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Building on the Best, Learning from What Works: Reading Recovery

By: American Federation of Teachers
This brief from the American Federation of Teachers examines the strengths and weaknesses of Reading Recovery, one of five promising reading intervention programs they evaluated (also see Direct Instruction, Early Steps, Exemplary Center for Reading Instruction, and Lindamood-Bell in this section).

Why are some schools effective at educating most students, even those from disadvantaged, high poverty areas, while others struggle fruitlessly to fulfill their academic mission? How can schools replicate the successes of their more effective counterparts?

Researchers, working for years to answer these questions, have described the characteristics of successful schools-e.g., high expectations for all students; challenging curricula; clear standards and a coherent, focused academic mission; high-quality professional development aligned to the standards; small class sizes, especially in the early grades; an orderly and disciplined learning environment; a supportive and collegial atmosphere; and an intervention system designed to ensure that struggling students can meet the standards. But, while we now know a great deal about which reforms are effective, comparatively little is known about how to achieve them.

As many schools have found out the hard way, systemic reform is extremely difficult-especially when it must occur simultaneously on many fronts, and is begun without benefit of high-quality curriculum materials, appropriate professional development, or readily available technical assistance. In fact, a number of schools-especially those that are already foundering-have found that lasting improvement is impossible without concrete, step-by-step implementation support.

According to a recent study of efforts to raise academic achievement for at-risk students (Stringfield, et al., 1996), the reform strategies that achieve the greatest academic gains are those chosen and supported by faculty, as well as administrators. Success is also dependent on the existence of a challenging curriculum, and on paying "a great deal of attention to issues of initial and long-term implementation, and to institutionalizing the reforms." This and other studies have also found that schoolwide reforms tend to be more effective than pull-out or patchwork programs, and that externally developed programs-particularly those with support networks from which schools can draw strength and tangible assistance-tend to do better than local designs.

Given these and similar research findings, we developed the criteria below to help identify promising programs for raising student achievement, especially in low-performing schools. You will find descriptions of five reading intervention programs on the following pages. Although each particular program has its own strengths and weaknesses, all show evidence of:

  • High Standards. The program helps all students acquire the skills and/or knowledge they need to successfully perform to high academic standards.
  • Effectiveness. The program has proven to be effective in raising the academic achievement levels of "atrisk" students in low-performing schools, based on independent evaluations.
  • Replicability. The program has been effectively implemented in multiple sites beyond the original pilot school(s).
  • Support Structures. Professional development, materials, and ongoing implementation support are available for the program, either through the program's developer, independent contractors, or dissemination networks established by schools already in the program.

In addition to information about each program's track record on raising student achievement, we have also attempted to gather and report details about main features and estimated costs. We hope that this information will assist members as they begin weighing the available options against student needs, school goals, and available resources. In deciding which programs warrant further investigation, we urge that you consider each program's "fit," as well the data on its efficacy and cost-effectiveness.

Reading Recovery (RR)

Grades Covered Grade 1.
Curriculum Materials A set of professional books and a set of approximately 600 "little books"for children are provided. Texts are selected from many early readingseries and from trade books of children's literature.
Instructional Support/Professional Development All teacher leaders (school-level teachers and trainers) are required tocomplete a year of specialized academic coursework at selected local universities.Instructors of teacher leaders (district-level trainers) are alsorequired to take a year of university classes. Only certified teachers whohave received this training are recognized as Reading Recovery tutors. Inserviceprofessional development is also provided, including two annualconferences, a three-day winter conference, and a four-day summer institutefor teacher leaders.
School Reform/Restructuring Assistance Some assistance is available upon request.
Role of Paraprofessionals Only specially trained, certified teachers are used as tutors. Thus, paraprofessionalsmay work in the classroom, but do not work directly with theprogram.
Cost of Implementation Total estimated start-up costs vary from about $2,500 to $10,000 per student. Costs include about $3,000 for installation of one-way glass,$2,000 for books and materials, and additional costs for tuition for theReading Recovery teacher leader in training, estimated at $1,200. Othercosts include release time (one teacher, tutoring part time, is able to workwith about four students per semester).
Preliminary Results*/Effect Size Research on Reading Recovery has been uneven and results have beenEffect Size2 mixed. At least two careful studies, however, show that, when properlyimplemented, the program can have significant, positive effects on somemeasures of reading achievement, with effect sizes ranging from +.57 to+.78. A small study of the Spanish-language version of the program-Descubriendo La Lectura-also showed positive effects.
* To give a sense of scale, an effect size of +1.00 would be equivalent to anincrease of 100 points on the SAT scale or 15 points of IQ-enough to movea student from the 20th percentile (the normal level of performance forchildren in poverty) to above the 50th percentile (the norm for mainstreamstudents).

