Threats to any early literacy programs have a way of arousing passions. After the Nova Scotia government of Darrell Dexter announced in early February 2011 that it was “phasing-out” Reading Recovery, the immediate response was predictable. Parents of early elementary age children were panicked, early years teachers were up in arms and , before long, a “Save Reading Recovery” Facebook group rallied in its defense. Then on March 9, 2011 dozens of parents and teachers descended upon the Nova Scotia House of Assembly to make their personal pleas with heart-rending stories and a few tears. http://thechronicleherald.ca/Front/9020121.html
Passionate supporters of Reading Recovery were desperate to save the embattled literacy program for Grade 1 pupils. Many assumed that killing RR meant a further decimation of both literacy programming and special education services. Since the promised alternative was described in only the vaguest terms, they feared the worst. Few educators, let alone the general public, had any inkling that Reading Recovery was a problematic program, according to a mounting number of research studies. Fewer still knew that both its cost and effectiveness had been called into question.
Reading Recovery (RR) is a hardy plant in the garden of elementary education. Since being developed by Marie Clay in New Zealand in 1985, it has attracted a loyal following as a means of responding to the alarmingly high incidence of reading failure in early elementary grades. It actually emerged out of the “Reading Wars” as a kind of antidote to the rise of phonics (the “sound-out -letters” method ) While critics of Whole Language (WL) (“see and say” methods) campaigned for the restoration of systematic phonics, Reading Recovery programs popped up all over North America as a “band aid” for what ailed WL-based literacy programs.
The RR program was seized by Education Departments and boards as the latest panacea. By 2000, RR had spread to 10,000 American Grade 1 classrooms and had made inroads in Ontario as well as Nova Scotia. Over a 15 year period, Nova Scotia poured millions into RR, training some 600 teachers and running 33,000 kids through the 12-week, intensive, one-on-one program.
Thousands of parents in the 1990s were “hooked on phonics,” but school boards found their salvation in Reading Recovery. “These days,” Ramesh Ponnaru wrote in the OQE Newsletter (March 2000), ” it’s rare to find a school that does not claim to teach phonics, but whole language programs like Reading Recovery remain prevalent.” Simply stated, RR filled the need for a “balanced” program where phonics was “embedded in the context of a total reading/language program.”
Overzealous promoters of Reading Recovery contend that it works miracles with struggling readers. It focuses only on 6-year-old children who show signs of reading difficulty and score in the bottom 20 percentile in reading. Pupils selected for RR are provided with 30 to 40 minutes of daily one-on-one “pull-out” instruction for at least 12 consecutive weeks. The one-to-one delivery model and the use of regular “on-grid” teachers make it exceedingly expensive to run.
Reading Recovery does have a fiercely loyal following, but independent educational research has shown that it is not good value for money. Not only does it serve only a few students (and those are Grade 1 students) per year in a school, but for the same or less cost a school could offer a variety of more empirically validated, effective interventions for groups of children at several grade levels.
With Reading Recovery, what do school boards get for their money? The best validated research says not enough in terms of improved reading skills to warrant the expense, compared to other early reading programs and interventions. One leading authority, Dr. Melissa Farrall, reviewed the literature and conclude that it fell short on five different counts. She cited research studies identifying high program withdrawal rates, challenging the company’s success rate indices, and analyzing the negligible effects on demand for special education language services. “Independent research, ” she stated bluntly,” does not validate Reading Recovery’s claims of success.” http://www.wrightslaw.com/info/read.rr.research.farrall.htm
Struggling readers cry out for support and should be an educational priority for schools. So if Reading Recovery is not the answer, what is?
School districts in Britain, California, and even New Zealand have demonstrated the success of systematic phonics. One school, Elmhurst Primary in Newington, UK, a low SES area, has had amazing success with such an program for all Grade 1 students. They actually found they no longer had a need for Reading Recovery after implementing a structured and systematic reading program. http://www.teachers.tv/videos/applying-a-systematic-phonics-scheme.
The stakes are high for kids when it comes to learning to read. What explains the remarkable spread of Reading Recovery in school boards across North America? Why has Reading Recovery survived, in spite of the independent, validated research findings? If it is overly expensive and of dubious merit, why do parents cling so passionately to the program? To what extent does the fixation start in faculties of education where novice teachers continue to be socialized to believe in Whole Language and its methods?