I read about the new Reading Recovery research with great skepticism. I have learnt a great deal in the last 5 years since my daughter struggled to learn to read. I have read literacy research until I wore my eyes out and gone to numerous professional developments. Most of all I have learnt from my daughter’s amazing specialist literacy tutor. I have’t been to one professional development where the strategies being taught were ones already being used by our tutor. She was our saviour when Reading Recovery failed spectacularly.
Being our first child and an ex high school teacher I trusted the professional advice of the primary teachers even though alarm bells rang early and things didn’t really make sense. The signs were all there. She struggled to learn the 200 sight words she was suppose to memorise. She flung the PM readers across the room. In my mind I questioned instinctively the value of learning sight words when she didn’t even know how to sound out base sounds. I questioned the value of repetitive and boring PM readers.
I was relieved a little when she was placed in a special reading group. The Reading Recovery teacher was lovely and encouraged her a gave her lots of attention. In first class her reading seemed to make some progress. So I set aside the parental worry at the back of my mind. I regret to this day I did not act sooner.
She started Year 2 fresh from a year of Reading Recovery on a respectful level 20 of PM readers. But unfortunately running records are not the best indicator of an early readers ability to read. A smart child like my daughter had an awesome ability to guess. Reading recovery had taught her this was acceptable. A few mistakes were even let through…”Close enough is good enough!” At home my daughter could finish a sentence without even turning a page and often be correct. This is most certainly NOT a good strategy. This is not reading. It took us years to undo guessing.
We started year 2 with an air of positivity. The year 2 teacher promised me that her reading wasn’t that bad. My daughter, having greater insight than the rest of us, was already displaying some level of school anxiety and avoidance. She knew she couldn’t read. She was a master of camouflage. Mid way through year 2 concerns escalated and anxiety soared. Reading became more difficult. Reliance on multi-cueing strategies taught in reading recovery quickly showed their deficiencies. Her reading totally stalled. Teachers told me “we don’t understand she seems really bright.”
In Year 2 under new NSW government funding we had the arrival of another of my daughter’s saviours. A new learning support teacher who had training in explicit and systematic phonics instruction. She tested her phonics. She could not even sound out the entire alphabet let alone decode words. The school counsellor undertook psychometric tests which showed she was above average in verbal comprehension but had difficulties in processing speed and working memory.
I started googling what it all meant and this lead me down a path to recovery for my daughter. Her anxiety had escalated so much that I delayed assessment or tutoring because it would have failed. She spent 6 months seeing a psychologist. She was so afraid of school and reading by then that we had vomiting, sickness and frequent tears. I would sit down every afternoon and have a cup of tea and calm myself as I never knew what she would be like when I picked her up from school. I became afraid of the school bell too!
I started as best I could to explicitly and systematically teach her phonics after school. She was so broken and so anxious that often even with me she would break down and cry. The Nessy learning program gave her back some of her confidence but my skills at that time teaching phonics were inadequate. Teaching reading requires a skilled teacher. She ended the school year on PM level 22. A year of virtually no progress in reading.
At the beginning of year 3 she started with her specialist literacy tutor the day before she undertook an assessment for Dyslexia. Her assessment showed at age 8 ½ she had a reading age of 7 and a spelling age of less than 5. I reinforced skills at home daily guided by the tutor which meant progress in reading was fairly rapid considering we pretty much started from zero. We reinforced phonics learnt using decodable readers which she enjoyed immensely. Suddenly she was actually reading and could decipher the squiggles on a page. The learned helplessness and fear of books took far longer to overcome.
On a positive note my daughter’s school now teaches synthetic phonics from day 1 of kindergarten. The Learning Support teacher introduced Multilit as an intervention which is evidenced based and follows the scientific criteria of a reading intervention program.
Science has repeatedly shown what is needed in early reading instruction. We also have a great understanding of what characteristics a good reading intervention should include. Reading Recovery does not meet the criteria of a good intervention program.
Phonemic awareness is the ability identify the sounds in spoken words. It is like phonics with a blindfold on. Good remediation for reading difficulties will include an assessment of phonemic awareness and appropriate intervention. “Phoneme awareness instruction, when linked to systematic decoding and spelling instruction, is a key to preventing reading failure in children who come to school without these prerequisite skills.” Moats (2010)
Phonics is the alphabetic code of the English language. It is the relationship between speech sounds and how we represent them in writing using letters of the alphabet. Phonics should be taught systematically and explicitly to automaticity and mastery. This is particularly important for children with Dyslexia who will often need a much more intensive approach to the teaching of phonics. “Current research tells us unequivocally that struggling learners benefit: When the structure of spoken and written language, beginning with phonemes, is represented for them explicitly, sequentially, directly and systematically in the context of a comprehensive reading program” Birsh and Ghassemi 2010
Fluency is achieved when children have gained enough mastery and automaticity of phonics and high frequency words that their reading seems effortless. When children have fluency issues they may fail to comprehend the text and not enjoy reading. Decodable readers, are matched to the phonemes they have been taught, enabling faster recognition of words, which in turn reduces the amount of mental energy required to decode the text. This facilitates the building of automaticity and fluency. struggling readers.”
Reading vocabulary is children’s bank of known words that they can use in writing or reading. Knowing the meaning of words is essential for comprehension. The ability to read a word is essentially meaningless without understanding the word. Early exposure to conversations with adults and being read to is of paramount importance to developing a rich bank of spoken vocabulary.
Comprehension is the extraction of meaning from text and is the end point for reading. It requires a set of complex foundational skills as discussed. Any deficit in any of these skills will hinder comprehension. A child who cannot read at a word or sentence level or a child will poor vocabulary will have impaired comprehension. A child without adequate fluency, poor working memory or attentional issues may lose the meaning of the text.
