Reading recovery reduces need for special education

Kindergarten teacher helping student with reading skillsResearchers in New York City evaluated the effects of Reading Recovery on special education referral and placement rates. Evelyn A. O’Connor, Queens College of the City University of New York , and Ognjen Simic, New York University, compared children who completed the Reading Recovery program with a comparison group of similar children who did not receive services. The purposes of their study were to determine whether Reading Recovery reduced the special education referral and placement rates for first-grade children who successfully completed the program compared to those who did not attain grade level reading and writing skills by the end of the program.

The researchers also sought to determine whether the classification labels given to students placed in special education are appropriate and consistent with the outcomes of the Reading Recovery program. These researchers speculated that children who successfully completed Reading Recovery training would not be classified as learning disabled while those recommended for further services would have a higher percentage of learning disabilities than either the successful group or the comparison group who had not received the treatment.

Data for this study came from the New York University Reading Recovery database. All participants in the study were first-grade students who were identified as performing in the lowest 20 percent of their class in literacy by teacher referral and performance on six literacy tasks. Children identified as being at risk at the beginning of the year, but who were not able to be served in the Reading Recovery program made up the comparison group. These students, while scoring below average, performed slightly better than those who received services.

Existing Research

Reading Recovery treatment consists of daily 30-minute lessons with one-to-one instruction. A typical program lasts from 12 to 20 weeks. Reading Recovery has been criticized for its high costs. However, these researchers point to previous studies that have shown it to be cost effective in the long term. Studies have shown that the majority of children successfully complete the program because they perform in the average range on literacy tests. Children who are not performing in the average range by the end of the program are referred for further services. Reading Recovery appears to prevent low-achieving students who only need a short-term boost from entering a long-term special education system. Research has demonstrated that these children, who had been among the lowest performing students in first grade, maintain their literacy gains in later years.

The Current Study

In total, 2,354 students in New York City completed the Reading Recovery program over a three-year period and 1,770 poorly performing students were not able to be served. These unserved students formed the comparison group. Of those who completed the Reading Recovery program, 1,862 completely the program successfully, while 492 were recommended for further services. Thus, 79 percent of the Reading Recovery group completed the program successfully, having met or exceeded average reading and writing levels for their class.

Data from these groups was analyzed to determine whether a difference existed in the rates of referral and placement in special education at the end of first grade for children who participated in the Reading Recovery program and the comparable group of low-achieving students who had not received the intensive one-on-one tutoring. Results showed that nine percent (223 students) of all who received Reading Recovery instruction were referred for further services. Among the comparison group, 14 percent were referred for testing. This difference is highly significant. Placement rates also show a statistically significant difference between those served by Reading Recovery and those unable to be served. Two percent of all students in the Reading Recovery program were placed in special education programs at the end of first grade, while five percent of the comparison-group students were placed. These results indicate that students who received the tutoring were less likely to be referred or to be placed in special education.

Students who successfully completed the program were compared with those who did not achieve at average levels by the end of the program. Only four percent of the successful students were referred for testing, but 28 percent of students recommended for further services were referred. Ultimately, eight percent of unsuccessful Reading Recovery students were placed in special education. Of the students who successfully completed the Reading Recovery program, only one percent of the total 1,862 were placed in special education. This implies that Reading Recovery keeps students from unnecessary testing and long-term labeling and placement. Test results also reveal that students recommended for further services after Reading Recovery are more likely to be identified as reading disabled whereas students who successfully complete the program are placed for reasons other than reading problems.

A reduction in special-ed placements

The results of this study reveal that Reading Recovery significantly reduces referrals and placements to special education. Over the three-year period of the study, students who received services were associated with a five-percent reduction in referrals as well as a three-percent decrease in placements when compared with low-achieving children who were not tutored. Therefore, this intensive early intervention program enabled low-achieving students to make significant gains in literacy, reducing the need for further help. Intensive short-term intervention is successful for a majority of low-achieving students (79 percent) and it more accurately identifies students who need long-term services. Study results confirm that the majority of students who initially perform poorly can avoid special education as a result of early intervention. If all the low-performing students in these school districts had received the intensive tutoring of Reading Recovery, districts could have saved money on long-term special education services.

O’Connor and Simic note a couple of limitations of their study. Although previous studies have followed Reading Recovery students for several years after intervention, all the data used in this study was collected by the end of first grade. Also, there was no data collected regarding any remedial reading services provided to the comparison group. However, results demonstrate that these remedial services were not as effective as Reading Recovery in preventing referrals and placements in special education.


“The Effect of Reading Recovery on special Education Referrals and Placements” Psychology in the Schools Volume 39, Number 6, November 2002 pp. 635-646.

Published in ERN February 2003 Volume 16 Number 2

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