Researchers’ Views on Reading Recovery
By David J. Hoff
Education Week, June 5, 2002
A group of reading researchers has launched a campaign against Reading Recovery, contending that the popular one-on-one tutoring program fails to deliver the student-achievement gains it promises.
The researchers—including several leaders in the field—say the program should not be a major component of states’ comprehensive reading initiatives or get preference as evaluators review states’ applications for a new, $900 million federal reading initiative under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
“We were concerned that the views about Reading Recovery are not supported by the research,” said Jack M. Fletcher, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. “There is not a basis for providing secondary instruction in groups of one. There’s no evidence that supports one-to-one instruction versus one-to-three instruction.”
Mr. Fletcher, who heads a federally subsidized research project studying how children’s brain function relates to reading achievement, and the other researchers are distributing a three-page critique, titled “Evidence-Based Research on Reading Recovery.” The document, which was sent to members of Congress and circulated by e-mail in recent weeks, was signed by Mr. Fletcher, Harvard University researcher Catherine E. Snow, and Bennett Shaywitz, a Yale University pediatrician who specializes in dyslexia research. Four of the 32 signers are from New Zealand, where Reading Recovery started in the 1970s.
In a response posted late last month on the Web site of the Reading Recovery Council of North America, the council called the campaign “a political attack in the guise of an academic debate” and said it was based on a “distorted representation of the data.”
Reading Recovery advocates and others who favor instruction that emphasizes literature as a teaching tool have been complaining that the Bush administration is ignoring research demonstrating their success. Also fueling their fears that some programs won’t be given fair consideration under President Bush’s Reading First program is the fact that Mr. Fletcher agreed to be an evaluator of states’ applications. Mr. Fletcher said he resigned the post because the training sessions conflicted with his schedule.
Last week, Department of Education officials declined to comment on the three-page statement, but in the past have said there would be no approved list of materials for the Reading First program.
The Reading Recovery method is used in 10,600 elementary schools in the United States, serving about 150,000 1st graders every year. Since the 1984- 85 school year, more than 1 million students have received the daily 30-minute tutoring sessions with teachers specifically trained in Reading Recovery’s methods.
Reading Recovery, its defenders say, is successful more often than not at helping 1st graders with the poorest reading skills read at grade level at the end of a 12- to 20-week program.
“For two-thirds of the children, you get them where they need to be,” said Irene Fountas, the president of the Reading Recovery Council of North America and a professor of education at Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass. “For the others, you get them to where they can get more help.”
In April, the Senate education committee questioned department officials about how they would evaluate states’ reading plans, and several senators specifically asked whether plans that included Reading Recovery would receive funding. (“States Unclear on ESEA Rules About Reading,” May 1, 2002.)
The hearing was called after state officials interpreted guidance from the Education Department to mean that phonics-based programs—specifically Direct Instruction and Open Court, both published by the New York City-based McGraw-Hill Cos.—would have the inside track.
“Reading Recovery should not be privileged over other interventions in getting Reading First money,” said Ms. Snow, a professor at Harvard’s graduate school of education and a member of a National Research Council panel that identified successful reading programs. Reading Recovery was not included on that list.
Ms. Snow and Mr. Fletcher said Reading Recovery pupils fail to show significant achievement gains in independent research because the program doesn’t spend enough time developing children’s phonemic awareness, the understanding that words are made up of sounds and letters.
“Phonemic awareness is part of every lesson,” Ms. Fountas countered. “It’s also expected to be part of the classroom reading program” in which pupils receive a majority of their instruction.
Even if Reading Recovery delivered gains in student achievement, critics of the program argue, it’s not cost-effective. Tutors must complete a graduate-level course in Reading Recovery methods during an academic year, and then dedicate their time to individual children.
Question of Scale
While the criticisms of Reading Recovery have some merit, they go too far, according to a University of Illinois at Chicago researcher who has evaluated the program.
Reading Recovery does help improve reading achievement, but it fails to have a significant impact on a classroom full of children who are reading below grade level, said Timothy Shanahan.
“Overall, it does give kids an advantage,” Mr. Shanahan said. “But it’s not of a scale that allows a lot of them to succeed.”