Illiterate and Unhappy

Debra J. Saunders, San Francisco Chronicle

by Debra J. Saunders
San Francisco Chronicle
January 30, 2000

READING RECOVERY is a very expensive remedial program for first- graders who have trouble reading. It’s so expensive you could call it the educrats’ toilet seat, in honor of the Pentagon’s high-priced $600 toilet seat. This remedial program — featuring one-on-one tutoring for a half hour every day — can cost more than sending a child to school for a year. San Francisco Unified spent $6,928 per successful student in 1994-95.

Worse, it doesn’t work well.

An August 1999 study done in Massey University in New Zealand — where Reading Recovery was born — found that students enrolled in the pricey program were reading “one year below age-appropriate levels” a year after taking the program. It also found that students whom Reading Recovery instructors had graduated from the program shouldn’t have been graduated; when classroom teachers tested program graduates, they found the children’s reading level was far below that reported by the Reading Recovery people. As Bonnie Grossen of the University of Oregon put it, the discrepancy was “huge.”

The study also found that, despite trendy educators’ belief that fluffy programs improve children’s self-esteem, Reading Recovery kids’ self-esteem suffered. Massey University researcher James Chapman observed, “I’ve been researching in the academic self-concept” — read: self- esteem — “for nearly 25 years and I can’t recall having come across any research that showed a decline in self-concept during a period of special intervention.” Usually, he noted, children’s belief in their skills goes up, even if they don’t improve. Thus the drop in self-esteem was “surprising.”

Synopsis: It costs a bundle, it doesn’t turn poor readers into good readers and it makes little kids feel bad.

No surprise, 9,000 schools across the United States have signed on. In edu-land nothing succeeds like failure.

New Zealand is the home of “whole language” — a system of teaching reading. According to Grossen, whole language teaches children to look for clues “outside the word” instead of “inside the word.” It encourages children to guess at words based on context or pictures. A New Zealand guidebook for reading teachers asserts, “It is better that children predict meaning from other cues at the outset and use their knowledge of the relationships of letters and sounds for confirmation.”

Reading Recovery subjects children to more of the wrong methodology, more intensively. “In short,” the study noted, “children who enter New Zealand Reading Recovery programs may be the most in need of instruction in word-decoding strategies but are the least likely to receive it.”

Leslie Fausset of the state Department of Education maintains that Reading Recovery in the United States “does not neglect phonics.” The American Federation of Teachers includes Reading Recovery in its listing of five remedial reading program that works. Still, the AFT notes that U.S. research is mixed on Reading Recovery’s efficacy. There are studies that show that it works, but as the AFT notes, there are big questions about the research. Studies often omit students who didn’t graduate. Also as the Massey University study showed, Reading Recovery instructors gave students much higher reading ratings than their classroom teachers, which calls those studies into question. Chapman noted that two studies cited by the AFT because they show good results did not appear in peer review journals.

“We don’t want Reading Recovery to be thrown out,” Chapman argued. He and his fellow researchers would change the program so that children are instructed to sound out words they don’t know instead of being told to guess. He wrote, “Although this is a simple change, it will require a major mind-set change on the part of many teachers who firmly believe in the whole language approach and who reject paying too much attention to words, letters and sounds.”

Why bother trying to improve the program? State school board member Marion Joseph, who believes U.S. Reading Recovery is short on phonics, observed: “Our attempt in California is to get it right the first time. We know that teaching children systematically sequentially with the foundation skills, comprehension and spelling will result in 98 percent of children reading writing and spelling well.”

What a novel concept. Teach reading well in the beginning and you won’t have that many poor readers. Yet it’s surprising how many educators prefer the pricey road to illiteracy, even though it hurts kids.