Reading Recovery Revisited

The much-touted program for teaching readers at risk faces questions about its effectiveness and costs by Richard Lee Colvin

To Chris Steinhauser, an administrator who is helping lead a multifront assault on poor reading performance in the 84,000-student Long Beach, Calif., Unified School District, Reading Recovery is an invaluable asset.

Teachers who go through the year of highly structured training that is the widely recognized program's hallmark learn to diagnose reading difficulties by watching their colleagues work with students behind a two-way mirror. And, he says, students who receive the program's intensive dose of tutoring in the first grade are less likely to be referred to special education, which keeps them from being stigmatized as failures while saving the school district money.

"It's the only program we have that I receive numerous letters from parents thanking us for it," says Steinhauser, an area superintendent in Long Beach, echoing the praise for Reading Recovery heard across the country from teachers and reading specialists who have been trained in the method.

On the opposite coast, administrators in the Wareham, Mass., school district on Cape Cod reached a markedly disparate conclusion. An independent evaluation of the program's effectiveness there found that fewer pupils were achieving Reading Recovery's goal of reaching the class average in reading skill than had been reported to the program's national headquarters at Ohio State University. Roughly half of those who completed the program still wound up in tutoring programs or special education—thus wiping out any financial savings that might have been reaped from catching those with reading problems before they fell too far behind.

As a result of that analysis, Wareham eliminated the program two years ago. The district replaced it with a mix of approaches for teaching reading in its three elementary schools, including one aimed at dyslexic children and one for those who need more help with phonics.

"Certainly, Reading Recovery met some of our students' needs," says Linda Medeiros Stevens, the district's director of curriculum and instruction.

The professional development component of the program continued to benefit teachers and their students even after the teachers returned to a classroom full of children instead of tutoring them one on one. However, Reading Recovery’s overall benefits were not enough to justify its $2,500 per child cost, she says. And it has not been missed.

"We haven't lost anything, we haven't gained any more, we're progressing with them as in the past," Medeiros Stevens says of her district's poorest readers.

Time for Scrutiny

That two very different districts—one large and urban and one small and suburban—in different parts of the country should have different experiences with an educational program might not seem all that surprising. But when the program in question has been touted by no less a luminary than First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, while claiming to have helped more than 100,000 students permanently overcome their reading difficulties, contradictory assessments of its effectiveness are worth sorting out.

Imported from New Zealand by Ohio State University in 1984, Reading Recovery has grown rapidly and in 1996 was operating at more than 8,000 public and private schools in 49 states, as well as in countries around the world. Driving its growth has been the hunger of school districts for more effective alternatives to traditional remedial programs as well as a way to reduce the rapidly rising costs of serving children identified as learning disabled simply because they are having difficulty learning to read.

But as the program has spread, it has drawn increasing scrutiny and criticism. In part, that's because of the program's rather astonishing promise that its tutors can take the lowest-performing students—children who enter 1st grade not knowing all of their letters, few if any letter sounds and only a handful of words by sight—and in the course of 12 to 20 weeks of daily, half-hour sessions bring 80 to 90 percent of them up to the class average.

Another claim made by Reading Recovery advocates in some of the program's literature—that most of those students who complete the program will not need further remediation—is all the more miraculous, if true.

Cost Factor

The second issue that raises eyebrows is the price tag. The teachers and university professors who are its acolytes calculate the program's cost at somewhere between $2,500 and $4,000 per student. But those who have looked at the same numbers in a different way—for example, by simply dividing a school district's expenditures by the number of children served—have come up with cost estimates of more than $9,000 per pupil over and above normal per-pupil spending.

Of course, such costs might be justified were they offset by savings elsewhere or even by gains in reading that could be sustained. Here, too, though, the picture is mixed. Some school districts have reported reducing special education referrals by a third or more and cutting the number of children retained in first grade. But others, such as Wareham, do not realize such a payoff. In fact, several studies have found that the gains made by children while in the program fade quickly and hardly can be detected by fourth grade.

Finally, Reading Recovery is being drawn into the ongoing battle between the two camps in the reading wars.

Those who support an instructional regimen focusing on phonics lessons and their complement-lessons that develop phonemic awareness, which is the understanding that words are composed of blocks of sound that can be manipulated-believe that Reading Recovery does not pay sufficient attention to those skills. On the other hand, the most ardent supporters of whole language believe that Reading Recovery's highly structured lessons overdose children with those same skills.

Limited Objectivity

Superintendents searching the academic literature for definitive answers on these issues are likely to be frustrated. That's because the conclusions of the analyses depend greatly on who is doing them. Most articles written in praise of the program are authored by researchers involved in Reading Recovery in some capacity and are based on reports of student progress to a national Reading Recovery data center by tutors themselves.

