Reading Recovery fails too many students every year

Professor James Chapman, Massey University

Over 1,000 6-year old students were failed by Reading Recovery in 2017. They were “unrecovered”. This failure rate has been remarkably stable for at least 18 years, probably longer.

Ministry of Education data presented in the annual National Monitoring reports for Reading Recovery show remarkably similar patterns of achievement year in and year out. Every year for nearly two decades (possibly longer) over a thousand NZ children don’t benefit from participation in the Reading Recovery programme. They are unrecovered and “referred on” for further help.

What is Reading Recovery?

Reading Recovery was developed by the late Dame Marie Clay during the 1970s. It was introduced in New Zealand schools during the 1980s. Clay designed the programme to “accelerate” the reading performance of struggling readers after 1 year of schooling. These 6-year old children receive 30 minutes of individual instruction for around 20 weeks. Clay said the programme was for the “hardest to teach” readers—those children who were really struggling.

How many children go into Reading Recovery each year?

In 2017, 55% of New Zealand schools offered Reading Recovery. Over 9,000 6-year old children received Reading Recovery. That was around 23% of Year 2 children in those schools. They received an average of 48 hours each of individual tuition.

These figures indicate that over 1 in 5 children are struggling with learning to read after just 1 year of schooling. They go into Reading Recovery to receive 20 weeks of extra individual reading tuition.

Every year, children finish Reading Recovery unrecovered

But every year over 15% of the children in Reading Recovery are unrecovered. Ministry of Education data show these children start in the programme with really low scores on 3 reading assessments: word knowledge, reading level, and writing vocabulary knowledge. Because this pattern is so consistent, we can predict which children will not benefit from the programme.

Coming out of Reading Recovery unrecovered just adds further failure on top of the reading difficulties these children already have. It’s unfair to the children and unfair to their parents.

Some children benefit from Reading Recovery but the benefits often don’t last

Some children do benefit from Reading Recovery. Their reading development is more advanced when they start the programme. They are certainly not the “hardest to teach”. Even then, two New Zealand studies (see here and here) show that over 40% of children who are successful in Reading Recovery lose their gains within 2 to 4 years. They read at levels significantly below average.

Overall, fewer than 50% of children who get Reading Recovery have lasting positive benefits. 

Reading Recovery is especially unhelpful for Māori and Pacific children, and children in low decile schools.

Reading Recovery claims are bold and false

The Reading Recovery website claims that the programme is “an effective prevention strategy against later literacy difficulties” and “an insurance against later literacy difficulties”. There is no evidence to support the claim. In fact, New Zealand’s literacy performance has declined over recent years.

Reading Recovery was supposed to reduce the very large gap in New Zealand between good and struggling readers. This hasn’t happened. We have one of the largest gaps in reading performance of 10-year old children. And we slipped in our ranking in the latest international literacy survey of 10-year olds. Performance on the most recent survey showed we were lower than all English language countries except Trinidad and Tobago.

Reading Recovery isn’t achieving what it was supposed to achieve

Clearly, Reading Recovery is not doing what it promised to do. It’s time for the place of Reading Recovery in New Zealand schools to be seriously examined. The state education department in New South Wales abandoned Reading Recovery. Its research showed the benefits simply weren’t worth the effort and the cost.

And the New Zealand Education Review Office recently drew attention to short-comings in Reading Recovery.

There are good reasons why Reading Recovery can only have limited results. Children who are successful in Reading Recovery tend to already have better developed reading skills; they are seldom the children Marie Clay referred to as the “hardest to teach”. More modern approaches to the teaching of reading and for dealing with initial reading difficulties have been around for 2 to 3 decades. But Reading Recovery hasn’t adopted contemporary approaches based on sound research.

Continuing with Reading Recovery in New Zealand will only lead to the same unacceptably consistent results of the past two decades. The same unrecovered rate of over 15%; the same unsatisfactory longer term success rate of less than 50%.

