Would you do an article about your thoughts on recent report about Reading Recovery?
The first time I heard of Reading Recovery (RR) was in 1987. The editor of the Journal of Reading Behavior asked me to review Marie Clay’s book, Early Detection of Reading Disabilities. I knew of the book – even had a copy – but was only aware of the innovative assessment that it presented.
I hesitated to take on the task since the book was already in its third edition and had attracted a reasonable number of reviews already. "That's the point," she told me. The instruction proposed in the book had not been reviewed. Nor had the research included in its appendix. I’d be the first independent scholar to take a careful look at those parts. She thought that would be timely since some professors at Ohio State (Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnel) were then trying to bring the program to U.S. schools.
I conducted the review, attending more to the research claims than the instruction, though I noted that the activities were aimed at teaching “directionality of print, locating procedures, spatial layouts of pages, story writing, oral reading, correspondence of spoken and written words, and letter names” and included procedures for “teaching children to read fluently, for helping them to develop self-monitoring and self-correcting strategies during reading.”
Notice anything missing?
I either didn’t recognize any gaps at the time or chalked up any omissions to the fact that the program targeted kids who were still not reading well after a full year of teaching. Clay, I assumed, believed that at that point such kids in New Zealand would be decoding, so would need lots of rereading and sentence writing. In any event, I voiced no complaints about the teaching plan, but deemed the studies so poorly designed that one couldn’t determine the value of the program on their basis. The flaws in Clay’s methodology misleadingly made the program appear more successful than it was.
Despite the insights in my little review, in ensuing years, RR became a very big thing in U.S. education. More and more schools adopted it, more and more big-name reading authorities endorsed it, and more and more data accumulated as to its effectiveness. I wasn’t particularly curious – lack of adequate research doesn’t mean something doesn’t work and I’d been ignored before.
During the mid-1990s, I was approached by one of the Regional Education Labs here in the U.S. Several governors were considering funding RR in their states and wanted to know what the research said. I was selected for this role because of that earlier review, but my negative take made them wonder if I wasn’t too negative about RR. They asked if I would conduct the review with Rebecca Barr who they saw as more of an RR-advocate at that point. Becky and I differed in our views of RR then (not by the end of the process) but we had confidence in each other’s integrity, so we agreed.
By then, Ohio State had generated a lot of data, and a handful of independent studies had accumulated too. We wrote the report and proceeded to try to publish a version in Reading Research Quarterly. That manuscript went through substantial review and the editors even obtained other prepublication studies for us to consider. That extended report was eventually published, and it even won an award.
We concluded that much of the RR literature was seriously biased. As with the original collection of studies, there were design flaws that systematically magnified the value of RR. Much of the evidence had to be set aside.
However, there were a couple of studies that met acceptable standards (including a particularly well reported independent randomized trial) and those well-done studies concurred as to its effectiveness.
We also examined some studies that supplemented RR in one way or another: one added explicit phonics instruction (Iversen & Tunmer, 1993), and the other included parent involvement (Yukish & Fraas, 1988). In both cases, enrichment improved efficiency. Students accomplished the program goals with much less instruction.
We also reported the first cost analysis of RR. Program charges varied due to local differences in teacher salaries, but overall enrolling a student in RR basically doubled the cost of their education for a school year. If a district budgeted $10,000 per child for a year of schooling, then RR added another $10,000 for each child enrolled, making it a very expensive intervention.
I mentioned those well-done evaluation studies. One was particularly notable, a study conducted in Australia (Center, Wheldall, Freeman, Outhred, & McNaught, 1995). This study quickly became the lens through which I personally came to view RR from then on. It was a randomized control trial with standardized assessment – and with none of the tricks, flaws, and biases evident in so many of the other studies. Yola Center and her colleagues found RR to be effective (including in improving students’ phoneme awareness and phonological recoding). This is also why the What Works Clearinghouse has determined that RR works; by focusing only on those studies that were rigorously designed and implemented.
There is more to looking at these kinds of data than identifying statistically significant differences between groups. In this case, the RR learning advantage was not particularly stark.
A full 35% of the RR kids were not discontinued. Despite 12 weeks (60 lessons) or more of RR, they failed to accomplish sufficient learning. With such a high failure rate, it should be clear that RR was not the magic bullet cure that was being so heavily promoted. According to these data, if your school managed to treat 16 RR students (a number rarely reached), only 10 of those students would be expected to succeed. But it gets worse.
How about the control group? How did they do? Those kids got none of the expensive RR intervention, but 31% of them managed to do well in reading anyway. There are many possible reasons why that might be… maturation, regular classroom instruction, parent efforts… one of the most intriguing explanations is that the RR screening procedures couldn’t distinguish youngsters with a learning problem from those a bit behind because of limited opportunity to learn (once they get some reading instruction – any reading instruction – they caught up). That latter possibility may not have been likely with the original NZ-version of the program since RR came only after a year of reading instruction, but the U.S. version jumped right in at the beginning of Grade 1, even when there was little or no kindergarten reading tuition.
In any of event, of those 10 RR kids who did well, 5 of them likely would have anyway even without RR given the success of the control group.
Effect size comparisons with other instructional efforts suggested that RR was comparable, though it was clearly more costly. RR did about the same as many of the other interventions, but this came at some cost. The RR kids needed more instruction to accomplish these outcomes, more individual instruction, and more instruction from the carefully selected “best teachers.”
We examined the available longitudinal evidence and found that the discontinued students did not tend to keep up with their classmates in second grade and that the relative significance of their initial gains diminished yearly. A big part of the promotion of RR had been to emphasize its long-range value – the claim was that RR students were going to be self-sustaining reading improvement machines! They wouldn’t need expensive special education or other kinds of extra instructional supports in coming years. The longitudinal data made us skeptical about RR’s lasting power without continued extra help for these students.