Most independent scholars, such as Timothy Shanahan, a professor at the Center for Literacy at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and Elfrieda Hiebert, a professor at Michigan State University, have been unconvinced. Furthermore, those involved in Reading Recovery tend to become true believers in its powers rather than objective observers.

"We're working with the most at-risk populations in the most at-risk schools and in my 18 years of teaching, this has been the most powerful intervention for children," gushes Cindy Jacobsen, a Reading Recovery teacher trainer in Visalia, Calif.

The Founder's View

So what do we really know about Reading Recovery?

What we know is that it was created in the late 1970s and early 1980s by Dame Marie Clay, a child psychologist and educator in Auckland, New Zealand, who has been made a Dame of the British Empire for her work in the area of reading.

During the mid-1960s, Clay had realized that 60 percent of the children who were being referred to school psychologists for one problem or another also were having difficulty reading. So, she decided to watch 100 5- and 6-year-olds as they read, to see if she could determine what distinguished those who were good readers from those who were poor ones.

The aim, she stated in an interview, was to find out "what high-progress children do" and then to teach low-progress children to emulate it. Ten years later, she developed Reading Recovery in an attempt to help New Zealand teachers accomplish just that goal.

What she concluded was that good readers used several different skills simultaneously. They knew letters and their sounds. They could use what they knew about the structure and grammar of the language to help them check that the words they pronounced sounded right. For example, when a sentence required a verb, the word they read fit the bill. And they also tracked the meaning of what they were reading, correcting themselves if the word they read did not make sense.

Not only did they have all of those skills in their repertoire, they could orchestrate them in a way that made reading seem effortless. Although many reading researchers believe that letters and their sounds are a good reader's first and best tool in figuring out an unfamiliar word, Clay's view is that all three sources of information—letters and their sounds, syntax and grammar and the meaning of a passage—are of equal value.

That is why every 30-minute Reading Recovery lesson touches on all three realms. Each day, pupils read a familiar book, usually a heavily illustrated "little" book that enables them to guess at troubling words using the pictures. Then, they read a book that had been introduced the day before; "making and breaking," which involves using magnetic letters to spell out words, is another element; students also write on a paper strip that is then cut up into words which the student reassembles into their proper order. The final step is reading a new "little" book.

Short-Term Gains

Adopted nationwide in New Zealand in the early 1980s, Reading Recovery has since spread to three-quarters of the schools there and is now serving about one-fifth of the island nation's 6-year-olds.

Even in its home country, however, the program's effectiveness has been seriously questioned. The Reading Recovery program in New Zealand reports that, much as in the United States, about 85 percent of the students who complete the program do so successfully—meaning that they catch up with their peers. But independent researchers there report that the gains do not last.

William Tunmer, the dean of the School of Education at Massey University, has written about a national evaluation of the program that found that children who went through Reading Recovery made greater gains than a comparison group while they were receiving tutoring. But, he says, "the net gain which is attributed to Reading Recovery appears to be quite modest by a year or so after discontinuation."

The reason, Tunmer adds, was that while "Reading Recovery temporarily increases the rate of reading development, [the program] has little or no effect on the development of those reading-related skills that are essential for lasting progress—phonological awareness, syntactic awareness and phonological recoding."

As a result, 15 percent of the pupils served by reading resource teachers in New Zealand had previously completed a full Reading Recovery program and another 28 percent had been referred to resource teachers after failing to make progress in Reading Recovery.

Shanahan, who was asked by the North Central Regional Education Laboratory on behalf of then-Ohio State Superintendent of Schools Ted Sanders to thoroughly evaluate the program, concluded that its claims were inflated. As many as a third of the students who succeed in the program would have reached that level of proficiency unaided, simply by virtue of growing older, he says. And other studies have found that the poorest readers in a classroom often are excluded or eased out quickly, once it becomes clear that they are not benefiting.

Defenders Abound

Of course, the assessments of Tunmer and Shanahan are not shared by the many U.S. educators who have seen Reading Recovery work.

Gay Su Pinnell, the Ohio State University professor who first piloted Reading Recovery in the United States, has written numerous papers in defense of the program and she concludes that its positive effects on student reading ability are sustained for most children through the third grade. Beyond that, it depends on the quality of the school district’s overall program of reading instruction. Last year nearly 100,000 1st-graders across the country were reading on grade level after having gone through at least 60 Reading Recovery lessons and, she contends, "there isn’t any other approach that can claim that."

Pinnell specifically disputes Shanahan’s conclusions, saying he improperly eliminated evidence that showed Reading Recovery was working. But she acknowledges the program on its own is not enough to guarantee a successful reading program.

"It’s going to take a comprehensive effort" that includes high-quality instruction in kindergarten and intensive training for teachers in grades 2 and 3, she says.