Honesty is needed about who is likely to benefit from Reading Recovery and who isn’t

Reading Recovery needs to be transparent about the children who are likely to benefit from the programme. It needs to be honest about the fact that many children simply will not benefit because the programme is unable to meet their needs. It needs to drop the claim that the programme acts as an “insurance against later literacy difficulties”. Reading Recovery does no such thing.

Reading Recovery should be replaced

Reading Recovery is out of date. It needs changing to reflect new knowledge about how children learn to read. Or it should be dropped altogether.

Further Reading:

Reading Recovery’s unrecovered learners: Characteristics and issues. Review of Education, 2019, 7(2), 237-265. DOI: 10.1002/rev3.3121

JWC (1).jpgJames Chapman is Emeritus Professor of Educational Psychology at Massey University and a former secondary school teacher. He has a MA (with distinction) from Victoria University of Wellington, and a PhD in Educational Psychology from the University of Alberta. In addition to being Pro Vice-Chancellor of the Massey University College of Education from 2003 to 2012, he has researched and written extensively on Reading Recovery as well as on motivational factors in learning and reading difficulties.


  1. Kia ora rawa atu James for reminding us all that your phonics only programme would do a much better job than Reading Recovery in recovering readers having difficulty with getting underway with reading. I am pleased to see in your recent report to the Ministry of Education Enhancing Literacy Learning Outcomes for beginning Readers; Research results and teaching strategies (June 2018) that you and your Massey Phonics team and the Best Start Research project CHCH are recommending there should be no Guided Reading in NEYr 1 and perhaps in first 6 mths of yr 2 .

    Rather you suggest an exciting engaging structured phonics programme in 3 stages using special phonics text books carefully scientifically structured to provide a step by step ladder from ignorance to bliss which all children would be test screened on entry to school and have to go through to mastery before they are allowed to read books for meaning. Marie Clay was wrong; There are not multiple pathways to literacy only one way -the Phonics way. Yes you are quite right to argue that all Maori Pacific and Diverse students making slow progress in reading need to have the same programme as Learning Disabled, Dyslexic, Neuro delayed, Special needs.. as they surely are language deficient on entry to school especially if they speak a languages other than School English.

    Well done the sooner Scientific Research on Phonics replaces pseudo-research published in so many pseudo research Journals the better off our tamariki will be. Nga mihi nui

    Enhancing Literacy Learning Outcomes for beginning Readers; Research results and teaching strategies (June 2018)


  2. Has anybody tried a reformed version of Reading Recovery which includes a greater emphasis on phonics and the complexity of the alphabetic code?

    The strenght of Reading Recovery lies in the quality of the teachers, the ongoing training they receive, fidelity to the model and the continuous monitoring of teachers. If these aspects could be incorporated into a more phonics based approach then the results would be interesting to see.


  3. Great article. Education world please catch up to evidence based research. It would be great if you can debunk the myth of Leveled literacy intervention by F& P also claiming to be helpful for all. It doesn’t help students decode especially students that have a SLD or dyslexia.


  4. Yes!. Dr Sandra Iversen (Auckland) was a Reading Recovery trainer who conducted her Masters research in Rhode Island. She compared “regular” Reading Recovery with and enhanced RR programme that included greater attention to code instruction. The results were published in the Journal of Educational Psychology (tough journal to get published in). She found that enhanced RR provided at least as good results in a shorter period of time than regular RR. Based on her Masters, and later PhD research, Sandra has developed the Quick60 programme, now used in a number of schools in Auckland and other parts of New Zealand.


  5. What in your opinion is a better way/program to assist those children who after at least 6 months of instruction in their first year of schooling are already falling significantly behind their peers?


    • I paid for an on-line course called reading simplified. Brilliant. streamlined pathway using a handful of activities that are based on the alphabetic code and decodable texts.


  6. “Every year over 15% of the children in Reading Recovery are unrecovered.” Perhaps we could look at it from another perspective….85% are recovered!


  7. I doubt we would need a reading recovery enhanced programme if teachers had PD to learn how to teach reading the way scientists have proven it needs to be taught….at least 20 years ago! Love to know how training colleges are currently teaching new trainees. I have trained through “Reading Simplified” using a handful of activities and decodable texts.


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