Reading Recovery: Just the Facts?

Bill Carlson

by Bill Carlson

Reading Recovery (RR) devotees often laud RR as the most effective first-grade remedial intervention program available for children having difficulty learning how to read. Others see RR as a mirage, an unintended but cruel hoax that brings children more harm than good. Well then, is RR really what’s best for kids? And what does credible research say about the RR controversy? Considering RR’s extravagant costs (but often grossly underreported!) and the possible academic impairment to children, these questions demand answers. Doesn’t it make sense to examine these critical issues? Does Reading Recovery really belong in public schools?

Dr. Marie M. Clay designed RR in New Zealand during the early 1980’s. Clay intended for RR to reduce reading failure among first grade children, as a supplement to the now infamous whole language (WL) reading strategy. WL directs children to place emphasis on sentence contextual cues (guessing) rather than letter-sound (phonics) strategies. Trained RR teachers, in accord with Clay’s patented procedure, provide one-on-one intervention instruction for 30 to 40 minutes per day for 12 to 20 weeks.1 The cost: $7,000 – $11,000 per child!2 Struggling first-graders who read at the bottom 20% of their class are the targeted population. RR is considered “successful” when a child’s reading level is brought up to the class average.3 In low performing schools the class average could be at a dysfunctional reading level! Even so, the reading impaired student, however dysfunctional, has achieved RR’s goal and is “discontinued” as a “success!”

RR students’ “success,” reported by the RR teacher, much like the emperor’s new clothes, is often not observed by the regular classroom teacher. The Chapman et al, (2001) study revealed a huge discrepancy between mean (near average) book level gains reported by the RR teacher (16.6), and gains reported by the classroom teacher (9.0) for the same (discontinued) children. Independent research supported the classroom teachers’ assessments. “Because those who have a vested interest in the success of Reading Recovery collect and collate data from the children participating in the program, systematic bias may be introduced into the assessment process when a measure as unreliable as reading book level is used.”4 Is RR’s reporting system flawed?

A study conducted at New Zealand’s Massey University by Chapman, Tunmer, and Prochnow (August 1999) found that “RR failed to significantly improve literacy development of children considered to have succeeded in the program. One year after completing RR, the participating children’s reading skills tested about one year below age-appropriate level and showed no signs of accelerated reading performance. Also, the children demonstrated lower self-esteem and discouragement over poor reading and spelling skills. Teachers reported some RR “graduates” as being less adaptive to assignments and having more behavior problems. The study also indicated that RR students needed greater exposure to word-level (phonics) skills and strategies.5 But Clay contends that children’s attention may be diverted from comprehension and understanding “when instruction directs students to conscious manipulations of letters, sounds, or single words.”6 Unfortunately, Clay’s impaired argument opposing emphasis on systematic, explicit phonics instruction is taken seriously by some misguided teachers and school administrators. Clay’s errant pedagogy flies in the face of California’s Reading Language Art Standards, and destines even more children to life-long-illiteracy. Is this “what’s best for kids?”

Not for the kids living in Columbus, Ohio, North America’s Reading Recovery headquarters. Columbus schools have, according to Investors Business Daily (IBD) 4/1/99, quit using RR and spent $282,240 to hire Sylvan Learning Center to train teachers how to teach phonics-based, direct instruction methods. IBD has identified RR and whole language as coming from the same pool of failed education dogma. Also, the New Zealand Ministry of Education funded study (April 1998) labeled RR “an ineffective intervention program . . .”7

Interested parents and teachers may want to read B. Grossen’s study, Reading Recovery: An Evaluation of Benefits and Costs.8 RR, kin to WL may not be what you want for struggling children. Just the facts?

1 Tunmer, W.E., Chapman, J.W., Massey University, New Zealand. Reading Recovery: As Good As It Gets? Education Review. March 9,2001, p. 8, Under the title, “The case for a Reading Recovery Review.”

2 San Diego Unified School District, Office of the Board of Education. (Author not noted). Reading Recovery Research Project, October 12, 1999 – October 26, 1999 (Revised). National Right to Read Foundation Website: p.10

3 ibid. p.2

4 Tunmer, W.E., Chapman, J.W., Massey University, New Zealand (2001). The Reading Recovery Approach to Preventive Early Intervention: As Good as it Gets? p. 16. And, Chapman, J.W., Tunmer, W.E., and Prochnow, J. E., Massey University, New Zealand. Success In Reading Recovery Depends on the Development of Phonological Processing Skills. Revised research Report for Phase Three of Contract ER 35/199/5, submitted to the Ministry of Education (New Zealand), August 1999. Currently under publisher review. Address correspondence to William E. Tunmer, Department of Learning and Teaching, Massey University, Private Bag 11222, Palmerston North, New Zealand.

5 Tunmer, W.E., Chapman, J. W., Massey University, New Zealand (2001). The Reading Recovery Approach to Preventive Early Intervention: As Good as it Gets?. p. 8-9. Currently under publisher review (See #4 above)

6 Chapman, J.W., Tunmer, W.E., Prochnow, J.E. (1999). Success in reading Recovery Depends on the Development of Phonological Processing Skills. Revised research Report for Phase Three of Contract ER35/199/5 submitted to the Ministry of Education (New Zealand), August 1999.

7 Reading Recovery Bites the Dust in Columbus, Ohio. Investor Business Daily, Editorial, “When Education Theories Go Bad.” April 1, 1999.

8 Grossen, B., Coulter, G., University of Oregon, Ruggles, B., Beacon Hill Elementary, Park Forest, Illinois. Reading Recovery: An Evaluation of Benefits and Costs. (The Claims Versus the Facts) An Executive Summary.