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Reading Recovery:
What do School Districts Get for Their Money?

A Review of the Research
by Melissa Farrall, Ph.D.

Reading Recovery is an early intervention program that has been widely acclaimed as an effective means to improve the reading skills of young children.

How effective is Reading Recovery? What does the research on Reading Recovery show?

The purpose of Reading Recovery is to reduce the rate of reading failure. Reading Recovery purports to accomplish this goal by providing one-on-one pullout instruction to six-year-old children who are struggling to learn beginning reading skills.

Children selected for the program (children who are at the bottom 20% of their class) receive 30 to 40 minutes of daily instruction by trained Reading Recovery teachers. The children are taught to use various text-level strategies and techniques to recognize their errors and comprehend content.

Reading Recovery consists of three components: a Diagnostic Survey; Tutoring Sessions; and Teacher Training.

Diagnostic Survey

A Diagnostic Survey is administered to each child; instruction is based on the results of the survey.

Tutoring Sessions

Tutoring Sessions focus on reading predictable text, reading “little” books, re-reading favorite books, writing stories, and working with self-written cut-up sentences. Children are taught to rely on context and use other strategies (guessing, looking at pictures, and using the first letter of the word as a clue) to predict unknown words.

Teachers use an observation survey, a subjective, non-standardized assessment that uses the same books used during remedial sessions to provide information/data for the next tutoring session.

Teacher Training

Teachers receive training in Reading Recovery procedures during a yearlong course.

Is Reading Recovery Effective?

Given the recent focus on the need for scientifically based programs, Reading Recovery is receiving increased scrutiny regarding claims of the program’s effectiveness.

Reading experts have raised concerns about the theoretical foundation, the research base, and the costs associated with the program. These concerns include:

1. Reading Recovery lacks independent research that validates the program’s success.

According to an international group of experts and researchers in reading development and intervention, there is little evidence that Reading Recovery is effective. These experts published an open letter to policy makers, researchers and others and expressed their concerns about the continued use of a reading program that is not effective and whose claims are not supported or verified by independent research. Full text of letter.

The experts note that Reading Recovery data excludes 25% to 40% of the lowest performing students. Excluding these students violates the “intent to treat” requirement that is the standard for evaluative research. The “intent to treat” requirement prohibits researchers from using data selectively to make claims.

The scientific community also rejected the theoretical underpinnings of Reading Recovery as described by the founder, Marie Clay (1993). Clay emphasizes a top-down approach in which children use their understanding of the world to construct meaning from text.

Current research provides overwhelming support for a highly structured, systematic approach to reading instruction that incorporates the alphabetic principles and phonemic awareness.

Several independent studies provide evidence that:

  • Reading Recovery is ineffective with poor readers

  • Reading Recovery does not outperform other methodologies that require less expense and less training

  • Reading Recovery students do not generalize and maintain their skills

According to one study, poor readers made no gains when provided with one-on-one Reading Recovery instruction (Elbaum, et. al. (2000). Students who completed the Reading Recovery program did not maintain their gains as they continued in school (Hiebert, 1994; Shanahan & Barr 1995)

Teaching Assistants with little training and minimal teaching materials outperformed the Reading Recovery teachers when their students’ overall achievement was compared.

Also, when Reading Recovery students are compared with Chapter I students, teachers tend to get better results with the regular Chapter I program than with Reading Recovery. This has been the case every year since 1985-86 when Reading Recovery was implemented in Canton. (Fincher, 1991)

Reading experts have expressed serious concerns that children who lack phonemic awareness and who are unable to discover the alphabetic principles on their own will experience great difficulties learning to read when effective, appropriate interventions are delayed.

In Preventing Early Reading Failure and its Devastating Downward Spiral (2005), Dr. Joseph Torgesen reported that how children read in the first grade predicts how they will read in the third grade without effective instruction. He noted that delays in addressing the needs of at-risk students results in a need for more individualized, more intense instruction that is also more costly.

2. Reading Recovery does not include a standard, nondiscriminatory goal for successful completion of the program.

The goal of Reading Recovery is not to bring students up to the national average in reading. The goal of Reading Recovery is to bring the poorest readers to the average of their class. This practice is likely to discriminate against poor, minority students who have the misfortune to attend poor performing inner city schools.

