A popular reading program takes another hit to its credibility Reading Recovery is one of the world's most widely used reading intervention programs for young children. A new study questions its long-term impact.

A popular program for teaching kids to read just took another hit to its credibility

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Millions of kids struggle to read. To help them learn, some schools have gone all in on one of the world's most widely used reading intervention programs. But according to a new federally funded study, that program may be doing more harm than good.

Emily Hanford of APM Reports has done a lot of reporting on how schools teach children to read. Hi, Emily.


SHAPIRO: Let's start with this program. What's it called, and how do schools use it?

HANFORD: The program is called Reading Recovery. It's for first-graders who are having the hardest time learning how to read. Those kids get one-on-one instruction with a teacher who has gone through extensive training in Reading Recovery methods, and those methods are controversial.

I did a reporting project back in 2019 where I showed that some of the strategies kids are taught in Reading Recovery are actually the strategies that struggling readers use to get by. In other words, kids are taught to read the way that poor readers read. But before this new study, existing research on Reading Recovery had shown the program was effective, at least in the short term. Kids made large positive gains in first grade.

SHAPIRO: OK. So there was evidence that it worked in the short term, but this new study took a longer view. What did it show?

HANFORD: Right. So a big question about Reading Recovery has always been whether those short-term gains translate into long-term success. This is the largest, most rigorous study to look at that question. It focused on how third- and fourth-graders did on state reading tests. And what the study found is that the kids who got Reading Recovery actually did worse than a comparison group.

SHAPIRO: And do researchers know why that is?

HANFORD: The researchers cannot say exactly why, but they have some ideas. One hypothesis is that kids in the program can seem like good readers in first grade, but Reading Recovery may fail to teach them the skills they need to be good readers in the long run. Another possibility is that they did worse because of instruction that they got or didn't get after the first grade.

Henry May is the lead author of the study, and he was surprised by the negative results.

HENRY MAY: Was Reading Recovery harmful? I wouldn't go so far as to say that. But what we do know is that the kids that got it, for some reason, they ended up losing their gains and then falling behind where they would have been expected to fall.

HANFORD: The Reading Recovery Council of North America is the organization that advocates for Reading Recovery in the United States. In a statement about the study, they disputed some of the methodology, and they maintained that their program is effective.

SHAPIRO: And in the meantime, are schools still using the program?

HANFORD: Yes, they are, and it's an expensive program. It can cost more than $10,000 a year per child. At one point, it was in every state, but some districts have been dropping Reading Recovery. In fact, the very first U.S. district to use the program back in 1984 was Columbus, Ohio, and they recently decided to stop using it.

I talked to their executive director of teaching and learning. She told me the decision to drop Reading Recovery is part of a larger effort to bring what's been dubbed the science of reading to Columbus City schools. She and her colleagues realized that their approach to reading instruction, including Reading Recovery, didn't align well with that science. Her name is Leslie Kelly, and I asked her what advice she had for other districts still using Reading Recovery.

LESLIE KELLY: I would say be open; do your research; read a lot and really look at, do you have evidence of impact? That's really the key. Do you have evidence of impact, and how do you know? And if you don't have evidence of impact, you have to ask yourself why, and then what are you going to do about it?

HANFORD: There are many districts and even entire states right now that are looking carefully at how schools teach reading. And we know that COVID has had a big impact on kids' reading development. This new research is something for policymakers and school leaders to consider as they make decisions about what programs to invest in.

SHAPIRO: That's Emily Hanford of APM Reports. Thank you.

HANFORD: Thank you.


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