Madison’s literacy disaster, continued: reading recovery’s negative impact on children

Emily Hanford and Christopher Peak

The new, federally funded study found that children who received Reading Recovery had scores on state reading tests in third and fourth grade that were below the test scores of similar children who did not receive Reading Recovery. 

“It’s not what we expected, and it’s concerning,” said lead author Henry May, director of the Center for Research in Education and Social Policy at the University of Delaware, who delivered the findings at the prestigious, annual gathering of education researchers being held this year in San Diego.

The findings could prompt school districts nationwide to reexamine their investment in Reading Recovery and consider other ways to help struggling first-graders. 

May was the principal investigator of an earlier federally funded study of Reading Recovery, one of the largest ever randomized experiments of an instructional intervention in elementary schools. That study, which began in 2011, found evidence of large positive gains in first grade, as has other research. The program’s advocates have pointed to that research as evidence that the instructional approach is based on sound science and is effective. 

But whether the initial gains last and translate into better performance on state reading tests remained a question. The new study on the long-term impact of Reading Recovery is the largest, most rigorous effort to tackle that question, according to May. 

The fact that students who participated in Reading Recovery did worse in later grades than similar students who did not get the program surprised May. “Was Reading Recovery harmful? I wouldn’t go as far as to say that,” he said. “But what we do know is that the kids that got it for some reason ended up losing their gains and then falling behind.”

At least 2.4 million students in the United States have participated in Reading Recovery or its Spanish-language counterpart since 1984, when the program first came to America from New Zealand. The program is in nearly 2,000 schools in 41 states.

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