Reading recovery is based on the principles of “Balanced Literacy” and sprinkles in phonics in context. It is not an explicit or systematic approach to the teaching of phonological awareness. Science has shown repeatedly that a deficit in phonics and/or phonemic awareness (which make up phonological awareness) are the biggest predictor of reading failure.
Research on Reading Recovery has certainly been mixed and there has been much criticism of the research undertaken by Reading Recovery. This is what the experts have to say; “In this open letter, more than 30 international reading researchers expressed concerns about the continued use of Reading Recovery. These experts urged policy makers, educational leaders, researchers, and federal research organizations to acknowledge the weaknesses of Reading Recovery. They concluded, “Reading Recovery leaves too many students behind.”
“While research distributed by the developers of Reading Recovery indicates a positive effect of the program, analyses by independent researchers have found serious problems with these conclusions. Studies conducted by researchers associated with Reading Recovery typically exclude 25-40% of the poorest performing students from the data analysis.”
“The lack of efficacy of Reading Recovery with the poorest readers is not surprising given the research base that highlights the importance of explicit teaching of phonics for this group. Reading Recovery teaches phonics, but the instruction is not sufficiently explicit. A common finding in research on Reading Recovery is that those students who do not respond are weak in phonological awareness (Snow et al., 1998; Tunmer & Chapman, in press b).”
“Reading Recovery has not met the needs of these lowest performing students. Most significantly, its excessive costs can make it more difficult for a school to provide help for all students in need, especially those who are behind in the upper grades.”
In 2016 NSW education dumped Reading Recovery’s $55 million a year specific funding after they commissioned a 2015 research review which found it had limited efficacy, especially considering its huge cost. The report concluded “While the current findings reveal short-term positive effects of RR on reading outcomes for the lowest performing students, they do not support the effectiveness of the intervention on other aspects of literacy achievement or the longer-term sustainability through the early years of school. One possible explanation that is asserted strongly by RR critics is that RR does not provide sufficient tuition in phonics and phonemic awareness to effectively remediate literacy performance among struggling readers (Center et al. 1995; Chapman & Tunmer 2011; Greaney 2011; Moats 2007; Reynolds & Wheldall 2007; Tunmer & Chapman 2003; Tunmer et al. 2013). Center et al. (1995) argue that “while Reading Recovery stresses the importance of using all sources of information available to access meaningful text, it may not provide enough systematic instruction in the metalinguistic skills of phonemic awareness, phonological recoding, and syntactic awareness for students to acquire these processes” (p. 244). The lengthy examination of the research is certainly worth a read here. https://www.cese.nsw.gov.au/images/stories/PDF/Reading_recovery_evaluation_FA_AA.pdf
I think the biggest indicator of the true nature of Reading Recovery is to look at the spectacular failure of New Zealand literacy in recent years, the home of reading Recovery, where the principles on which it is founded dominate the teaching of reading. New Zealand literacy and Reading Recovery are based on a constructivist approach to literacy teaching encouraging a multi-cues approach to the teaching of reading. Phonics takes a backseat and is taught (if at all) in context and not explicitly or systematically. A detailed analysis of the failure of Reading Recovery and the teaching of reading in New Zealand is given in this 2013 article in the Learning Difficulties Australia Bulletin. https://www.ldaustralia.org/BULLETIN_NOV13-RR.pdf.
Since this article was written in 2013 New Zealand has continued to be a poor performer in reading despite millions being poured into improving literacy. New Zealand according to the latest PIRLS result in 2016 is now ranked 33, making it the poorest performing country in the English-language world. In 1970 they were ranked first. Marie Clay’s Reading Recovery and the constructivist approach to literacy has been the dominant ideology in New Zealand for decades seeing a steady decline in literacy.
This article by literacy and teaching training experts at Massey University, New Zealand examines the failure of New Zealand literacy. Massey University has also undertaken research into Reading Recovery. “The problem with literacy outcomes doesn’t lie with teachers, but with teaching. As a country, we continue to rely on an approach to literacy instruction that was discredited by scientific research over 30 years ago. Our teachers have been trained and provided with teaching resources that are out of step with contemporary research, and with literacy teaching practices in other countries. Britain, for example, has made significant improvements in literacy learning outcomes since the introduction of systematic phonics instruction towards the first decade of this century.“
“Reading Recovery was introduced in the 1980s to lower the number of children experiencing literacy learning difficulties. This programme has not achieved this major goal. The Reading Recovery website claims that the programme acts as an insurance against reading failure. This is not true, as successive PIRLS results have shown since 2001.” http://www.massey.ac.nz/massey/about-massey/news/article.cfm?mnarticle_uuid=FFBE6235-9CB5-4742-97C0-E1AA4ED407B5
Certainly Reading Recovery does give a boost to those children whose failure is due to lack of exposure to a rich language environment. Hattie has shown any intervention or teaching strategy is certainly going to have an affect more than no intervention. This is particularly true for children who may have come from a neglected environment. A true examination of Reading Recovery would be to compare it to an explicit and systematic phonics intervention program.
“Thanks to new scientific research—plus a long- awaited scientific and political consensus around this research—the knowledge exists to teach all but a handful of severely disabled children to read well” Louisa Moats https://www.ldaustralia.org/client/documents/Teaching%20Reading%20is%20Rocket%20Science%20-%20Moats.pdf
Reading Recovery fails too many children. As admin of Dyslexia Support Australia we get many parent members who join our group bemused at the failure of their children fresh out of Reading Recovery. Reading Recovery is an expensive program that has not adapted to research in the last 30 years that shows what struggling learners need for reading success. Reading Recovery wastes valuable intervention dollars and time.We know how important early and appropriate intensive intervention is for struggling readers. We can do much, much better than Reading Recovery.