Both interventions were beneficial when compared with the control. This is to be expected – any reasonable intervention is likely to be more effective than no intervention at all. However, the explicit intervention was found to be superior to the constructivist one and so we may assign some of the effect to the different strategies used in the two interventions.
Following this model, a good test of Reading Recovery might be to compare it with the kind of tuition from an educated volunteer that I described above or maybe to compare it with a different one-to-one intervention program. Of course, all programs would need the same amount of instructional time.
However, this is not what seems to happen in Reading Recovery research. Reading Recovery is proprietary and so the consent of the organisation is required in order to use its copyrighted materials in trials. The only trials that seem to take place are those that compare Reading Recovery with no intervention at all, like in the Delaware/Pennsylvania study (I am happy to be proved wrong on this – if you know of any different types of trials then please link in the comments).
This is problematic. The first rule of scientific research is to control variables. Admittedly, some variables are highly unlikely to affect the result and so we might not worry too much about them. However, in this case, multiple variables are changed at once, each of which could plausibly produce an improvement in reading performance.
Imagine a trial of a new medicine. It is unlikely that such a trial would be run against no intervention. At the very least, it would be compared with a placebo because of the well-known placebo effect. A more pertinent example might be if a study was done to test a regime of diet, exercise and a patented vitamin pill against no intervention at all and found that the former led to considerably more weight loss. What would we learn from this?
All that we can conclude from the Delaware/Pennsylvania study is that the entire Reading Recovery package – which is expensive to implement – is more effective than standard classroom teaching alone. We don’t know what causes this effect and whether we could gain the same effect without the same expense. Moreover, I would suggest that the principles of Reading Recovery, seemingly validated by such research, have a tendency to wash back into classroom teaching, potentially at the expense of evidence-based approaches. Researchers at Massey University in New Zealand have even claimed that the ‘failure’ of New Zealand’s literacy strategy has largely been as a result of the widespread adoption of Reading Recovery principles.
It reminds me of the folktale of the weary traveller who makes soup out of a stone. He knocks on the door of an old woman and asks for some hot water. She asks him what it’s for. He explains that he intends to make soup out of a stone and that she can have some. After a while, he tastes the soup, “It’s good,” he says, “but it could do with a little bacon.” The old woman gets some. A short time later, he tastes it again, “Mmmm,” he says, “some turnip would just improve it a little.” And so it continues, with the woman fetching one new ingredient after another. Eventually, the traveller serves the soup.
“Delicious,” says the old woman, “who would have thought that you could make such tasty soup out of a stone?”
Update: Since writing this, I have become aware that the control group for the I3 study was more complex than ‘no intervention’. Instead, Reading Recovery was compared with a school’s usual intervention for poor readers. This was a mix of things from no intervention at all to small group interventions and so on. However, we are still not comparing like with like and so the original criticism in this post still stands.