Think of it this way: there are two reasons why young children may struggle with reading – causes inside the head and causes outside the head. The inside the head barriers include low IQ, serious sensory deficits, cognitive processing problems, learning disabilities, etc. While the second set encompasses poverty, racism, absenteeism, neglect, poor instruction, etc.
RR successfully increases what children know about reading. But that doesn’t alter their brains, nor does it enrich environments permanently. Catching up with the other kids is nice even if temporary, but there was nothing in the instruction that would be a long-term game changer for most kids. It shouldn’t be surprising that they begin to fall behind again as soon as the RR support is withdrawn.
That isn’t a unique problem for RR. Few early interventions have long term benefits. But this is a particularly pointed problem for RR given its extraordinary expense and its profligate promises.
Again, life went on and I ended up in charge of reading programs in the Chicago Public Schools (CPS). At that time, CPS incentivized schools to adopt RR. I ended that policy immediately and discouraged (but did not ban) individual schools from continuing the program on their own.
My reasoning was this. An average Chicago elementary school at that time enrolled about 850 students, K-8, 85% of whom were likely to be reading below grade level. How could anyone justify spending almost their entire reading improvement budget on successfully raising the reading levels of 4 or 5 first grade students? Especially when that meant ignoring the reading needs of 700 other kids who were also below grade level, and often much further behind than those first graders.
That to me was a serious ethical problem more than a pedagogical one.
What instigated this question was a recent report from colleagues at my alma mater, the University of Delaware (May, Blakeney, Shrestha, Mazal, & Kennedy, 2022). They issued the results of a longitudinal study on RR a few weeks ago.
They found that despite positive outcomes at the end of the grade one, the RR kids had fallen behind comparison kids by fourth grade. Surprising to a lot of people who have relied heavily on that program, and yet consistent with the conclusions we drew 27 years ago.
Essentially, the findings suggest that the kids would have been better served without RR – since the kids so like them outperformed them in the long run. I doubt very much that RR was causing damage. But no matter how one interprets that aspect of the study, it should be clear that RR simply fails to provide long-term learning benefits.
1. We owe a debt of gratitude to Marie Clay for making early reading interventions a thing. Despite the problems with RR, prior to her efforts it was uncommon for educators to respond to reading needs in kindergarten and Grade 1.
2. Reading Recovery, despite some positive research results, neither is effective enough to justify its exceptional cost, nor are its small benefits long term enough.
3. It should be clear, yet again, that explicit decoding instruction tends to be beneficial for students who haven’t yet developed those skills. RR advocates would have been wise to adjust more based on the results of the Iversen & Tunmer study.
4. There are no magic beans when it comes to early literacy. The trick is to catch kids up early and then to continue to strive to keep them caught up. Don’t spend all your resources on that first step, because you’ll need them later, too.
5. No matter how many ill-conceived studies there might be on a topic, it doesn’t justify ignoring the well-designed ones – even if you don’t like their results. Following the science does not mean cherry-picking results that are consistent with your beliefs.
Center, Y., Wheldall, K., Freeman, L., Outhred, L., & McNaught, M. (1995). An experimental evaluation of Reading Recovery. Reading Research Quarterly, 30, 240-263.
Clay, M.M. (1979, 1985). The early detection of reading difficulties. Auckland, New Zealand: Heinemann.
Iversen, J.A., & Tunmer, W.E. (1993). Phonological processing skills and the Reading Recovery program. Journal of Educational Psychology, 85, 112-125.
May, H., Blakeney, A., Shrestha, P., Mazal, M., & Kennedy, N. (2022, April 23). Long-term impacts of Reading Recovery through third and fourth grade: A regression discontinuity study from 2011-12 through 2016-17. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, San Diego, CA.
Shanahan, T. (1987). Review of Early Detection of Reading Difficulties. Journal of Reading Behavior, 19(1). 117-119.
Shanahan, T., & Barr, R. (1995). Reading Recovery: Am evaluation of the effects of an early instructional intervention for at-risk learners. Reading Research Quarterly, 30(4), 958-996.
Yukish, J.F., & Fraas, J.W. (1988). Success of Old Order Amish children in a strategy-oriented program for children at risk of failure in reading. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, New Orleans, LA
This is a big greedy of me, but I would love to hear more about the phenomenon of early interventions in reading usually not having long-term staying power. I think I heard the great Robert Slavin mention this and his hope we could design a system where students are helped in the future as sustain the gains interventions have.
It isn't that these students don't maintain their gains, they don't forget what they have been taught nor do they retrench to a lower level of reading performance. However, their movement among the distribution of students is not retained. Thus, if at the end of RR, a student is at the 50%ile in his/her class -- over the next few years, the student will be passed by some percentage of those students who were below the 50%ile at that point. I don't believe that any early intervention can guarantee that a student will sustain their normative place long after the intervention took place. The key, as I wrote, is to intervene early, but then to continue to support the struggling student even initially when it may look like that won't be needed. (The exception to this are those students who appear to be low but who respond to instruction immediately and easily and who make great progress with a small amount of teaching. Those students had no real problem and would have caught up without an intervention. Those children tend to hold their place.)
Hi Tim, I agree it is unlikely that RR hurt reading outcomes in the long-term. But it does raise the question as to why a large short-term advantage turned negative. One obvious explanation is that the children who received RR were poorer readers, and these differences grow with time (Mathew effect). No fancy stats tools address this problem.
I agree with you that the findings do show that RR did not turn the struggling readers to normal readers. But I’m struck how proponents of phonics have jumped on the lack of long-term benefits of RR (in fact, RR may have had a long-term benefit with children falling even further behind without it – who knows given the design) but cannot cite evidence that phonics has long-term benefits on spelling, reading fluency, reading comprehension. Can you cite a study that supports this? It may be that there is little evidence for either approach.
I too am concerned about those that make long-term advantage the criterion for some interventions but not for others. I know of no studies that consistently show long term benefit for any instructional routines.
