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One of the world’s most widely used reading intervention programs for young children has taken another blow to its credibility.
Reading Recovery – a one-on-one tutoring program for first-graders – has long been controversial because it’s based on a theory about how people read that was debunked decades ago by cognitive scientists. A 2019 story by APM Reports helped bring public attention to the fact that reading programs based on this theory teach the strategies struggling readers use to cope. In other words: children are taught to read as bad readers read.
Now, a new federally funded study has found that in third and fourth grade, children who received Reading Recovery had lower scores on state reading tests than a comparison group of children who didn’t. haven’t received Reading Recovery.
“This is not what we expected, and it’s concerning,” said lead author Henry May, director of the Center for Education and Social Policy Research at the University of Delaware. May delivered the findings at an April gathering of education researchers in San Diego.
At least 2.4 million students in the United States have taken part in Reading Recovery or its Spanish-language counterpart since 1984, when the program first came to America from New Zealand. The program is also used in Australia, Canada, and England, among other countries.
The new research may prompt schools to re-examine their investment in Reading Recovery and consider other ways to help struggling first graders.
New research shows children make initial gains, then fall behind
May was the principal investigator of an earlier federally funded study of Reading Recovery, one of the largest randomized experiments ever conducted on an educational intervention in elementary schools. This study, which began in 2011, found evidence of significant positive first-grade gains, as did other research. Advocates of the program pointed to the research as proof that the educational approach is effective and based on sound science.
But whether the initial gains last and translate to better performance on state read tests remains a question. This new study on the long-term impact of Reading Recovery is the largest and most rigorous effort to address this question, according to May.
The fact that students who participated in Reading Recovery have performed worse in later grades than similar students who did not take the program surprised May.
“Was Reading Recovery harmful? I wouldn’t go so far as to say that,” he said. “But what we do know is that kids who got it for whatever reason ended up losing their earnings and then falling behind.”
In a written response to the study, the Reading Recovery Council of North America, the organization that champions the program in the United States, challenged some of the research methodology and argued that its program was effective. He also said, “Reading Recovery has changed and will continue to change in response to evidence gathered from a wide range of studies of students struggling with early reading and writing and their teachers.”
US Schools Drop Reading Recovery
At one point, Reading Recovery was all over the place. But school districts dropped the program — today it’s in nearly 2,000 schools in 41 states.
In fact, the first district to implement the program in the United States recently decided not to use it anymore.
Leslie Kelly, executive director of teaching and learning at Columbus City Schools in Ohio, said the decision to drop Reading Recovery is part of a larger effort to bring “the science of reading ” to the district. She said she and her colleagues realized that their approach to teaching reading, including Reading Recovery, did not mesh well with this science.
His advice to other districts still using Reading Recovery is to look closely at the program’s effectiveness: “Do your research. Read a lot and really consider whether you have evidence of impact? That’s really key. Have you you have evidence of impact, and how do you know that? And if you don’t have evidence of impact, you have to ask yourself why and then what are you going to do about it?”
Reading Recovery was already controversial
Critics of Reading Recovery have long argued that children in the program do not receive enough explicit and systematic instruction on how to decode words. Plus, they say, children learn to use context, pictures and other cues to identify words, a strategy that can work in grade one books but becomes less effective as the text becomes more difficult. . They say children may appear to be good readers in first grade, but fail to develop the skills they need to be good long-term readers.
May said this could explain her latest research findings. “If you don’t develop those decoding skills, you’re going to fall behind, even if it looked like you caught up in first grade.”
He said the results could also be explained by the fact that about 40% of students who received Reading Recovery received no further intervention after the first year. “Because the kids didn’t get the intervention they needed in grades two and three, they lost those gains,” May said. “I think that’s a plausible hypothesis.”
But the study also found that students who were in Reading Recovery were more likely than the comparison group to receive extra help with reading after the first grade. Advocates for Reading Recovery justified the program’s high cost — estimated at $10,271 per student — by saying the program reduces the need for further reading intervention.
This new research comes as schools and states look for ways to help students recover from the disruptions of the pandemic, including disruptions to their reading development. May’s findings are something policymakers and school leaders need to consider when making decisions about which programs to invest in.
Emily Hanford is senior correspondent and Christopher Peak is a reporter for APM Reports, American Public Media’s documentary and investigative reporting group. This story has been adapted of their previous reports. A collection of APM Reports stories about how children learn to read can be found here.