Reading Recovery (RR) is a one-on-one pullouttutorial for first graders who perform ator below the 20th percentile in reading. Theprogram, developed in the 1970s by New Zealandchild psychologist Marie Clay, is now in use in morethan 9,000 schools across the United States.Reading Recovery is intended to supplement regularclassroom instruction in reading and writing.Low-performing students receive 30 minutes ofdaily tutoring from a trained, certified teacher usingmethods and lessons that are proscribed, but notscripted, by program developers. The goal is toaccelerate reading achievement so that strugglingstudents can match the average performance level oftheir classmates. When a student has received themaximum number of sessions (60) or can read at alevel comparable to their class average, he/she is discontinuedfrom the program.

Main Features

Each Reading Recovery tutor works with aboutfour students during a 12- to 20-week period. Eachstudent receives a total of five sessions per week,which, although individualized, follow a fairly constantstructure:

Roaming around the known

"Roaming around the known" is the program's introductory/diagnosticphase, which may last up to 10 sessions. Tutors usea variety of literature-based activities, including thereading of familiar books, to gauge students' functionalliteracy levels. If a student is judged to bemaking adequate progress by the end of this period,he or she is "accepted" into the program for the fullcourse of treatment.

Reading a familiar book

First, the student rereadsfamiliar books and stories. During this phaseof the lesson, the tutor does not focus on correctingmistakes, and instead keeps a running record of studentbehavior, paying particular attention to errors,self-corrections and comprehension strategies. Thisinformation is then used to inform instruction.

Working with letters

Next, tutors work toextend students' letter and word knowledge.Depending on the student's proficiency level, activitiesmight include identifying and naming letters ofthe alphabet, matching uppercase and lowercase letters,or putting letters together to form words. Atmore advanced stages, students write words in theirworkbooks and on the chalkboard.

Writing a story

Regular writing experience isanother important feature of the program. Withcoaching from the tutor, students compose shortmessages and stories word by word, focusing onword analysis and spelling. Then students read theirproducts aloud to the tutor. Next, the tutor reinforcesconcepts of language structure by selectingone of the child's sentences, cutting it up into individualwords and asking the child to reassemble it.

Reading a new book

The final phase of the lessoninvolves the introduction of a new book. Thestudent attempts to read the new text as independentlyas possible, with orientation and supportfrom the teacher. Although students are taught todecode, the program places a heavy emphasis on theuse of context clues and prediction in decipheringnew text. After the student has finished reading, studentand tutor will discuss the book and the readingstrategies that were used. The book is then re-readduring the following lesson as "familiar" text.


In recent years, both Reading Recovery and theresearch into its effectiveness have become quitecontroversial. Although RR is one of the bestknown and most studied reading programs inAmerica, critics point to several areas of concern.These include program costs, association with wholelanguage approaches to reading instruction, selectiveuse of data in regard to unsuccessful students,appropriateness of student assessment measures, andsustainability of results. The first two issues areaddressed in the "Considerations" section, below.Here, we address the last three issues, which directlyrelate to research on program efficacy.

Although Reading Recovery was designed toserve the lowest-performing 20th percentile of firstgradereaders, not every struggling student is acceptedinto the program. Students' initial sessions,referred to as "roaming around the known," weredesigned to serve a screening, as well as a diagnostic,purpose. Children who seem likely to fail, despitetutoring in RR-those not progressing at thedesired pace after 10 lessons-may be referred tospecial education and removed from the program.In many RR evaluations, these students are neveraccounted for. Thus, the lowest of the low achieversmay be included in reporting for the control group,but excluded from RR data. In fact, some RR evaluationsmay only include data for students who were"successfully discontinued" (graduated) from theprogram after the full 60 lessons.

Second, in many evaluation studies, RR studentsand control group students (in studies where controlswere used) are assessed using ReadingRecovery-developed instruments. For some, this hasraised questions of whether student gains are foundusing standardized assessments.

And finally, there is debate over whether anybenefits are sustained. In this case, the research hasbeen mixed. Some studies indicate that RR students'achievement gains dissipate by the third or fourthgrade. Other studies suggest that the program's benefitsextend through fourth grade and beyond.

