Reading Recovery Program Closing Literacy Gap for Early Readers

Blog Post
April 7, 2016

During my time spent studying and training to be an educator, I had a literacy instructional coach whose oft-repeated mantra was, “the achievement gap is a literacy gap.” For her, this helped convey the importance and urgency of learning techniques for teaching basic literacy skills. She was not wrong. A study from researchers Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley from the early 1990s found an alarming discrepancy between the number of words heard by the age of three for children in families on welfare compared to children from high-income families—30 million words. Hart and Risley dubbed this phenomenon “The Early Catastrophe,” and that moniker is hardly an understatement.

Hart and Risley’s findings have been further examined and corroborated by additional researchers over the years, and have led to the creation of a wealth of literacy programs for young children designed to help address this word gap at a young age, before it can grow. Literacy, as the foundation for all future learning, sets the stage for success throughout a child’s educational career. Research from the University of Chicago showed that a child’s reading level in third grade is a consistent predictor of high school graduation and college attendance rates.

With so much riding on children’s literacy, numerous early intervention programs have been created to assist struggling readers. Despite the number of intervention programs available, few have been thoroughly researched to determine their long-term impact. One program, however—Reading Recovery—was the subject of a four-year study designed to determine its impact over four years of program expansion, and the results were released last month.

The study, conducted by the Consortium for Policy Research in Education at the University of Pennsylvania, randomly selected over 7,000 struggling first graders in more than 1,200 schools across the country and placed them in either a treatment group (receiving Reading Recovery interventions) or a control group (receiving the regular literacy instruction provided by the school). Researchers found a significant, positive impact on the reading achievement of students who received Reading Recovery as an intervention compared to those who did not. The impact was large—more than an 18 percentage point difference between the two groups. Further, these effects held true for students from rural communities and English language learner populations—groups who are traditionally affected by significant gaps in early literacy skills.

Reading Recovery was developed in New Zealand by a developmental psychologist in the 1970s who had new theories on how children become literate. The program structure created from those theories is an intensive one. Reading Recovery interventions are delivered to students for a 12- to 20-week period during which they receive daily, 30-minute, individual lessons from a trained teacher. (The former teacher in me had a small heart attack at the word “individual,” doing the math on how many extra hours I’d have had to find in the day to accommodate a classroom with 80% of students performing below grade level in reading). And, the significant time commitment on the part of teachers does not end at the interventions. Reading Recovery requires any teacher administering the program to complete an intensive, year-long, graduate training course, in order to “develop expertise at analyzing students’ literacy behaviors, identify learning needs, and deliver responsive instruction.”

It’s clear that the Reading Recovery structure developed, implemented, and scaled up in recent years has been a success, and a success well worth the effort. Leading researcher Philip Sirinides noted that the effect size of the program is “among the largest for any intervention for early literacy that has been rigorously studied.” But, questions remain about continuing to scale up this program in low-income, low-performing schools that may benefit most from the intervention results Reading Recovery offers.

The cost of training teachers is limiting in both financial and time obligations, either of which might be enough to deter a school or district from investing in the program. Further, while the researchers were able to determine that Reading Recovery effects held to the end of 1st grade (five months after completion of the program), they were unable to determine if the results held through to 3rd grade due to a limited sample size in later years. This is worth noting, as many studies have shown students who are not reading proficiently by third grade are those most likely to later drop out of high school.

More research is needed on Reading Recovery and other interventions, but a related concern when it comes to early literacy is that teacher preparation in early reading instruction is often lacking. A nationwide study from NCTQ in 2006 found many education schools are not teaching future elementary school teachers important principles of reading instruction. This is a significant concern, as millions of children are reaching third grade without the skills they need to be successful throughout their schooling, particularly low-income children and children of color. In 2015, more than 75 percent of low-income fourth grade children fell below the “proficient” rating for reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

With an unacceptable number of children falling below the baseline of acceptable reading skills at such a young age, more programs like Reading Recovery are clearly needed, especially those research-proven to be a success.