Thanks, I appreciate your response!
I so appreciate research analysis that informs cost-benefit decision-making. We educators tend to be idealists, but we have to balance this with a bit of "the greatest good for the greatest number."
Also, the simple "in the head" and "outside the head" summary was helpful. My take is we often get fixated on one or two of these factors.
Thank you for this in-depth review. I was intrigued by your statement that RR doesn’t alter their brains nor enrich their environments for long. But there is something that does and it doesn't cost much: enabling auditory processing through music-making. Dr. Nina Kraus and the researchers at her Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at Northwestern University have found that auditory processing is the key to language and literacy. They have revealed overlapping neural mechanisms between the ability to keep a steady beat and literacy. Using Frequency Following Response, they can predict whether a preschool child will struggle with reading. Brainvolts, the lab’s comprehensive website, provides presentations, videos, and easy access to numerous research articles. https://brainvolts.northwestern.edu/ Based on over 30 years of research, Kraus recently authored the book, Of Sound Mind: How Our Brain Constructs a Meaningful Sonic World. She also co-authored an article, "The Argument for Music Education."
Dr. Indre Viskontas, a neuroscientist and opera singer, has written a concise summary of neuroscientific and other research findings about the effect of music-making on brain development, language ability, character and community: Music for Every Child: A Special Report for Parents, Educators, Community Organizers, Policy-Makers and Citizens of the World.
Check out the Zap the Gap! Campaign to help all children read proficiently...through singing.
Tim, I’m so glad that you brought up the issue of RR being poor value for money. Regardless of outcome, we need to put our efforts into helping as many children to read as possible. Just like we can’t cherry-pick research data, we also can’t cherry-pick kids, based on whom we think an intervention might be most ‘suitable for’.
There are no credible studies showing that kind of training making any clear learning difference in kids becoming readers. Sorry.
One more thing...there is an intervention with great staying power: a singing-based software program is possibly the fastest, most effective, and most cost-effective reading intervention available. In Minnesota, nonprofit Rock 'n' Read Project was granted $600,000 from the Legislature to run a 5-year state pilot with 2500 students at 25 schools. MN data confirmed that 4 or 5 controlled research studies that found that students make 1 year reading gain (avg) after 14 hours of usage over 9 weeks. In MN, 1/3 of 4th and 5th graders went up a level--from Does Not Meet to Partly Meets on the state reading assessment--after 14 hours of usage. See MN data here: https://www.rocknreadproject.org/real-results
Rock 'n' Read is no longer implementing this software because we can't get schools to use it. However, it is available through the company: https://www.tuneintoreading.com/
More than 20 years ago, I attempted to conduct a study of RR, comparing it to our original UFLI tutoring model. We had two schools that were implementing RR with three teachers between them, serving a total of 16 students at a time (one served 8 daily, the other two served 4 each). They regretted that they could not provide the intervention to all the children who needed help, so we got them to agree to do their usual screenings at the beginning of the year and then randomly assign half the kids to RR and half to UFLI. The plan was to have all the kids tutored for 12 weeks and compare results.
RR was so well established and well respected at the time, we honestly hoped that we could get the UFLI kids to perform as well on one or two of our measures as the kids getting RR. We recruited parents who volunteered at the school daily anyway to be UFLI tutors. None had any background in education, but two of the three did have bachelor’s degrees. We trained them in one week to provide UFLI tutoring, and we had a graduate assistant check in on each of them at least once a week throughout the study. Like the RR teachers, these moms pulled students for 30 minutes per day, five days per week, for one-on-one tutoring.
Things fell apart about four weeks into the study. The teacher who served 8 kids per day got seriously ill and had to go on medical leave for the remainder of the school year. Because RR requires a year of training, there was no way for the school to replace her, so the school just dropped RR for the rest of the year. In addition, each of the other two RR teachers identified one of the students they were tutoring as having more significant needs than RR could address, so they referred them for special education. It’s worth noting that neither child ended up qualifying for special education services.
So, we started with 16 kids in RR and 16 in UFLI, but we ended the study with 6 kids in RR and 16 in UFLI. Even though we knew our planned statistical analyses were no longer possible, we did conduct post-assessments on all the remaining students. Of the kids who remained in the study, the kids who were in UFLI all performed as well as or better than the RR students on every measure.
I will always regret the fact that I never wrote this study up for publication. As a brand new academic, I was sure it would be rejected due to all the problems with the study. Even if it wasn’t rejected, I suppose I was afraid of the backlash I might get from the RR establishment. Still, if we could get kids to perform as well as or better than the RR kids using parent volunteer tutors who had a week of training, my estimation of the value of RR was shattered. I know that some RR teachers are outstanding, but given the outrageous expense of implementation, one would expect a lot more bang for one’s buck.
I beg to differ. There is substantial evidence that singing and music-making benefit brain development and subsequently, achievement in literacy and other disciplines. I will email you an extensive bibliography of neuroscientific and other research studies. I'm happy to email it to others upon request. email@example.com
Hello Tim, I suspect that part of the problem of RR is that it gave no attention to vocabulary issues. That may be why by 3rd or 4th grade, any RR gains dissipate. Reading success is not simply decoding or word identification!
All learning alters the brain -- that's what learning is. There is not clear experimental evidence showing that such training improves students' reading ability or their ability to learn to read. sorry.
It is interesting that study has not been published in a refereed outlet.
Me and Reading Recovery? Please change your title to Reading Recovery and I :) Too many people start sentences with Me and Me is not the subject or am I mistaken?
Thanks for your analysis. RR had much too much power in our schools but yes, Marie Clay did get us thinking about beginning reading.
Here are studies about the singing-based software program, Tune into Reading.