Despite the lack of conclusive longitudinal dataand design problems with some of the research,there are a few strong studies indicating that a wellimplementedReading Recovery program can helplow-performing students learn to read. At least twoevaluation studies compare the achievement gains ofall program and control group students, includingthose who were screened out of RR during "roaming around the known." Both showed positiveresults for Reading Recovery. One pilot studyinvolved a within-school design, matching studentsin different classrooms at six inner-city schools. A second study involved 12 schools in Columbus,Ohio. In this study, students performing in thelowest 20th percentile in reading were randomlyassigned to RR or a control group and tested usinga battery of program-aligned assessments. ReadingRecovery students significantly outperformed studentsin the control groups on all measures, witheffect sizes ranging from +.57 to +.72. A follow-upstudy indicates that these gains may not be sustainable,however. Students were assigned oral readingmeasures developed by the program. At the end offirst grade, gains for RR students and the cohortgroup were ES +.72 and +.78, respectively. At theend of second grade, these gains were ES +.29 and+.46, respectively. At the end of the third grade, theresults were ES +.14 and +.25, respectively.

In addition, a third, small study evaluated theeffects of the bilingual version of Reading Recovery(Descubriendo La Lectura, or DLL). Twenty-threeDLL students outperformed 23 matched comparisonstudents in a non-DLL school, with effect sizesranging from +.097 to +1.71. When comparingthese scores to those of a random sample of all students,DLL students also outperformed their peerswho were not necessarily in need of DLL services.

Case Study

Arkansas The state of Arkansas approvedReading Recovery for statewide use in 1988. From1991 to 1994, 1,088 struggling students receivedthe full RR program (defined as having received 60lessons). Of those students, 940 (86 percent)attained grade level. Fifty-nine students who hadsuccessfully completed the program were followedfor an additional two years. Compared to a randomsample of non-RR students, the RR students tendedto perform as well or better on measures of dictation,spelling and text reading in both the third andfourth grades.


Reading Recovery is an early intervention programwith several strengths and weaknesses that facultymembers should consider carefully. First, one ofthe most serious critiques of the program has beenthat it does not reflect the latest research consensuson beginning reading acquisition. Indeed, there arealternative programs that are more aligned withconsensus research and contain more systematic,explicit instruction in phonemic awareness andphonics-i.e., RR encourages the use of contextcues, rather than decoding, and tends to give studentsthe keys to sound-symbol relationships onlyafter they have encountered problems with text.Nevertheless, it's also true that RR has evaluationdata showing it is a program that can be used effectively.

Second, RR may be prohibitively expensive formany schools-especially those with large numbersof students in reading failure. For example, it hasbeen estimated that an average RR teacher onlyserves about seven students per year, while start-upcost estimates range from $2,500 to $10,000 perstudent. Another problem for low-performingschools arises from the design of the program-i.e.,it is intended as a means to raise the performance ofthe lowest-achieving 20 percent of students up tothe class average. Obviously, this is of limited benefitto schools where overall average reading levels areunacceptably low.

On the other hand, another frequent criticismactually signals a great strength: The programrequires extensive teacher training. According to arecent report from the National Research Council, "Despite the controversies regarding the efficacy of Reading Recovery, a number of intervention programs owe their design features to it, and it offers two important lessons. First, the program demonstrates that, in order to approach reading instruction with a deep and principled understanding of the reading process and its implications for instruction, teachers need opportunities for sustained professional development. Second, it is nothing short of foolhardy to make enormous investments in remedial instruction and then return children to classroom instruction that will not serve to maintain the gains they made in the remedial program."

Selected resources

Askew, B., Fountas, I., Lyons, C., Pinnell, G.S. &Schmitt, M. (1998). Reading Recovery Review:Understandings and Outcomes. Columbus, OH:Reading Recovery Council of North America.

Bracey, G. W. (Feb. 1995). "Reading Recovery: Is it effective? Is it cost effective?" Phi Delta Kappan,76(6).

Center, Y., Wheldall, K., Freeman, L., Outhred, L.& McNaught, M. (1995). "An evaluation of Reading Recovery." Reading Research Quarterly, 30.

Iversen, S. & Tunmer, W. E. (1993). "Phonological processing skills and the Reading Recovery program."Journal of Educational Psychology, 85.

Shanahan, T. & Barr, R. (1995). "Reading Recovery: An independent evaluation of the effects of an early instructional intervention for at-risk learners." Reading Research Quarterly, 30.

Wasik, B. A. & Slavin, R. E. (1993). "Preventing early reading failure with one-to-one tutoring: A review of five programs." Reading ResearchQuarterly, 28.

For more information

Reading Recovery Council of North America,1929 Kenny Road, Suite 100, Columbus,OH 43210 Phone: 614/292-1795. Fax: 614/292-4404. Email: Internet:

Additional Reading

Adams, M.J. (1990). Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning about Print. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

American Educator, (1998) Vol. 22, Nos. 1&2: Spring/Summer.

Adams, M.J., Foorman, B.R., Lundberg, I. & Beeler, T. (1998). "The elusive phoneme."

Beck, I.L., McKeown, M.G., Hamilton, R.I. & Kucan, L. (1998). "Getting at the meaning"

Cunningham, A.E. & Stanovich, K.E. (1998) "What reading does for the mind."

