Reading Recovery is an intensive intervention for first graders who are struggling to learn to read. Although its research base is not huge, well-controlled studies have found it highly effective. Newly published research shows that Reading Recovery is remaining effective even as it scales up. This is great news—and could mean that Reading Recovery will be adopted by thousands more schools.

To reap Reading Recovery’s benefits for first graders without lowering achievement in upper elementary and beyond, schools will need to be very careful about when they use it. Reading Recovery is a pull-out program: Providing one-on-one instruction is Reading Recovery’s strength—but if students are pulled out of history, science, art, or music, their short-term gains in reading ability could come at the expense of their long-term comprehension ability.


Shutterstock Image
Building young children’s knowledge of science, history, art, and music matters just as much early reading skills (image courtesy of Shutterstock).

Let’s take a quick look at what Reading Recovery does. According to a CPRE report that is an earlier version of the new, peer-reviewed study (and that was well-vetted by the What Works Clearinghouse):

Reading Recovery is an intensive intervention targeting the lowest-achieving 15-20 percent of 1st-grade readers. It takes as its underlying principle the idea that individualized, short-term, highly responsive instruction delivered by an expert can disrupt the trajectory of low literacy achievement, produce accelerated gains, and enable students to catch up to their peers and sustain achievement at grade level into the future. Reading Recovery attends to phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension–the critical elements of literacy and reading instruction identified by the National Reading Panel (2000).

In short, it has a strong research base. Even better, it has strong results. On the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, impact on reading ability was two-thirds of a standard deviation.

Reading Recovery does more for struggling first graders than many people believed possible. But it can’t do everything. As a short-term intervention, it can’t meaningfully increase students’ general knowledge. As a result, it can’t address a key factor for reading ability in later grades.

To be clear, I don’t think Reading Recovery should be responsible for increasing knowledge of the world. It’s a targeted program that’s getting a great deal from a relatively small amount of instructional time (about 30 minutes a day for 12–20 weeks). So my point is not that Reading Recovery should change—it’s that schools using Reading Recovery need to be very strategic about when to deliver the intervention. What will the student miss? Is there any way to not miss anything, to deliver Reading Recovery before or after school? Or perhaps during silent reading time, which these low-achieving first graders may only minimally benefit from?

It may seem that there’s nothing more important in first grade than developing basic reading skills. But in fact, research indicates that building general knowledge is just as important—possibly even more important. In a 2010 study by David Grissmer et al., general knowledge at kindergarten entry was a better predictor of fifth-grade reading ability than early reading skills. General knowledge also predicted later science and math achievement:

[The] general knowledge test measured the child’s early comprehension of physical and social science facts. Whereas the early math and reading tests focused mainly on procedural knowledge, the general knowledge test focused mainly on declarative knowledge (i.e., elementary knowledge or comprehension of the external world). General knowledge was the strongest predictor of later reading and science and, along with earlier math, was a strong predictor of later math…. Paradoxically, higher long-term achievement in math and reading may require reduced direct emphasis on math and reading and more time and stronger curricula outside math and reading.

This is a powerful finding: Kindergartners’ general knowledge is critical to their reading, science, and math achievement at the end of elementary school. So, building students’ knowledge—as much as possible and as early as possible—is critical too.

Educators do not have to choose between building children’s knowledge and skills. There is time for both, if everyone values both. Sadly, the importance of building knowledge in the early grades is still unrecognized by many schools. As Ruth Wattenberg has explained, “When elementary teachers were asked during what time period struggling students received extra instruction in ELA or math, 60 percent said that they were pulled from social studies class; 55 percent said from science class.”

Pull outs from science, social studies, art, and music must stop. Along with great literature, these subjects are what make up general knowledge. They are inherently interesting and absolutely essential. As Reading Recovery continues to spread, it would do well to help schools see that when they do their interventions matters just as much as which interventions they choose.


9 comments on “Reading Recovery Works—Now Let’s Make It Even Better”

  1. 1
    Will Fitzhugh on March 31, 2015

    If history is folded into humanities departments to be under the supervision of English teachers, students will learn less and less history, and the only history available to them in school will be short documents to be dissected for their literary devices and other qualities. This would make all that work to destroy history described in 1984 redundant. If there is no history, then there is no history to re-write. Convenient, and guaranteed to dumb down our students even further.

    Will Fitzhugh; [email protected]

  2. 2
    Rob on March 31, 2015

    what do you propose for scheduling?