Bennett, S.V., Calderone, C., Dedrick, R.F. Gunn, A.A. (2015). “Do I have to leave?” Beyond linear text: struggling readers’ motivation with an innovative musical program. Reading Improvement. 52 (2), 51-10 (10). https://www.ingentaconnect.com/contentone/prin/rimp/2015/00000052/00000002/art00002
Biggs, M.C., Watkins, N.A. (2008). Reading fluency through alternative text: Rereading with an interact sing-to-read program embedded within a middle school music classroom. Journal on School Educational Technology. 4(1), 24-35. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ1098646
Biggs, M.C., Homan, S., Dedrick, R., Minick, V., Rasinksi, R. (2008), Using an interactive singing software program: A comparative study of struggling middle school readers. Reading Psychology, 29(3), 195-213. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02702710802073438
Biggs, M.C. (2007). Reading fluency through alternative text: Rereading with an interactive sing-to-read program embedded within middle school music classroom. Scholar Commons. Ph.D. Dissertation. https://scholarcommons.usf.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=&httpsredir=1&article=1633&context=etd&sei-redir=1#search=%E2%80%9DDr.+Marie+Biggs+USF
Biggs, M.C., Homan, S.P., Dedrick, R. (2005). Does singing improve reading skills? Using unique “learn-to-sing” software with struggling middle school readers. Pilot study internal to University of South Florida. www.tuneintoreading.com/pdf/ResearchAbstract_I.pdf
As a reading specialist, I have been fortunate over the past four years to work each year with 48 struggling first and second graders in small groups three times a week and then teach a whole class of third graders once a week. Next week, my third graders will be taking the CAASP 'performance task'--reading several articles on one topic and writing a response using evidence from the articles. I have sent second graders to third grade who are decoding on grade level (the word recognition side of the Simple View of Reading), but if they do not receive rigorous support in morphology, vocabulary, background knowledge, language structures and strategic thinking--which facilitate 'making sense of text' (the language comprehension side of SVR)--they remain a statistic that doesn't show "evidence that phonics has long-term benefits on spelling, reading fluency, reading comprehension". For struggling readers, phonics is necessary, but not sufficient.
'Following the science does not mean cherry-picking results that are consistent with your beliefs.'
When policymakers, school leaders and other decision-makers do this they may force well-intentioned teachers to fail kids, but waste huge amounts of money and also time - and yet I know of thousands of teachers 'on the ground' - including myself - who questioned RR (especially the cost!!) and the researched cited to support it, and were ignored. This push to neatly package the teaching of reading into a one size fits all program for teachers to buy and follow has consistently been pretty disastrous for at least 20% of kids.
I'd like to see more research (or attention paid to) teachers who are able to facilitate orthographic learning (for encoding and decoding) vocab knowledge, fluency and comprehension regardless of where and who they teach, and which resources they are given.
In the search for a magic bullet to sell to the masses, it is easy to lose sight of the magic of real people teaching within the neurodiverse classroom. We can miss a focus on learning as so caught up with 'instruction'. And then when 20% or more fail, we (teachers) are sold more 'instruction' manuals for 'intervention'; those instruction manuals marketed on the back of an instructional method - as if black and white (RR v Synthetic Phonics v OG etc). The amount of time RR lasted (and is still used by a surprising number today even though there are less expensive options, and easier ways to avoid the needs for RR) shows how difficult it is to shift beliefs when something is mandated or promoted widely by education departments. The program becomes almost part of their identity - 'I am a Reading Recovery teacher' - rather than I am a teacher who uses RR. If you challenge RR teachers can feel personally challenged.
Also, many programs perhaps encourage teachers to think that early reading skills, eg learning to decode is the whole story - rather than a foundation to kick start 'reading' as a continuum; kids need different things at different times. We ideally need a whole school understanding of the learning journey, even if not an agreement on the instruction, and not just grade-level expectations - so that a gifted child in kindergarten is effectively taught what they need, just as much as a grade 5 child who is a poor comprehender. Teachers need more knowledge so that any program is just a tool that can be adapted and adjusted (or discarded). It would also prevent this issue of certain programs being used for so long - teachers as better consumers would feel more confident pushing back - eg about 'benchmarking' in K/1. They would not view a program - or assessment tool - as a central part of their teacher identity and belief system. As such, they feel happier choosing something different, earlier. They would perhaps not cherry-pick in the same way, as not tied into their identity.
Thanks for this info about your experiences with RR - really interesting.
I wonder about - when a child completes the 20 weeks of RR, they continue to be at risk readers and do require continued support and monitoring. I never see this happening. Once off, now fixed! There is a disconnect between teachers forwarding on child's future needs and between teacher and child's ongoing needs.
In reading, does a mind-set of “performance” (even to no audience, an audience of one assessor or a crowd) shift the brain activity to an area that enables fluency. It is evident that some individuals with speech challenges sing fluently. I describe my reading and that of many other reading challenged folks as difficult but yet fluent when it channels through what I feel is a performance zone. I am not sure of comprehension or retention benefits but I get positive feedback.
Actually, the research is saying just the opposite. Those children who RR says are doing fine, end up underperforming the low performing children like them.
A comment & query related to your exchange with Yvonne: My lived experience certainly indicates what much of the research supports: Reading Recovery doesn’t have lasting benefits for many of the students who receive it. As a school psychologist who has assessed 100s of students, many of the students I’ve worked with have received the full 20 weeks of RR plus ongoing RR “reading strategies” (based on 3-cueing and sometimes with additional phonics) through their elementary school years. These RR graduates, and others who receive balanced literacy instruction based on the same model of reading development (I.e. Goodman, Clay), appear to make gains until the texts they are faced with can no longer be read by relying on picture or context cues. They seem to be able to progress to the degree that their language comprehension (I.e. verbal ability, vocabulary, background knowledge etc.) will carry them. The stronger their verbal ability, the later they hit their wall, it seems. Executive function is a factor too, of course.