Greene, J.F. (1998). "Another chance."

Moats, L.C. (1998). "Teaching decoding."

Torgesen, J.K. (1998) "Catch them before they fall."

American Educator, (1995) Vol. 19, No. 2: Summer.

Adams, M.J. & Bruck, M. (1995). "Resolving the 'Great Debate'."

Beck, I.L. & Juel, C. (1995). "The role of decoding in learning to read."

McPike, E. (1995). "Learning to read: Schooling's first mission."

Moats, L.C. (1994). "The missing foundation in teacher education."

Blachman, B.A. (1997). Foundations of Reading Acquisition and Dyslexia: Implications for Early Intervention. Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates

Chall, J.S. (1983). Stages of Reading Development. New York: McGraw Hill.

Gough, P. B. & Hillinger, M. L. (1980). "Learning to read: An unnatural act." Bulletin of the Orton Society,30.

Herman, R. and Stringfield, S. (1997). Ten Promising Programs for Educating All Children: Evidence ofImpact. Arlington, Va.: Educational Research Service.

Learning First Alliance (1998). Every Child Reading: An Action Plan. Washington, D.C.: LFA.

Learning to Read, Reading to Learn (1997). Washington, D.C.: American Federation of Teachers.

National Research Council (1998). Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children. Washington, D.C.:National Academy Press.

Raising Student Achievement: A Resource Guide for Improving Low-Performing Schools (1997). Washington,D.C.: American Federation of Teachers.

Shaywitz, S.E. (Nov. 1996). "Dyslexia." Scientific American.

Slavin, R.E. & Fashola, O.S. (1998). Show Me the Evidence! Proven and Promising Programs for America'sSchools. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Corwin Press.

Slavin, R.E., Karweit, N.L. & Wasik, B.A. [Eds.] (1994). Preventing Early School Failure: Research, Policyand Practice. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Stanovich, K.E. (1994). "Romance and reality." The Reading Teacher, 47.



Click the "Endnotes" link above to hide these endnotes.

1. Alliance for Best Practices in Education Policy, EducationCommission of the States, 1998 brief on Reading Recovery.

2. An effect size is a standard means of expressing achievementgains and losses across studies, showing differences betweenexperimental and control groups in terms of standard deviation.An effect size of +1.00 indicates that the experimentalgroup outperformed the control group by one full standarddeviation. To give a sense of scale, this would be equivalentto an increase of 100 points on the SAT scale, two stanines,21 NCEs (normal curve equivalent ranks) or 15 points of IQ(Fashola and Slavin, 1996)-enough to move a student fromthe 20th percentile (the normal level of performance for childrenin poverty) to above the 50th percentile (in range withmainstream America). Because of differences among studydesigns and assessments, this can only be considered a"rough" measure of comparison. In general, an effect size of+.25 or more is considered to be educationally significant.

3. Hiebert, E. H. (1994). "Reading Recovery in the United States: What difference does it make to an age cohort?" Educational Researcher, 23(9), 15-25. Also, Shanahan, T., &Barr, R. (1994). "Reading Recovery: An independent evaluation of the effects of an early instructional intervention for at-risk learners." Reading Research Quarterly, 30, 958-996.

4. Huck, C.S., Pinnell, G.S. (1986). The Reading RecoveryProject in Columbus, Ohio: Pilot year, 1984-85.Columbus,Ohio: Ohio State University. Also, Pinnell, G.S. (April1988). "Sustained effects of a strategy-centered early intervention program in reading." Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association,New Orleans.

5. Pinnell, G.S., Short, A.G., Lyons, C.A., & Young, P. (1986).The Reading Recovery Project in Columbus, Ohio, Year I: 1985-86. Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State University. Also, DeFord,D.E., Pinnell, G. S., Lyons, C. & Young, P. (1988). ReadingRecovery: Volume IX, report on the follow-up studies.Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State University.

6. Escamilla, K. (1994). "Descubriendo La Lectura: An early intervention literacy program in Spanish." Literacy, Teachingand Learning, 1(1), 57-70.

7. Briggs, K.L. & Clark, C. (1997). Reading Programs ForStudents in the Lower Elementary Grades: What Does theResearch Say? Austin, Tex.: Texas Center for EducationalResearch.

8. Wake County Public School System (1995). Evaluationreport: Reading Recovery, 1990-94. Raleigh, N.C.: WCPSS.

9. National Research Council (1998). Preventing ReadingDifficulties in Young Children. Washington, D.C.: NationalAcademy Press.

American Federation of Teachers. (1999). Building on the Best, Learning from What Works: Five Promising Remedial Reading Intervention Programs. Washington, DC: Author.

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