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