Ultimately, it is the lack of proficiency with word reading that stalls or stops them from becoming proficient, competent readers, but those who taught them in their younger grades don’t get to see this play out, so they carry on doing it with more kids. By the time these struggling students reach middle or secondary school, there is little time left to provide effective literacy interventions that I recommend once they are finally assessed and it is often logistically impossible to provide interventions in the secondary school setting. This is one of the many reasons why approaches not based on scientific models of reading development (I.e SVR & Scarborough’s Rope) are so problematic, from my perspective. You have to know where the break down is to know how to intervene, and as quickly as possible.
In 12 years of practice, I have only assessed one student who has clearly received instruction based on a structured literacy approach (via a very dedicated Speech and Language Pathologist). This student, who started out with severe phonological processing challenges in K, was ultimately diagnosed with a Mild Intellectual Disability in secondary school, but he was functionally literate - he could decode words he had to read in his environment and function independently. I think the lack of referrals for students who have received structured literacy instruction is mainly because structured literacy rarely happens in most schools where I live (Balanced literacy is promoted). It would be interesting to see if there is any data on the correlation between the type of reading instruction provided (i.e Balanced Literacy vs. Structured Literacy) and assessment referrals for reading/writing difficulties, & resulting diagnoses. If you know of any research on this, I’d be grateful for a link.
I enjoy reading your blogs so much. I did not realize how expensive RR was and agree with the conclusions you have drawn. I would love for you to write a review on Amplify CKLA…. The antithesis of RR. Just some food for thought.
It seems to me that there would not be a need for the Reading Recovery triage if the education system followed scientific approaches to teaching reading rather than the failed Marie Clay approach called Balanced Reading. Balanced Reading is based on a theory of action that reading can be acquired the same way as oral language through repeated exposure to increasingly complex texts. The science of reading posits that reading must be explicitly taught using the 5 essential elements of phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, comprehension, and vocabulary. Reading recovery is a black box derivative artifact of the failed balanced reading approach. When the children fail because we have not taught them properly, they get labeled struggling readers. In reality, teachers and administrators should be labeled struggling teachers. No? Just as Lamarck was known for promoting a failed theory of evolution, Clay should be remembered for promoting a failed approach to reading. Are we willing to go that far or will we continue to wallow in politically correct adherence to a failed system for teaching reading?
You said, "I know of no studies that consistently show long term benefit for any instructional routines." Could this possibly be because children who have had superior instruction in first and second grades overcome potential disability? I think of Project Read in Bloomington, MN, in which the number of children referred for special education was reduced by, if I remember correctly, around 70%. The common statement is that if children don't learn to read by third grade, they will never catch up. On the other hand, if any program succeeds in creating readers among the more needy at this early stage, they will be less likely to require support later. So, how can one even conduct valid research in this area?
I really enjoyed this! I actually was trained in RR for three years (very intensive training!) and taught it for five years. I am now a regular education third grade teacher. My district abandoned RR due to the immense costs, but doesn't have an alternative reading intervention program now for struggling readers. I do think that the 1:1 support many of those students received was very beneficial, as many of them typically didn't have anyone at home who would have read with them otherwise. I still have so many mixed feelings about RR. Thanks for sharing this.
The way that kind of study is done is to keep track of students in both the experimental group and the control group after the intervention has been completed. Then a later comparison is made (in the University of Delaware study, the comparison was made in 4th grade). Problems with this kind of study include attrition (people move a lot and someone willing to be involved in a study in first grade might not want to be involved three years later). However, it is usually assumed that the loss of subjects is likely to be equivalent for both groups (the same assumption is made about additional help the students might have received in the meantime, etc.). However, in some cases, the differences in what intervenes may be systematic. For example, if a school district were to avoid referring RR students for additional support (given the huge initial expense), then those kids would be less likely to get extra reading instruction than the control kids -- and the reason would be due to the initial treatment. In this case, there were small initial differences slightly favoring the controls. Perhaps those initial differences become more important as kids go through school, which continue to penalize the RR kids.
In any event, such studies are difficult and expensive and not as informative as some people assume. In this case, I think it was worthwhile given the claims made by RR advocates.
Tim - I have been wondering about the role of comprehensive approaches to intervention / supplementary instruction. The focus on discrete skills is appealing but my understanding has been that generalization or transfer to reading can be a challenge. This has led me to wonder more about comprehensive approaches.
Any thoughts on Reading Rescue or Scanlon et al's Interactive Strategies Approach. I understand both to be research validated.
Or would you land on more of a discrete skills approach?
The current references to 'Structured Literacy' as a 'tier 1' solution leave me a bit confused at times because they are used to refer to such a range of practices - including ones with little to no evidence for impact. It's where I end up really appreciating resources like https://ies.ed.gov/ncee/wwc/PracticeGuide/21
As always, you encourage me to do more than extract from a text, but to interact by questioning my own assumptions and understandings. As a person who has spent her career with older kids, I have only experienced RR as a bystander, sometimes getting to watch lessons from the other side of the one-way mirror. I've attended RR conferences often as a speaker asked to discuss comprehension issues of older readers. While I have always been impressed at the commitment of the teachers, J have often wondered what happens next for the kids - next when the text is complex, when the vocabulary is Tier 2 or Tier 3, when the inferences required have more to do with world knowledge and less to do with connecting pronouns to antecedents, when syntax is demanding. What intervention helps prepare young, vulnerable readers for that? (Just sharing my thoughts - not expecting a response.). And so, I keep working with older readers wondering about their formative years. Again, thanks for offering more information that informs my thinking.
Be well - Kylene
You said, I know of no studies that consistently show long term benefit for any instructional routines." Can there ever be such research? If a system of intervention works, how can one know that it, instead of a child's normal development, is the reason for success?