Still, Pinnell explains, the program is "extremely, almost unbelievably effective in taking 1st-grade children and moving those children up with an accelerated program … in a very short time."

Convincing Evidence

Officials in the 5,500-student Adams County/Ohio Valley Local School District, 65 miles east of Cincinnati, don't need any convincing. The district was among the first in the country to use Reading Recovery 11 years ago.

Last year, the district analyzed the performance of its former Reading Recovery pupils on the state's fourth-grade proficiency test and found that 70 percent of them passed all four parts of the test—a far higher passing percentage than among students in the district as a whole.

After seeing results such as those, district administrators decided to require all newly hired 1st-grade teachers to complete the year of intensive training needed to become a Reading Recovery teacher.

"Most Reading Recovery-trained teachers will tell you their attitude about teaching changes dramatically with the training," says Sheila Roush, the district's supervisor of elementary school curriculum and instruction. "They look at what the child can do more consistently, as opposed to looking at what the child cannot do and try to remediate that."

Steinhauser, an area superintendent in Long Beach, Calif., says his district this summer began requiring 3rd-graders who had not met the district's grade level standard for reading to attend a five-week summer tutoring program. Few children required to attend the program came from the ranks of children who completed Reading Recovery.

Program advocates bristle at the implication that Reading Recovery is less successful than is claimed. They say that numerous studies have found that the progress achieved by students while they are in the program are still noticeable at least two years later, although they acknowledge that by the 4th grade the benefits appear to recede. Still, they say that even though the program is costly, its track record justifies the expense.

Anne Allen, an assistant professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, is a Reading Recovery trainer who helps coordinate the program throughout the state. She says the program's cost is one of the first issues that comes up when she meets with superintendents. Rather than simply telling them how much they will have to spend to get a Reading Recovery program going, she helps them analyze how they currently spend their state and federal funds for remedial education and asks whether they are satisfied with the results. "Most of the time," she says, Reading Recovery services can be paid for "from existing funding sources."

If that argument doesn't work, Allen says, she tries a different tact. "I say to them, 'Are you telling me that you're willing to write off that child?'" Then she pulls out her trump card. "My husband is superintendent of schools for the Arkansas Department of Corrections and if you don't fix those students now, he has an opportunity to fix them later. So, you can pay me now or pay me later and, trust me, we're paying a lot more in his system."

A Longitudinal View

Mary Boehnlein, who heads the Reading Recovery program for the San Francisco Unified School District, argues that the costs must be seen as a long-term investment. Educators, she says, should look at the expense of the program as an accountant for a business would look at the cost of a new piece of equipment, amortizing its up-front costs over its useful life.

The San Francisco district reported in January it was spending more than $9,000 per pupil in 1996-97 on Reading Recovery. But using her method, Boehnlein calculates that over 10 years the district will spend no more than $25 per half-hour lesson or $2,000 to $2,500 per pupil on the program.

Even so, Boehnlein has not been able to persuade all principals in her school district to participate. The district has a $1 million budget for helping schools pay for training. But most of the cost of the program is in salaries for the teachers doing the tutoring and that money comes out of the schools' allotment of federal funds for remediation. Most schools that choose not to participate have a large number of weak readers. And Boehnlein says principals are reluctant to spend their money on programs that reach only a handful of students—roughly eight to 10 a year for each teacher in the program.

"We can't force them and unless the whole school is committed to spending their money that way, Reading Recovery won't have the support it needs," she says.

Last year, administrators in the 47,000-student San Bernardino, Calif., City Unified School District were facing a dilemma. Only some of the district's campuses were receiving federal funds for remediation and officials wanted to redistribute the money so all schools got a share. That, however, caused some sites to lose 30 percent of their money for that purpose. Assistant Superintendent for Educational Services Leslie Pulliam told campus administrators that one way they could cope with the funding loss would be to eliminate Reading Recovery, which was costing the district $7,000 per pupil. That's what they chose to do.

"We have too many students who need support to become fluent readers and for us to invest large amounts of money in a few doesn't make sense," she says.

Methods Questioned

If the debates over cost and effectiveness weren't enough, Reading Recovery's teaching methods also have come under scrutiny, especially as more and more research studies show the importance of phonemic awareness and practice with phonetically regular, or decodable, words.

Reading Recovery teachers argue that those skills are part of every lesson. When they are writing, children are helped to hear the sounds as they write. When they are using magnetic letters to "make and break" words, the pupils are helped to learn how words work by using clusters of letters they are familiar with to make connections to new words. Additionally, tutors help children use their knowledge of letters or parts of words as one of the sources of information for figuring out unfamiliar words in the course of actual reading.

But Reading Recovery lessons also encourage pupils to use pictures, which in the special books used in the program closely match the text, to help them figure out new words. And pupils are rarely told simply to "sound out" the words.