Some experts believe that Reading Recovery may violate constitutional law by holding lower expectations for minority children. Inner city schools with large numbers of non-readers may only perform at the 20th percentile on national norm-referenced measures of reading. (Grossman, Coulter, and Ruggles, 1997)

In contrast, students who attend select suburban schools may enjoy average scores at the 80th percentile, when compared to national norm-referenced measures of reading.

Given the focus on attaining the class average, more resources and instruction could be allocated to high-performing schools than to low-performing schools.

3. Reading Recovery does not measure progress objectively.

The developer of Reading Recovery and the Observation Survey focused on “systematic observation” of reading behaviors, not on standardized testing that allows researchers to compare and contrast data from different studies. As a result, it is impossible to judge Reading Recovery’s efficacy in terms of national standards.

Reading researchers note that the main evaluation tool for Reading Recovery is the book-level assessment. Book-level measures use repetitive sentences and pictures to help the reader guess the correct answer. These stories are highly predictable and “guessable.” Strategies that may work with artificial content are not useful when reading real or authentic text. (Grossen, Coulter, and Ruggles, 1997)

Reading experts found that good readers do not rely on guessing to identify words. They note that read or authentic text is unpredictable, and that most students will need more than four guesses to arrive at the correct word. (Stanovich and Stanovich, 1995)

Experts report that it is difficult to assess a student’s progress with Reading Recovery levels. The intervals used (book level measures) are not equal. Progress (from one book to another) at the lower levels of the program is not equivalent to progress at the higher levels. (Center, Wheldall, & Freeman (1992)

4. A high percentage of children are dropped from Reading Recovery before they complete the program.

Data provided by Reading Recovery does not explain the high percentage of children who are dropped from the program, or the process of determining eligibility for the program.

About 30 percent of students who begin do not complete the program (Hiebert et al. 2000). At least half of the data on eligible children was not included in information provided by Reading Recovery (Shanahan & Barr, 1995).

To generate accurate statistics about a program’s effectiveness, scientifically based research requires that researchers study the program with respect to its effectiveness for all children, not with a select group.

Reading Recovery does not serve children who are identified for special education services. Reading Recovery does not accept children who do not meet their entry-level requirements.

Reading Recovery does not keep statistics on children who are dropped before they complete the program.

Typically, children who are discontinued from Reading Recovery have severe deficits in phonological processing. These skills are essential for learning to read and spell. (Chapman, Tunmer, & Prochnow, 2001)

Reading Recovery does not attempt to improve phonological awareness and sound-symbol correspondence in weak readers. The program was designed to supplement regular literacy classes in New Zealand.

5. Reading Recovery does not reduce the need for special education and Title I services.

Several studies indicate that students who complete Reading Recovery do not continue to learn at a rate commensurate with their peers. (DeFord, Pinnell, Lyons, and Place, 1990; Shanahan & Barr, 1995)

Eighty-one percent of children who completed Reading Recovery required Title I services. Only 14.7% of these students reached national norms (Pollack (1996). Only 6.5% percent of all eligible students reached national norms.

According to the Wake County Public School System in North Carolina, Reading Recovery students “compared to a control group were just as likely to be retained, placed in special education, or served in [Title] I a year later” (1995, p.ii).

Reading Recovery is expensive when compared to programs that are more effective.

There is widespread agreement between Reading Recovery advocates and critics that Reading Recovery does not raise overall school reading performance (Hiebert, 1994; Pinnell & Lyons, 1995).

According to one study, Reading Recovery was not cost effective because of the high costs of teacher training and the requirements for one-on-one instruction. (Hiebert, 1994)

Studies that compared Reading Recovery in a one-on-one setting and Reading Recovery delivered in a small group setting did not show any advantage to one-on-one instruction (Evans, 1996; Iverson, 1997).

One study found that “thirty hours of instruction for one child in Reading Recovery costs more than a full year of schooling for the child” (Grossen, Coutler, and Ruggles, 1997 date). According to these authors, it would be more effective to use the annual Reading Recovery budget to reduce class size and implement an effective school-wide program for reading that would benefit all children.


Independent research does not validate Reading Recovery’s claims of success. Reading Recovery lacks a standard, nondiscriminatory goal for improving reading skills. Reading Recovery does not use standard measures of assessment to document progress.

In house-data from Reading Recovery does not account for the high number of children who are dropped from the program, or for the selection process used to determine eligibility for the program.

Reading Recovery does not reduce the need for special education and Title I services. Finally, Reading Recovery is expensive when compared to other programs.