Thanks Tim for acknowledging again that there are "...no magic beans when it comes to early literacy...". Reading Recovery (as far as I know) has not made such a proclamation in writing although less informed bloggers and reporters continue to foster such a myth. At least a few very important things seem to be missing from this discussion:
1. An implementation of Reading Recovery within a school system is purposefully designed to lift and extend teacher learning in ways that impact far more children than those few tutored for a brief time in RR. This PD design is featured as an exemplar in this report by Linda Darling Hammond and her team at the Learning Policy Institute: Effective Teacher Professional Development https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED606741
2. When reporting on the cost of RR, why is there rarely given any point of comparison to other early literacy interventions that show similar rates gain for lowest quartile students in under 40 hours of instruction? School leaders can spend lots of money on stuff costing way more than RR. The cost of starting up any new initiative is usually higher in the initial year. What are comparable costs of other initiatives that require and monitor continuing coaching and professional teacher learning focused on the children having the most difficulty with early literacy learning?
3. What are the long term whole school benefits of developing teachers who mentor each other toward heightened responsiveness to individual learners?
4. School systems implement Reading Recovery as a component of their comprehensive school improvement and MTSS plans where curriculum, assessment, and interventions are aligned and coordinated to provide most appropriate support for the children in their communities.
5. Marie Clay's original work that Tim referenced here has been revised many times since. The instruction within the RR tutorial continues to be updated based on current research within and outside of RR that include developments in the areas of neurosciences and social/emotional learning as well as phonology, orthography, vocabulary, comprehension and so much more pertaining to children having difficulty acquiring early essential literacy learning capacity.
Reading (and learning to read) are complex processes that include multiple components that are varied in their nature. Popularly, these components are divided into two groups -- those that allow readers to translate text to pronunciation (decoding) and those that allow the interpretation of text meaning (language). Students can have difficulties in either of those components -- and they often have difficulty in both. It is important that classroom programs address both of these... and that intervention programs be assessment based and targeted on the students needs which can be in either or both domains.
Interestingly, back in the heyday of RR, its opponents tended to be from the whole language side who were upset about the simplicity of the books the children were reading and the minimal amount of writing.
I haven't kept up with research on the training that RR teachers receive since the publication of my 1995 article, but at that time the research into skills that RR-trained teachers brought into the classroom indicated that there was nothing special. In fact, the teachers didn't even respond any differently to the children they worked with 1:1 in the other half of the day. These weren't studies done by enemies of RR, but they were coming out of Ohio State. The focus of that training on 1:1 instruction was not generalized to any kind of classroom improvements in the district. It is a false economy.
Recovery is meant to a short term intervention to bring students up to a level where they can then benefit from the district's program. Long term benefits from that will only be as good as the programs to which the students the students return. Any studies looking for long term gains need to factor that in- most don't. I wonder if you have had a chance to review the most recent data on Recovery? It is readily available on the website. On another related topic, Rachael Gabriel points out that the most recent study saying RR is not effective long term reached a conclusion that it is not based on a .2 standard deviation result. IMO that is a very WEAK result. IMO it is statistically sig, but not educationaly significant result. I am RR trained and found the PD from RR to be valuable. BTW there is a significant amount of phonics work done within recovery. Many of us however regret that Clay tended to stress analytic approaches over synthetic approaches (both approaches work - but not necessarily with the same students). I'll note that many RR teachers have gotten OG training on their own, and I view that as a very positive development. In addition many reading specialists of all kinds are reporting they are getting trained in multiple approaches and using them. Overall I view that as a positive trend as well. I remain a centrist- calling for using what works from all sides. Teachers really need to know both analy & synthetic phonics and really need to know about how to use orthonographic information. Many teachers have already figured that out and taken the initiative to get themselves trained in all that. I hope for the day that many administrators will come to similar conclusions. BTW I joined P.D. Pearson's "Radical Middle" years ago. Maybe it's time for folks to look up that paper and realize that we all have things to learn from each other. BTW thanks for all that research information about Recovery! Happy Reading and Writing (Sam from St. Louis)
I land on the research-based side of the house. Both of those approaches that you mention have research supporting them -- that is their effectiveness has been directly tested and been found to be positive. I'm not sure what you consider to be discrete skills approaches (I suspect some would place Reading Rescue in that grouping because of its strong emphasis on decoding). In any event, I'm supportive of approaches that have evidence of helping kids to learn to read.
That is a very reasonable position. However, it isn't actually the one taken by those who were promoting RR to states and school districts. The promoters excused its exorbitant costs not by claiming it could get 5-6 kids per year up to the classroom averages in first grade, but that it would be a cost saver because these children would be self-improving learning systems that would not require additional support going forward (including promises of big cuts in special education enrollment). The radical middle shouldn't be coverage for shoddy research and false and misleading claims.
Actually, in the first 3 editions of Clay's book, there was minimum decoding analysis or synthesis (so little that in my 1987 review I saw so little of it that I didn't include it in the list of features that I noted). You might want to go back and take a look -- the argument between analytic and synthetic requires that you take a side and do one or the other (not neither).
The first line of defense when it comes to protecting children's literacy development is a sufficient dose of high quality classroom instruction focused on the essential skills and abilities of reading and delivered effectively and efficiently. Many schools invest in programs like RR but fail to make sure kids are receiving effective teaching in their daily classroom lessons -- a battle I fought in the Chicago Public Schools. Even with great classroom instruction, there will be a need for additional interventions, but that need should be attenuated.