G. Reid Lyon, who oversees reading research for the federal government's National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, says such lessons represent "a departure from what we know" from dozens of research studies. "The part of the brain that responds to picture cues is not the same brain system that responds to [letters]," Lyon says. Encouraging students to "roam around the print to get at the meaning of words they don't know is a dangerous element. They need to go after them phonemically and figure them out."

The fact between 20 and 30 percent of pupils do not respond to Reading Recovery demonstrates that it does not have all of the elements that are needed for children to learn to read well, Lyon says. "It isn't equally effective for all kids … because Reading Recovery in its state now does not contain all of the critical elements for a poor reader to learn to read."

He acknowledges that Reading Recovery lessons teach letter-sound correspondences in the course of writing and spelling exercises. But he says research has shown that what is learned in that manner does not transfer readily to the act of reading. Lyon's agency is now working on a comprehensive scientific study of Reading Recovery.

Also raising fundamental questions is Marilyn Jager Adams, the noted Boston-based reading researcher. While admiring Reading Recovery's stress on early intervention, she says the program's implementation is inconsistent from one site to the next.

Reading Recovery teachers are trained much as psychologists are, by watching experts work in a clinical setting, Adams says. The result, she contends, is that the quality of Reading Recovery programs varies greatly, which may account for the differences of opinion about its effectiveness.

"When I go to some Reading Recovery training sites I'm almost brought to tears by what a wonderful ... and astute program it is," Adams says. "Then there are others that are just appalling ... they are horrible."

A Beachhead Position

All of these issues have surfaced, perhaps most publicly, in California. That is because California's bottom-of-the-barrel performance on the 1994 National Assessment of Educational Progress has made literacy the top priority in the office of Gov. Pete Wilson and the state Legislature as well as in classrooms. As the state crafted its $1.2 billion reading initiative last year—a program that included $1 billion for smaller class sizes—some sought to discredit Reading Recovery as part of the state's problem, rather than a piece of the solution.

Several conservative legislators asked the state to audit the program's cost to find out if California was getting its money's worth for the $80 million or more that was being spent on the program in more than 300 school districts. The narrowly focused report that resulted found that school districts spend about $18,000 to train a teacher leader, over and above the teacher's salary. The leader then goes on to run year-long training programs for other teachers, at a cost of $8,000 apiece, including course materials and a starter set of books.

But the audit could not pin down the cost of the program itself. School districts indicate the cost ranged from $700 to $7,000 per pupil, depending on what expenses they included.

The audit also noted the great discrepancy of views of the program's effectiveness. While the school districts surveyed all believed it worked, academic studies such as the one by Shanahan and another by the Battelle Institute in Ohio commissioned by the Ohio Department of Education have reported shortcomings.

Ongoing Expansion

Despite the cacophony, Reading Recovery continues to expand.

In California, school districts, including Los Angeles, are training more teachers and serving more students. In Florida, Gov. Lawton Chiles, with Hillary Clinton at his side, recently announced a $10 million state commitment to Reading Recovery. And in Massachusetts, the state doubled its commitment to Reading Recovery this year to $1 million and officials in the Boston Public Schools are hoping to see it expand there.

Three years ago, the Boston schools used Chapter 1 funds for Reading Recovery. But then the district dropped its financing of the program and left it up to schools whether or not to use it. "We have seen the results and we know it works well," says Martha Gillis, senior program coordinator for English language arts in the 65,000-student district.

Gillis would like to see the program spread to more than the 25 out of the district's 80 elementary schools using it now. But, she says, that decision must be made by teachers and principals, "and rightfully so, because every building has a culture that is sensitive and a principal has to be very aware of that culture. If it were a mandate, if the president of the United States or the governor of Massachusetts or the superintendent of schools said they were going to give you the money and you had to do it, there would be negative fallout."

The Billings, Mont., school district went through a lengthy decision-making process over the course of two years, examining research studies and bringing in a Reading Recovery teacher for two visits to discuss the program, before finally deciding to start a training program this fall for teachers from five of its 24 schools.

But the district is in a unique position for evaluating its effectiveness. Some schools will be using a spin-off of Reading Recovery that is less expensive. One will be trying "Success for All," a schoolwide improvement program started by Robert Slavin at Johns Hopkins University that is often thought of as an alternative to Reading Recovery. And others will be "using none of the above," admits Roger Johnston, Billings' director of federal programs.

"We're going to look at all of those programs across the district and be doing pre- and post-testing and look at other aspects of the educational climate," he says. "We would like to know more finitely what the cost/benefit is for our students. We may find out that a particular program is best suited for a particular school and it may cost more but it is the best."

Richard Lee Colvin is a free-lance education writer who works on the reporting staff at The Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, Calif. 90053. E-mail: richard.colvin@latimes.com