Baker, S. et al. (2002). “Reading Recovery Is Not Effective, Leaves Too Many Children Behind.” Published at Reading at Wrightslaw.
Visited: 01/26/06

Chapman, J.W., Tunmer, W.E., & Prochnow, J.E. (2001). Does success in the Reading Recovery program depend on developing proficiency in phonological processing skills? A longitudinal study in a whole language instructional context. Scientific Studies in Reading, 5, 141- 176.

Center, Y., Wheldall, K., & Freeman, L. (1992). Evaluating the effectiveness of Reading Recovery: A critique. Educational Psychology, 12, 263-273.

Clay, M. (1993). Reading recovery, a guidebook for teachers in training. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

DeFord, D.E., Estice, R., Fried, M., Lyons, C.E. & Pinnell, G.S. (1993). The Reading Recovery Program: Executive summary 1984-92. Columbus: Ohio State University.

DeFord, D.E., Pinnell, G.S., Lyons, C.A., & Place, A.W. (1990). The Reading Recovery follow-up study,Vol. 11, 1987-89. Columbus: Ohio State University.

Ehri, L.C., Nunes, S.R., Willows, D.M., Schuster, B.V., Yaghob-Zadeh, Z., and Shanahan, T. (2001). Phonemic awareness instruction helps children learn to read: Evidence from the National Reading Panel’s meta-analysis. Reading Research Quarterly, 36, 250-287.

Elbaum, B., Vaughn, S., Hughes, M.T., & Moody, S.W. (2000). How effective are one-to-one tutoring programs in reading for elementary students at-risk for reading failure? A meta-analysis of the intervention research. Journal of Educational Psychology, 92, 605-619.

Fincher, G.E. (1991). Reading Recovery and Chapter 1: A three-year comparative study. Canton, OH: Canton City Schools.

Grossen, B., Coulter, G., Ruggles, B. (1997) Reading Recovery: An Evaluation of Benefits and Costs (The Claims Versus the Facts): An Executive Summary. Viewed: 01/27/06

Hiebert, Elfrieda. (1994). Reading Recovery in the United States: What difference does it make to an age cohort? Educational Researcher, 23(9), 15-25.

Iverson, S., & Tunmer, W., (1993). Phonological processing skills and the Reading Recovery program. Journal of Educational Psychology, 85(1), 112-126.

National Reading Panel (2000). Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics.
Viewed: 01/27/06

Pinnell, G.S. & Lyons, C. (1995). Response to Hiebert: what difference does Reading Recovery make? Unpublished manuscript.

Pollock, J.S. (1996). Final evaluation report: Reading Recovery program 1995-96. Columbus, OH: Department of Program Evaluation.

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 (4), 958-996.

Snow, C.E., Burns, M.S., and Griffin, P. (Eds.) (1998). Preventing reading difficulties in young children. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

Stanovich, K. & Stanovich, P. (1995). How research might inform the debate about early reading acquisition. Journal of Research in Reading. 18(2), 87-105.

Torgesen, J.K. (2004). Lessons learned from research on interventions for students who have difficulty learning to read. In McCardle, P. and Chhabra, V. (Eds.), The Voice of Evidence in Reading Research. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.

Torgesen, J.K. (2005). Preventing Early Reading Failure – and its Devastating Downward Spiral: The evidence for early intervention. American Educator, Fall. Viewed: 01/27/06

Tunmer, W.E. & Chapman, J.W. (2003) Reading Recovery: Distinguishing myth from reality. International Dyslexia Association 54th Annual Conference Commemorative Booklet. Also at
Viewed: 01/27/06

Wake County Public School System. (1995). Evaluation Report: WCPSS Reading Recovery, 1990-94. Raleigh, NC: author.

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About the Author

Melissa Farrall, PhD, SAIF is the Program Manager for the Stern Center for Language and Learning in Williston, VT. She is the author of a research-based integrated approach to reading and assessment in Reading Assessment: Linking Language, Literacy, and Cognition.

Dr. Farrall is the co-author of Wrightslaw: All About Tests and Assessments, 2nd Edition.

Dr. Farrall helped to revise the chapters on testing in Wrightslaw: From Emotions to Advocacy, 2nd edition. Thanks to Dr. Farrall, these chapters now include information about dozens of tests that are used to evaluate children.

Revised: 01/17/18

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