Tim- I hope the times they are a changing. The advice I currently give about RR is that it could be used as follows. Teams of 1st grade teachers are trained. The team shares a classroom- 1/2 a day as a RR teacher, 1/2 a day in the 1st grade classroom. Students needing RR can come from any classroom in the building. If a student does not advance then the student should be screened for dyslesia. Why not sooner? Because the current screens give too many false positive/negatives. Again- if you visit the current RR site you'll find what I think are some well done studies covering several years so I don't think I'm out of line suggesting the use of RR. I will stress that phonics is (or should be) an important part of RR. Sound boxes, daily writing et. al. When I talk to current RR leadership I urge them to consider making sure those activities do translate into students actually using phonics to decode. I also make them aware that many of their teachers are getting OG training or similar phonics training on their own. That's something RR leadership must consider in the long run- I think their teachers are telling them something. In my dealings lately with RR (includes speaking at LitCon and blogging extensively on the topic which results in finding out what teachers are actually doing) I'm finding that many districts value the extensive training RR teachers get and especially the ongoing "training" they get from their network. See my Rachael Gabriel interview in this weeks blog for details about that. My dissertation was about the last set of the reading wars. What I found back then is that teachers of the time had more practices in common than they had practices that separated them. Back then their were plenty of teachers (and administrators) saying no phonics. That part of things has changed. Most teachers- myself included- do see the need for phonics. I must stress that means learning how to effectively use all forms of phonics- not just synthetic phonics. The fact that their is finally agreement on that points makes me hold out hope for finding common ground and common sense. I think a building following my blueprint would end up with some well trained teachers in 1st grade, enough kids helped to allow for proper screening of the rest, and the long term possibility of cycling even more teachers through the 1st grade training. With luck, there might even be a building out there willing to give this a try. Would make an interesting case study. On the larger point - now that we are getting widespread agreement on the point that phonics is necessary let's not snatch defeat from victory by listening exclusively to folks that think they have the one and only answer and you better listen to us or else! (to be clear- you are NOT one of those people) Research is much more messy than that. Thanks for listening to the musing of a centrist seeking common ground and common sense. Important takeawy- training must include the use of all forms of phonics) Sam
Above (comments) you wrote, "I know of no studies that consistently show long term benefit for any instructional routines." What are the most striking implications of this?
Given the predictability of long term learning (1st grade scores have a high correlation with high school achievement), I would say that we have few examples of instruction being of a high enough quality to alter the arc of students development. I suspect one of the problems is that we think of teaching as being a one time intervention (like a vaccine) instead of seeing it as a long term investment in a students' well being (more like insulin therapy for a diabetic person).
I can't think of a more expensive way to screen for disabilities than to put children in a treatment that does well with so few students (a small percentage of the tiny number that are served). The school districts that you work with must have a lot more money laying around than the districts I work with. That might seem like you are compromising between two approaches, but you are really depriving many kids of needed educational resources.
Our program down here in Texas, Literacy First, provides 1-on-1 daily interventions with students at a fraction of the cost of Reading Recovery. We work in K-2, we work in English and Spanish, and we do it at a cost (to the schools) of about $600 per student per year. I never understood why people thought Reading Recovery was a panacea -- maybe it was somewhat effective, but at that cost, it did not pass the "bang for your buck" test.
Your emphasis on the cost of RR made me curious— obviously, in case of RR the return on investment is not there. That said, how do you recommend schools/districts weigh the costs of intervention efforts? Would you choose a pricey more efficacious intervention or one with a spottier record but potential to reach more students? How should a school take into account the cost to the kids? So many kids spend years in interventions that aren’t working for them. I rarely hear the costs of their time discussed or the cost to the systems of years of failed intervention efforts.
The first consideration has to be whether the intervention has a positive result and how big that result is, (both in terms of numbers of kids served, percentage who do well as a result of it, and how big the gains). Then, with that information, in hand, you have to determine how costly the treatment is. With RR, only 16 kids can be served each year (and for most programs the numbers actually treated are more like 13-14), and that means about 5-6 kids manage to succeed. The cost of that is the cost of the salary and benefits of a full-time experienced teacher (the salary portion of that ranges from $49,547-$90,222-- meaning that the benefits to those 5-6 kids costs a minimum of $10,000 per child). Research shows that 1:1 teaching is no more effective than 1:3 teaching, which would bring the cost of the program down dramatically. Similarly, adjustments to the instructional approach in this case could reduce the number of lessons needed by 1/3, which would also allow many more students to be treated. Finally, I would consider the amount of reading difficulty in my school (how much need). If I had $80,000 that I could spend on reading interventions, and there were 10 kids with serious needs in my school, I might approach that problem differently than in I had 500 kids with serious reading problems. Adopting RR in the first case might not be the most effective thing that I could do, but it wouldn't be a ridiculous choice, while in the second case, I would be adopting an approach that couldn't possibly address the needs.
I appreciate your post about Reading Recovery. What have you found to be the most effective method for phonics instruction?
I am truly amazed people are surprised at May's statistical research results indicating R.R.does harm.
My mother Doris Ferry ,privately, taught remedial reading in kapiti a high income suburb of Wellington ,NZ ,from 1975-2000. She had an astonishing number of students ,1500 at least, attracted by her success rate . Usually the students were aged six,seven or eight and failures of local schools where many of them had received at least one session of R.R.These students had few if any phonic skills, employed crazy compulsive guessing of unknown words and in some cases parents had to resort to homeschooling to break the habit,since the school persisted on instilling this into them.
Some students remediated very quickly in a few months ,others took years to become fluent readers with good comprehension and one year ahead in reading age for their chronological age. All her students with the exception of a few severe dyslexics, who came to her in their late teens achieved this standard.
Doris trained and taught in poor NZ state schools in the 1930s ,'40s and '50s when intensive phonics was taught in most schools in NZ. A teacher lost grading if any student of theirs , failed to achieve a reading age of seven at the age of seven.Remedial reading and dyslexia were very rare. Every infant (age five and six years) class child had their reading heard every day and progress monitored daily . Immediately a student was detected as failing they were given extra individual practice . Some children needed a considerable amount of help in the basics . Since the readers, with phonic lists in the back belonged to the family everyone could know the method of teaching .It was very clear what the method was ,uncluttered by educababble. Most parents or extended family members or friends or neighbours could help even, if semi literate. The stories in the readers were literature based but with controlled vocabulary and structured phonics.