  3. 3
    Lisa Hansel on April 1, 2015

    Hi Rob,

    My preference would be before or after school, so students don’t miss any of the regular day. Ideally, all of the first graders would have phonics-based language arts, history, science, mathematics, art, music, and PE–and any additional remedial instruction would reinforce and allow added practice with material from their regular classes. That may not be possible right now in many elementary schools, but policymakers should be looking for ways to make sure that the kids who are furthest behind get more instruction. Maybe someday our nation will live up to the original idea to supplement, not supplant.


  4. 4
    Mike G on April 2, 2015

    Lisa –

    Good blog. Agree with your comment about supplement not supplant, but to return to the puzzle “as is….”

    One sort of obvious point – the tradeoff here is 30 minutes of “Whole Class Science – 20 kids and teacher” versus 30 minutes of “1:1 Reading.” I’d trade ANYTHING for 1-on-1 time like that.

    So I propose this experiment. A second arm of the RR experiment.

    Pull 1st graders from ENGLISH class; give them 60 to 100 sessions of Science and Social Studies tutoring! My goodness, they’d learn a ton….you could set them up for success in Grade 1, 2, 3….

    Then, per Grissmer, measure the FIFTH grade reading scores of the RR kids against the CK kids. Which tutoring had the highest payoff?

  5. 5
    Charlotte on April 5, 2015

    I’ve always trusted the CKF for evidence-based resources on education, so I’m surprised and concerned to see you supporting Reading Recovery. This is not a well-designed program. Children need effective, pure synthetic phonics, not mixed-method approaches that encourage children to guess around words.

    I continue to believe that the CKF foundation is an excellent organization for most aspects of learning, but this isn’t the first time that I’ve seen non-evidence-based stuff being pushed where phonics are concerned.

    ED Hirsch’s original books promoted “a balanced approach” (i.e. mixed methods) to learning to read, right back from they were first written–this is completely understandable in view of the limited evidence that was available at the time, but the research has moved on since then, and there is no longer any excuse for promoting programs like RR.

    1. 6
      Bonnie on February 4, 2023

      Totally agree with you, Charlotte. Am anxious to see what the reply is!

  6. 7
    Lisa Hansel on April 5, 2015

    Hi Charlotte,

    Thank you for raising the absolute necessity of phonics. Core Knowledge agrees with you; Core Knowledge Language Arts takes three years (K-2) to explicitly teach the full code with a synthetic phonics approach. Please download CKLA (for free) to examine it yourself.

    Many people have wondered why I would say Reading Recovery works. The real question is works in comparison with what. I don’t think you will find a CKLA student who needs RR. But the evidence shows that RR is more effective than the reading instruction some students are otherwise getting. My understanding is that RR has changed over the years. The CPRE report says that RR now follows the findings from the National Reading Panel report, including teaching phonics. I called the Reading Record Council of North America; they confirmed that they do teach phonics. So, given the CPRE data (and the fact that CPRE’s research passed muster with the What Works Clearinghouse), I thought it would be good to recognize the progress RR has made.

    Change is hard. I think people deserve to be praised when they take steps in the right direction. Does RR have further to go? Sure. It doesn’t do everything CKLA does yet! But is RR helping some students in schools that are still using approaches that don’t follow the best research? I think so. Given that, the question is how to help more. One way is to promote CKLA; I do plenty of that. Another way is to accept that RR is popular and to do what I can to have it implemented in the best possible way.

    The reading wars are obviously going strong. I will keep doing what I can to recognize progress and give people ideas for making even more progress.


  7. 8
    Charlotte on April 6, 2015

    Thanks for your reply, Lisa. Reading Recovery does “include phonics” but the problem is that it includes phonics alongside other methods like guessing words from context and pictures. In other words, it’s a “mixed methods mess.”

    The program may be slightly less bad than others, but having a program lauded because “it’s not as bad as some other programs” is a sad indication of how unscientifically based a lot of educational theory is. Children who are struggling to read deserve better than this, and there are better programs out there!

  8. 9
    Pat Smith on July 9, 2015

    I first thought the posting here on March 31 “Reading Recovery Works—Now Let’s Make It Even Better” might be an early April Fool’s joke. Not so. It seems that after over 200 studies of this intervention, (most done by R.R.*), CPRE has conducted one deemed valid by What Works. The findings: surprise, surprise – after screening out students deemed unlikely to benefit from the program and giving the remaining ones several months of one-on-one tutoring by veteran teachers who complete an additional year of training, students show some progress in reading,

    Well, old-fashioned water pumps may work, too, but does that mean that’s the best way to get water? Doesn’t it make sense to compare other available possibilities to determine the most efficient/effective way to obtain H2/O? But CPRE’s study did not include comparisons to other one-on-one interventions or look at whole class reading programs that might reduce the need for expensive, one-on-one tutoring – the kind of information busy teachers and administrators could use help in determining. Dr. May, the lead researcher, explains that the grant did not allow comparisons.

