Letter to the Editor Relating to Reading Recovery

Education Week 3/10/99, by Cathy Froggatt, former State Director, North Carolina Division of NRRF

Education Week, March 10, 1999
by Cathy Froggatt
Former state director, North Carolina division of the National Right to Read Foundation

Dear Editor:

Brenda Power from Maine made a passionate but futile plea to steer the nation in the direction taken by Maine in reading reform, rather than that recently taken by California (“Reading Reform: Lessons From Maine,” Commentary, Jan. 20,1999). It will soon become clear to teachers and administrators in Maine that literature-based reading instruction (a close kin to Whole Language) and Reading Recovery are just not as effective as they hoped. Other states and local districts have already learned that lesson.

There is no substantive scientific research that demonstrates that literature-based reading instruction is as effective or more effective than explicit, systematic phonics instruction.

To the contrary, reading research (summarized in major reviews beginning in 1967 with Dr. Jeanne Chall’s classic analysis) has repeatedly demonstrated that systematic phonics instruction, not the “embedded”, incidental approach Ms. Power advocates, is the most effective means to teach reading. In 1985, Becoming a Nation of Readers stated, “Research evidence tends to favor explicit phonics.” Since 1985 numerous substantive scientific research studies have confirmed the superior results of explicit, systematic phonics instruction. The National Academy of Sciences’ 1998 landmark review of reading research recommends explicit phonics instruction (web site: nap.edu). The Learning First Alliance, composed of 12 major national education organizations, recommends explicit, systematic phonics instruction in its “Every Child Reading Action Plan” (web site: learningfirst.org).

Ms. Power asserts that the standardized test scores in Maine have risen since 1983 due to three statewide initiatives: “using children’s literature to teach reading”, writers’ workshops, and Reading Recovery. She did not provide test score data showing the cited increase, nor evidence that these three initiatives, which are not universally used in Maine schools because of local control, have had a positive effect on the scores.

Reading Recovery is a popular tutorial program developed in New Zealand where, according to a New Zealand journal entitled North & South, “25 percent of 6-year-olds go through Reading Recovery and if there was 100 percent coverage that percentage would be higher” (June 1993). You see, New Zealand teaches its children with the literature-based methods Ms. Power recommends.

The unfortunate outcome of this approach is reflected in a longitudinal study of Reading Recovery funded by the New Zealand Ministry of Education. The study, presented to the American Educational Research Association in April, 1998, found that “96% of the children who completed the RR program were not ‘recovered’ in terms of book level assessment (conducted by classroom teachers) criteria for successful completion of the program, and most of the RR children were performing at around one year below age level on most measures of reading performance 12 months after the program.” The Reading Recovery children failed to outperform the “poor reader comparison” children who did not receive Reading Recovery on virtually all language, literacy, and self-concept measures immediately following and one year after the program. The authors of the study conclude:

“The finding that Reading Recovery in New Zealand appears to be an ineffective intervention program for transforming early failing readers into skilled independent readers whose reading performance is at or above the appropriate age level is not surprising because systematic instruction in word level strategies is not a component of the RR program. Rather, Reading Recovery is essentially a more intense version of regular classroom reading instruction in New Zealand, where an emphasis is placed on encouraging children to use sentence context cues as a primary strategy for identifying unfamiliar words in text, with as little as possible letter-sound information being used to confirm language predictions.”

The findings of this study were remarkably similar to those in a study in my home state of North Carolina. Wake County, the first county in North Carolina to implement Reading Recovery, wisely embarked on a longitudinal study using comparison groups to determine whether the huge commitment of school funds to the program would produce positive results. The Wake County study concluded: “Only one-third of the 1990-91 and 1991-92 RR students who successfully reached the 1st grade reading level still scored at grade level as 3rd graders on the End of Grade Reading test, about the same percentage as in the comparison groups who received no RR services. It stated: “If RR is viewed as a long-term investment, the cost per long-term-successful student appears to be about $8,800. Because about the same percentage of low-achieving students not served by RR were also reading on grade level at grade 3, Reading Recovery in (the Wake County schools) cannot be considered cost-effective as implemented in past years.”

The 1998 National Academy of Sciences review of reading research devotes four pages to a thoughtful analysis of Reading Recovery research. The review points out some of the valid criticisms leveled at RR research conducted by the program’s developer, Marie Clay, and other RR disseminators. One of the many serious concerns is that results reported by RR are only for children who have successfully been discontinued from the program, excluding about 30 percent of the participants.

Not all of the teaching tools used in Reading Recovery are ineffective. Many are research-based. The fundamental reason that RR and literature-based reading instruction have proven woefully ineffective is that they rely on the disproved theory that contextual guessing strategies are the best ways to identify words. In The Reading Teacher, the distinguished reading researcher Keith Stanovich, who initially thought the context view was correct, says that “our initial investigations of this problem revealed just the opposite: It was the less skilled readers who were more dependent upon context for word recognition. The reason for this finding eventually became apparent: The word recognition processes of the skilled reader were so rapid and automatic that they did not need to rely on contextual information. Over 10 years later, this finding is one of the most consistent and well replicated in all of reading research.”

Another distinguished researcher and author of the 1990 landmark review of reading research, Beginning to Read, Marilyn Adams states it this way:

“(S)cientific research converges on this point that the association of spellings with sounds is a fundamental step in the early states of literacy instruction…There are literally hundreds of articles to support these conclusions. Over and over, children’s knowledge of the correspondences between spellings and sounds is found to predict the speed and accuracy with which they can read single words, while the speed and accuracy with which they can read single words is found to predict their ability to comprehend written text” (American Educator, Summer 1995).