Report on the Reading Recovery Program

The Reading Recovery Program was developed in New Zealand to give help to children having difficulty learning to read, and was brought to this country in 1984 by educators in Ohio. Gay Su Pinnell and Mary D. Fried, of Ohio State University, and Rose Mary Estice, a reading teacher in the Columbus, Ohio. public schools, recently summarized their experience with this program.

Early intervention program

Reading Recovery is an early intervention program designed to serve the lowest-achieving readers in first grade. Intended as a short-term intervention program, children in the Reading Recovery Program receive daily individual lessons from a specially trained teacher. These lessons are in addition to the regular first grade reading program.

The daily 30-minute sessions consist of a lesson in which children read many little books, and in which they write and read their own messages and stories. Teachers work to keep children actively involved in reading and writing, responding minute by minute, carefully observing and analyzing behavior and drawing attention to letter-sound associations and spelling patterns. The goal is to teach children to use their knowledge.

The program is designed to accelerate the achievement of these children to enable them to catch up with their peers. They are released from the program when they demonstrate average reading skills. As one child finishes the program, space is available for another child needing intensive instruction.

Intimate learning experience

Reading Recovery lessons are intimate situations. The teacher and child sit side-by-side, working on reading and writing. The teacher follows everything the child does – observing precisely and recording systematically. The teacher takes advantage of discoveries the child makes and looks for behavioral evidence of the child’s reading strategies. The child is made aware of good strategies he/she is using and is taught new strategies when necessary. Analysis of learning behaviors and diagnostic teaching are the basis of Reading Recovery. The lessons emphasize reading comprehension. The teacher selects material and adjusts lessons to enable each child to take advantage of and build on what they know.

Lessons include:

1. Rereading familiar stories: The child rereads several short stories, some selected by the teacher and others chosen by the student. Rereading provides an opportunity to engage in fast, fluent reading affording the child the opportunity to feel proficient and to practice newly acquired reading vocabulary. Teachers verbalize for the child any problem-solving he/she demonstrates: “I like the way you fixed that – it didn’t make sense the first time you read it – going back helped you to fix it.”

2. Keeping a running record of text reading: The teacher records the child’s independent reading behavior. The child reads a story that was read for the first time on the previous day. The teacher may help the child by saying a word when the child is stumped, but generally children are able to read without much help. Stories should be carefully selected so that the child does not struggle (students should be able to read the story with 90% accuracy). Using a short hand miscue recording technique, the teacher looks for substitutions, self-corrections, omissions and insertions. These errors are analyzed after the lesson and inferences are made about the child’s skill level and use of strategies. This information determines the following day’s teaching activities.

3. Working with letters: If the child is just beginning to learn about letters, activities include using plastic magnetic letters to construct words or to analyze spelling.

4. Writing a message or story: Every day the child composes a brief message (one or two sentences), with the teacher’s help. The child uses a blank writing book turned sideways. Messages are written on the bottom page, while the top page, the ‘practice page’, is used for working on individual words. The child writes known words and, with help from the teacher, any new words. The teacher can ask the child to say a difficult word slowly and to predict letters to represent the sounds. The child learns to analyze words and to make links between sounds and letters. Sometimes the teacher draws a series of boxes to represent each letter in a word and helps the child fill in each box. With a ‘high frequency’ word that the child needs to use often, the teacher may ask the child to write it several times so that it is quickly learned. The teacher then rewrites the message on a ‘sentence strip’, cuts it apart and asks the child to reassemble it. The whole message is then read by the student. The lessons vary with each child. The teacher makes decisions as the lesson progresses based on:

-what the child knows,

-the child’s response to the lesson and

-opportunities which arise from the text composed by the child.

5. Reading a new book: Every day the child is exposed to a new book or story. The teacher does not read the book to the child, but introduces it by looking through it with the child, discussing the pictures. In this way, the child becomes familiar with the plot and main ideas through oral language. The teacher might also explain concepts or specific language structures used in the story. The child then reads the story with the teacher’s help.

Teachers interested in Reading Recovery volunteer for a full year of in-service training for which they receive 9 university credits. A 30-hour workshop is held before school opens in the Fall during which teachers are trained to administer the six-part Diagnostic Survey Test. Throughout the school year, teachers attend one 2 1/2-hour class each week.

During these classes, teachers learn the basic procedures for lessons. Training consists of learning, application, observation, feedback and refining of skills. It is through the development of practical diagnostic skills that teachers build their own theoretical base for teaching. The goal is for teachers to learn the diagnostic/analytical procedure along with possible teaching components. They learn to individualize instruction, analyzing their teaching decisions for each child. In the Reading Recovery training program, theory and practice are closely linked.

Research base

The Reading Recovery Program has been researched in hundreds of locations in three countries. Studies in New Zealand began in the 1970’s where a large number of techniques were tried in pilot projects. These techniques were analyzed, modified and tried again. Many were discarded. By 1978-79, a refined Reading Recovery Program was achieving very good results – the majority of children served made accelerated progress and actually achieved the average reading levels of their peers.

Moreover, follow-up studies indicated that even after leaving the program, these children continued to make progress comparable with average children. These results were consistent across ethnic, economic and language groups.

In 1984, following three years of investigation and fund seeking, the first pilot study was conducted in Ohio. Results of the first year Ohio study showed that Reading Recovery students received an average of 67 lessons during the year. 73% of these students were successfully discontinued from the program because they had achieved at least average reading skills. These children performed better than the comparison group (who received regular first grade reading instruction) on text reading, writing, vocabulary, dictation, word reading and concepts about print.

This initial group of Reading Recovery children was tested during each of the next two years to determine if they were able to retain their gains and to continue to make good progress. (Testing was done by an examiner who was unaware which children had received help in the Reading Recovery Program.) The Reading Recovery group continued to be able to read significantly higher levels of text that the comparison group.

Reading Recovery is not a quick fix nor an easy answer. It requires long-term commitment and, even at that, it may not be the answer for every child. Many children in the Reading Recovery Program continue to be ‘at risk’ educationally because of ongoing economic, family or emotional problems. These children will only continue to make good progress, Pinnell et al. believe, with personal attention and a rich school curriculum which provides interesting and challenging reading material.

Overall, however, these Ohio educators believe that the initial cost of the program is offset by fewer retentions and referrals to special services. Additional long-term studies with large numbers of children are needed to document the effectiveness of Reading Recovery in this country.

In this collaborative effort, Ohio State University and public school educators worked closely, continually analyzing and evaluating their work. Their experience over the past five years has led them to the following conclusions:

-Even children who appear to know little when entering school can learn to be good readers.

-Beginning reading instruction must include large amounts of reading and writing.

-The most effective texts for young readers do not have controlled vocabulary, but are ‘real’ stories with language which approximates the child’s own.

-The most powerful teaching builds on competence instead of deficits. Programs must be designed around each child’s strengths; inflexible, prescriptive programs are not adequate.

-Instruction must focus on the strategy of learning to read and must take into account the complexities of the reading and writing process. Children need assistance in the “how to” of the reading process.

Ohio’s experience has led Pinnell and colleagues to these conclusions about teaching:

-Teachers need long-term staff development and a support group of peers with which to work.

-Teaching involves systematic observation, indepth analysis, hypothesis testing and self-evaluation.

-Educators need to take responsibility for children’s learning.

-School system support is necessary if innovative programs, such as Reading Recovery, are to be successful.

“Reading Recovery: Learning How to Make a Difference” The Reading Teacher January 1990, pp. 282-295.

Published in ERN May/June 1990 Volume 3 Number 3

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