    Other studies have shown that R.R. is no more effective than less expensive interventions conducted by student teachers and volunteers. And a new book by professors in New Zealand, the home of RR(Excellence and Equity in Literacy Education), examines in great detail that country’s literacy rate, and shows that little or no progress has been made in closing New Zealand’s reading achievement gap, an indictment of RR, as it has been a central component of New Zealand’s national literacy strategy for 25 years. One of the authors, when Pro Vice-Chancellor of the College of Education at Massey University (2002-2012), refused to train Reading Recovery teachers.

    A little history. I’ve been tracking RR since its inception. I was the only one of our 19-member Ohio School Board who attended a small session explaining it prior to our voting to approve it. After hearing Gay Su Pinnell’s presentation, I questioned its cost. The reply was, “Well, but, the kids will never have to be remediated again.” Mindful of special ed costs and the emotional trauma associated with not being able to read, I was persuaded not to object to its approval. At no point was there any estimation of the cost nor was it made known that Dr. Pinnell had previously worked for the Department. Also, not then or ever, was the Board told that the administrator in charge of Title 1 programs was apoplectic over our decision. Mind you, that Board had never previously voted to endorse any program nor has it done so since. Perhaps the symbiotic relationship with OSU (for program training) impacted the Department’s decision.

    Three days after the Board’s vote to approve, a teacher called to tell me that the program was not what it’s “cracked up to be.” Consequently, I got the Department to do a follow-up study and it turned out that nearly 40% of students receiving the RR tutoring did have to have further remediation. CPRE finds only 52.4% of the treatment children completed RR.

    In the coming months, I was to learn of a study by Columbus, Ohio, after which the administrator in charge of the evaluation switched to 4-1 tutoring. He later told me that Dr. Pinnell tried to have him fired. There was also one by an eminently qualified researcher in an Ohio district who compared the results of RR tutors with those of student teachers and found little or no difference; if anything, the student teachers may have done a little better in one aspect. (And, the wife of that district’s superintendent was a RR teacher.)

    Then I read Elfrieda Hiebert’s study that found the cost of per-recovered student was $8,000! Can you imagine what that cost must be in today’s dollars! Where is an estimate of today’s cost? (An estimate of the per-pupil cost of Reading First was $601 and a Lexia license is $9000 for the online program and that serves a whole school.) One of the peer reviewers of Dr. Hiebert’s study leaked Hiebert’s findings to RR and she told me that RR set up such a ruckus, it took her two more years to get her study published.

    Then the University of Oregon did the much-needed evaluation of RR’s benefits and costs.

    Years later, a new Ohio Superintendent asked NCREL to thoroughly evaluate the program and Timothy Shanahan and Rebecca Farr did so. They found that while RR works, it doesn’t get the results its proponents claim, its effects dissipate over time and it costs about what a whole year of schooling does – even taking into consideration associated savings.

    Because of the disastrous results of an area school district’s insistence on giving their dyslexic son only RR as an intervention, the parents sued the district and won a financial settlement. The father, Cameron James’ accounting, the NCREL findings and much else can be found in the Summer1996 issue of Effective School Practices. James’ experience is also described in the May,1996 issue of Wrightslaw.

    When The National Council on Teacher Quality reviewed textbooks used by Colleges of Education, it found that those by Dr. Pinnell and Marie Clay, the originator of Reading Recovery in New Zealand, did not include all five essential components of reading: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension.

    A Wisconsin reading specialist probably summed up the study’s results best:
    “Reading Recovery works better than sending the kids out for recess.”

    And why in heaven’s name would we try to make it better when the whole
    concept of leveling texts on which RR and its sister program Literacy Collaborative is based has many questioning the practice, determining that it’s not possible to define levels with accuracy, pointing out that there is scant research to base it on, but much to question it, and that such an approach is not helpful in light of the new common core standards calling for richer content – standards certainly more aligned with Core Knowledge and Dr. Hirsch’s emphasis on students acquiring richer background knowledge to be able to understand what they’re reading. It will be interesting to see how RR fares as the new standards are increasingly implemented.

    *The RR program is currently overseen by the Marie Clay Literacy Trust, which is responsible for the copyright of all RR materials and the RR trademark. No changes in the materials or procedures of RR can
    therefore be made without approval of the trustees. This makes it virtually impossible for school systems or countries (including New Zealand) to make changes to the RR program based on recent research or to conduct independent studies investigating ways of modifying the program to improve outcomes and/or cost effectiveness.

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