Saturday 30 January 2016

Minister, reading recovery requires more than Reading Recovery

An open letter to NSW Education Minister Adrian Piccoli

Dear Minister

I have been impressed by your determination to enhance the effectiveness of
teaching in NSW schools. Your recent policy initiatives designed to improve teacher quality, by requiring that future teachers meet higher entry standards and can also explicitly demonstrate their proficiency in literacy and numeracy, have much to commend them. The next step is to improve the quality of instruction provided, especially for those whose needs are greatest, children from Indigenous and socially disadvantaged backgrounds. These students commonly comprise the greater proportion of young students struggling to learn to read. I would like to draw your attention to the needs of these struggling young readers.

Your Department of Education must think that I sound like a broken record because I have been complaining about the Department’s continued use of the Reading Recovery program for well over twenty years now. But I am hopeful that you will decide that it is finally time to take action. Please bear with me while I reiterate a few of the arguments I have raised in the past.

First, may I point out that my colleagues and I were commissioned by your Department to carry out a thorough evaluation of Reading Recovery as far back as 1991. You may not be aware of this because our research reports have not been formally released by your department to this day. Fortunately, a clause in our contract permitted us to report our findings in academic research journals and at academic conferences. Consequently, our findings were published in what was then the foremost reading research journal, the Reading Research Quarterly, and our study was subsequently reported by international authorities on reading as one of the more “methodologically sophisticated” studies on Reading Recovery, because it was a true experimental, randomised control trial.

So what did we find that your Department (at the time) seemed so reluctant to make public? Our first research report in 1993 was, in some respects, really quite positive about Reading Recovery. We found that, after about fifteen weeks of intervention, struggling readers in Year 1 did indeed perform better than their matched peers who did not receive Reading Recovery. In fact, some advocates of Reading Recovery have, over the years, reported our study in support of its continuing use. But, as always, the devil is in the detail. When we looked more closely at our data, we found that Reading Recovery appeared to be effective for only one in every three students who undertook the program: one student did not ‘recover’, one student would have improved even without the intervention (as our control and comparison groups showed us), and one did ‘recover’. Unfortunately, we also found that the students for whom Reading Recovery was effective tended to be those whose difficulties were less severe, those students who were not so far behind as the others. We concluded that, even if it were shown to be effective, one-to-one individual tutoring in Reading Recovery might be thought to be an expensive way of helping struggling readers; yet it was, in reality, three times more expensive than imagined because it was only effective for one in three struggling readers and those whose problems were relatively minor.

Over the years, numerous studies on the efficacy of Reading Recovery have been published since then and the arguments have gone back and forth. In 2012, a large group of international reading researchers even went so far as to publish an open plea for Reading Recovery to be dropped in favour of methods supported by scientific research evidence on how reading works and how best to remediate difficulties. It fell on deaf ears. In New South Wales and other states in Australia, as in many other western countries, scarce funding for struggling readers has continued to be directed to an expensive program, the demonstrated efficacy of which is, at the very least, equivocal.

Let’s now jump ahead to the present. Last year two very important reports on Reading Recovery were released. The first was from New Zealand, where the program was originally developed by the late Dame Professor Marie Clay, undoubtedly a formidable and highly regarded reading researcher in her day. The New Zealand research team led by Professors James Chapman and Bill Tunmer analysed NZ Ministry of Education Reading Recovery data covering 10 years, along with data from three PIRLS surveys (2001, 2006, 2011), to assess the impact of Reading Recovery on the reading performance of students in New Zealand. They concluded: 

Our analyses of RR data from annual monitoring reports and from the 2011 PIRLS survey indicate that RR has had little or no impact on reducing New Zealand’s relatively large literacy achievement gap because the programme is of limited benefit to those children who need help the most, especially Maori/Pasifika children and children from low-income backgrounds. We also reported research indicating that positive maintenance effects for large numbers of students successfully discontinued from RR are modest to non-existent.”

The second, more recent, report comes from your own Department’s Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation and was released just before Christmas (2015). Again this study was based on a very large sample of young struggling readers, all children throughout the state who received Reading Recovery in 2012. The summary of the report (published as Learning Curve, Issue 11), reads as follows: 

“The results showed some evidence that RR has a modest short-term effect on reading skills among the lowest performing students. However, RR does not appear to be an effective intervention for students that begin Year 1 with more proficient literacy skills. In the longer-term, there was no evidence of any positive effects of RR on students’ reading performance in Year 3.” (my emphasis)

So there’s no longer any need to take just my word for it, Minister; your own Department has concluded that Reading Recovery may have only a modest short-term effect but that even this ‘washes out’ by Year 3; in other words a pointless and worthless exercise.

Now, we may argue backwards and forwards about the relative efficacy of Reading Recovery for some students but I put this to you, Minister: If Reading Recovery were so powerful an intervention for young struggling readers as is claimed, would we not expect to find, after twenty five or more years of implementation across the western world, strong, positive research findings, reported repeatedly, testifying to the undoubtedly large and long-lasting effects of this program? Should it not clearly have been shown to be earning its keep by now?

Minister, for the sake of the children for whose education you are responsible, I urge you to show regard for these research findings on Reading Recovery, including those from your own Department, and to provide educational leadership by discontinuing the earmarked funding for this program of marginal utility and to encourage schools to try other methods and programs for helping struggling readers based on the best available scientific research evidence.


  1. Many thanks, Kevin. Your post is now flagged up on the forum for the International Foundation for Effective Reading Instruction here along with other reviews of Reading Recovery:



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