The egalitarian concept of social justice through universal literacy was well ingrained in society .
In 1970 , NZ, was tops in reading comprehension in international tests, but this century has plummeted to 24th out of all the 26 participating O.E.C.D countries . I blame Marie Clay and her cronies, largely for this.
I agree with Dr William Conrad on your Blog .
Thank you, Timothy for your site. It is intelligent and informative. We don't have the luxury of this here in NZ.
As always, I appreciate how courageously you respond to topics that have a level of inherent controversy. I really appreciate how you thoroughly and concisely summarize the research base that supports the conclusions you share.
I like you have worked in systems where there are large numbers of students needing intervention after demonstrating lower levels of achievement on assessments (screeners, benchmarks, summatives). I think the most striking part of your response is that we need to align resources to benefit the most students possible. I recently listened to a podcast that talked about the marriage of what we know of the science of reading and the use of robust MTSS (multi-tired systems of support) to address student needs. It proposed that there needs to be intervention at the core and that data may suggest a whole group intervention to meet the needs of large numbers of students.
I applauded your point about the consideration of the research base and rigor of the studies. Sometimes we research one aspect of a program, instructional approach or favorite topic and apply it broadly without considering the design of the research study or triangulating it with other relevant studies. Your posts remind us to do that.
Thank you again for your awesome insight! It’s always inspirational.
There are not enough studies of any phonics program to indicate that one is more effective than another through a meta-analysis, and there are few direct comparisons of phonics. There are some features of phonics programs that appear to be beneficial (e.g., some direct guidance/support in blending, inclusion of writing/spelling/dictation, combination with phonemic awareness instruction), but basically all phonics programs appear to confer some advantage.
I am a parent to a dyslexic child put through Reading Recovery, he was not 'recovered', the school had no other more appropriate programming and learning support only ever used RR, F&P, 3Cue style methods regardless of whether they had helped in the past - as you say the intervention budget was taken and they were ardent in practices.
I just want to ask you to reconsider your statement that "I doubt very much that RR was causing damage" since we watched our son break under that programming. A child cannot have hours and hours of extra 1 on 1 supposedly specialized intervention with self-assured adults yet make zero progress without concluding they are the problem. Usually, they are helped to that conclusion by many adult accusations of ‘not trying’ and ‘not being willing to learn’ as well. Our son became increasingly convinced he was incapable of learning, "stupid” and “did not belong at school like other kids" while we exhausted ourselves in a daily battle to get him into school for their "help." Prolonged forced failure irreparably changes and damages people. We as parents were harmed as well. You cannot imagine how painful it is to realize you have been forcing your child into prolonged failure, your life in chaos and your child horribly injured while you foolishly trusted the wrong people and refused to accept all the very clear signs things were not working.
He developed an anxiety disorder, was emotionally desperate to avoid school, was in constant escalation and having panic attacks on the way to school. At after school pick up our eyes would meet and his would immediately brim with tears us. He hated school, hated reading, he would no longer even let us read books to him and he was labelled a severe behavioral problem. By grade 3 he was suicidally avoidant of school and still didn’t know the alphabet despite us ignoring the school’s opinions and getting a private psych-ed in grade 1 and thinking his IEP was meaningful. He was actively planning to walk off a cliff by our home just to get out of having to attend school and learning support. We removed him from school while still not comprehending the depth of the school's ignorance or negligence. Instruction had never changed, and he had virtually no phonemic awareness at all.
When we finally found a therapeutic tutor competent to teach him, it was unbelievably hard to convince him this teacher was different, and school methods were the problem. He needed so many more hours of tutoring to undo the poor “strategies” the school trained him to do and in coping with the emotional barriers the constant failure had created. I assure you that damage can and does happen. I can't imagine the life toll RR, F&P & Lucy have accumulated while telling themselves they are 'experts.'
I just ask that you consider our experience when saying that damage is not likely. RR, F&P, Units of Study - that entire type of instruction excludes kids like ours and kids do not go through endless hours of useless instruction falling far behind their peers without deciding certain things about themselves. There is no recovering the time lost, there are no simple erasing of trauma and emotional abuse. Once we had competent help our son proved quite capable of learning to read though. We now know many families, often recovering in home learning, that have had similar lived experiences. I have lost count of the number of educators I have spoken with that continue to feel any help cannot be damaging but I sincerely disagree. Lived experiences of families failed by these exclusionary programs need to be heard. Children's rights to education, success and wellbeing need to center over adult egos, preferences and company profits. There are much better options available that would suit many, many more children. That should be the end of the discussion.
One size doesn't fit all. What works splendidly for 1 child might totally tank with another. Our brains are not identical. We don't learn in an identical way. Why must we knock one approach over another. Wouldn't it be boring if you walked up to a lunch buffet and every pan was filled with the same exact dish because some "genius" chef decided that this would be the best meal for everyone? Yes, it's challenging to find the best approach to reading for individual children buy if you don't take the time to figure out exactly what it is that's holding them back, you might be wasting your time. You have to be creative as an educator. Maybe the child needs a hybrid approach with some strategies found here and a few other strategies found over there. Stop making this such a personal and political debate. No one person has all the magical "right" answers so I really wish the "experts" could climb off of their very high horses and give it a rest. There's NO ONE right answer or approach. You have to take the time to get to know your kids and tailor something that works for them.
Kids do differ in how far they have progressed in learning to decode (so some may no longer need instruction in decoding because they can decode well and others might need decoding instruction in skills that other kids mastered last year). That's not what the critics are arguing -- their point is that some children will profit from decoding instruction but others will make bigger gains if they are taught how to guess the words from the pictures. That first conception of individual differences is well proven -- the second should be sent back to outer space where it comes from.
Leave me a comment and I would like to have a discussion with you!
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