No, Reading Recovery doesn’t work in America

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A couple of years ago, I reported on a large randomised controlled trial in the U.S. of Reading Recovery. I pointed out that, as with other studies of Reading Recovery, it was impossible to tell whether the instructional procedures used were responsible for any effect. Instead, any gains may have been due to the one-to-one tuition format of the intervention. After all, one-to-one tuition has been held up as a ideal form of instruction by none other than Benjamin Bloom.

Since my original post, I have also pointed out that, when compared on similar outcome measures, Reading Recovery tends to generate smaller effects than programmes based on systematic synthetic phonics (SSP). I am cautious about comparing effect sizes but such an approach has the greatest validity when comparing children of the same age learning the same content, as in this case. The greater effectiveness of SSP hardly surprising given the probable status of SSP as the educational intervention with the greatest amount of empirical evidence to support it.

Reading Recovery, on the other hand, seems to have evolved from a whole language approach to one that now incorporates phonics, although not in the same systematic way as SSP. It also seems to influence ‘balanced literacy’ teaching methods and so its impact stretches much further than the realm of intervention. I think that people are drawn to the narrative at the heart of Reading Recovery and start seeing early reading from this perspective.

So it was with interest that I read a new peer-reviewed paper published in the official journal of the Learning Disabilities Association of America. It returns to the trial that I commented upon in 2015. The authors note that the long term effect of the intervention was ‘not significant’ and that there was evidence that some of the lowest achieving groups of students were systematically excluded from Reading Recovery condition.

This is very worrying if policymakers, swayed by the original study, have decided to invest money in Reading Recovery as a strategy to tackle reading difficulties.

Perhaps, as this new evidence comes to light, the U.S. will make the move away from Reading Recovery that has already been initiated in Australia following reviews of the evidence here.


11 thoughts on “No, Reading Recovery doesn’t work in America

    • Fiona says:

      Many primary schools still only have reading schemes that will allow for all the poor reading strategies touted in reading recovery. Many principals/teachers still have no idea what SSP is or how it works and are not prepared to change their beliefs until forced to. As someone who trained in this Reading Recovery one to one methodology I would highly suggest that the tutors would prompt the student working with them which strategy to use to work out the word ie. Read on to the end of the sentence, look at the picture, sound out, think of a word that makes sense. To help the student feel they were being a successful reader. But at the end of all this time spent tutoring the child does not know which strategy to use and when. It’s all too random to them. Therefore no long term gains are made. Little effect and a huge waste of money and valuable time not helping these children catch up and keep up.

  1. David says:

    “Think of a word that makes sense.” To do that, you need words. In English. (In case you’ve not spent years here, American are still monolingual and believe that English is the only language one needs to know.) With more students who are learning English, we are foolish to ask for English words from students who do not have them yet.

    Reading Recovery works for some students. Money speaks. Reading Recovery is expensive. It’s similar to a public health problem. Ask a urologist why smokers don’t get routine cystoscopies. Too expensive!

    • John Perry says:

      Agreed – way too expensive. Add to that the fact that the expertise is “locked away” and RR teachers are forced to spend time out of the classroom continually updating their skills! And then there’s the huge swathes of time that the child is spending away from their regular classroom teacher – doesn’t that defeat the purpose?

  2. Sigh, thanks. I have never understood why looking at the pictures is a reading strategy. I can see the problem with old stock, but presumably these books could be used later on, when systematic synthetic phonics have been mastered?

  3. I agree that Reading Recovery is too expensive and does not always work, and when it does it may have more to do with the relationship than what is taught. But I do not think withdrawing a child from the classroom in order to teach them to read well is bad. You cannot – unless you espouse some form of whole word method – teach phonics to a child with reading difficulties while they are still in the class room. They have to be taken out, individually or in a group, to do what is intensive work. Also some of the reading in the class room will be beyond their knowledge and will confuse them,not improving their reading at all. I speak as a former English second language teacher.

    • John Perry says:

      “I do not think withdrawing a child from the classroom in order to teach them to read well is bad”

      True, but it absolutely must be balanced with their being able to spend as much time with their regular class teacher – when withdrawal reaches the point that their relationship with their teacher is compromised beyond the benefits they are receiving from the one-on-one or small group work outside the class, then it is a waste. Schools and teachers must always make that assessment in order to achieve the correct balance.

      • Not much relationship if the child finds they cannot participate in lessons because they cannot read properly, and feel that everything they do is substandard. There may also be a knowledge deficit here – children in bottom sets don’t get taught the same as those in higher sets/on the higher ability tables. Teaching reading has priority over any other teaching, because otherwise children with less advantaged backgrounds who also do not learn to read are doubly disadvantaged.

  4. Pingback: What is wrong with the reform agenda? | Filling the pail

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