The Reading Recovery programme has established a reputation as an effective intervention for pupils at risk of failing to learn to read. A new research review examines its strengths and weaknesses

Reading Recovery is an intensive literacy programme designed for young students who have been identified as being at risk of reading failure after one year of schooling. First developed and trialled in New Zealand over 20 years ago it is now implemented in a number of education systems, including Britain.

Although this new research review is focused on the operation of the system in New Zealand, Australia and the United States, SENCOs and literacy coordinators will be able to compare their own experience with its account of what has worked well and what has worked not so well.

The Reading Recovery programme
Reading Recovery (RR) provides intensive, one-to-one, daily tutoring for young children who are identified as being at risk of having literacy difficulties after having received a full year of schooling. Students who are targeted for RR are the lowest performing students in the school as judged by the programme’s Observation Survey of Early Literacy Achievement, which has six components: a running record on text reading, letter identification, dictation, concepts about print, sight words, and writing vocabulary.

In each 30-minute daily session a trained RR teacher carries out a number of set activities that are related to texts selected for the student’s reading level. These activities are re-reading one or more previously introduced texts, identifying letters and words, writing a story, hearing and writing sounds in words, cutting the story up and then reassembling and reading it, introducing a new book, and reading the new text.

Students are discontinued from the programme when they are able to read texts that an average reader in the child’s class can read, can write several sentences, and are ‘predicted to make progress without further individual instruction.’

What Reading Recovery has done well
According to the review, Reading Recovery has been an effective intervention in the short term for many students. It is designed for implementation at what is seen as an optimal time for young learners and includes many components of successful early reading instruction. These include high expectations, time spent reading and writing, re-reading of texts, setting clear goals, learning about letter-sound relationships, making time for observation of students’ reading, deliberate teaching, phonemic awareness, and professional development that focuses on effective instruction.

RR has an effective implementation process, Marie Clay and personnel from New Zealand have played a key role in establishing the programme and this has been a means of maintaining quality control in tutor (teacher leader) and teacher training, in provision of information for administrators, schools, and teachers, and advocacy for funding and administrative support. It has been particularly successful in gaining political support critical for allocation of funds for teacher training, administrative functions, and teacher salaries.

The role of RR teacher is usually sought after and has special status among staff members in a school as a teacher with a high level of knowledge. RR teachers generally have a great sense of pride in their role and a sense of belonging to a special group.

RR provides an extensive amount of data about student progress that can be used to monitor its effectiveness. It has established a reputation as an effective intervention among educators and administrators achieved by publication and dissemination of the results of field trials, site reports, evaluations, and research studies.

What Reading Recovery has not done well
The researchers argue that their survey indicates that while the programme has shown that it works for many students, it has not demonstrated that it works for the students who are most at risk of failing to learn to read. Students who enter the programme typically have poor phonological processing skills and those with the lowest scores have been found to be least likely to benefit from the programme.

The programme has been criticised for not reflecting recent research findings about the crucial components of an early literacy programme and because the theoretical principles and teaching procedures suggest that context is more important in predicting up-coming words than graphophonic cues.

RR has not demonstrated that it has dramatically reduced literacy failure within education systems. Some studies have shown that short-term gains are often not retained and that these have all but disappeared by Year 3. While there have been some reports of maintenance of gains, lowered retention rates, and lowered referrals to special education, there is no evidence of a dramatic reduction in literacy failure in education systems since RR was introduced.

This may be caused by limited budgets in education systems resulting in resources being spread so thinly that not all struggling Year 1 readers can access the programme, or it may be an indication that RR has limited or differential long-term effects. RR has relatively high costs, and doubts have been cast on its cost-effectiveness within a system.

Despite the large amount of data collected within the programme, this report argues that RR has a relatively weak research base with a limited number of true experimental studies about RR’s efficacy that feature randomly allocated groups.

The researchers conclude that RR has provided an excellent model in demonstrating how to plan, promote, and implement an intervention across an education system and how to design a professional development programme. Research, however, indicates that it has not delivered all that it promised to deliver: long-term change for students and a significant reduction in demand for special education services in later years. In short they conclude that Reading Recovery has shown that it is good, but it could be even better.

Reynolds, Meree and Wheldall, Kevin (2007) ‘Reading Recovery 20 Years Down the Track: Looking Forward, Looking Back’, International Journal of Disability, Development and Education, 54:2, 199-223