Why I Still Like Reading Recovery and More Things We Can Learn From It (REPOST) by Dr. Sam Bommarito

Why I Still Like Reading Recovery and More Things We Can Learn From It (REPOST) by Dr. Sam Bommarito

NOTE: The link to the original Feb. 2022 post was broken. I am reposting this on 4/28/022 in order to let people access this post.

I’m coming off one of the most exciting weeks of my professional life. Last Sunday, I was a featured speaker at LitCon, a national-level reading conference. Then on Thursday, I did a joint Q&A session with Paul Thomas. Immediately afterword, I attended Paul’s session entitled The State of the Reading Wars: Not Simple, Not Settled. Here is a link to the blog he wrote about that session (LINK). Paul’s session was loaded with terrific information and resources around the whole history of the so-called reading wars. I’ll also mention that Paul has an excellent book on that same topic. Here is a link: (LINK). Over the next few weeks, I’ll be doing a series of blogs designed to make a case for taking advantage of what Reading Recovery can do for students.

Research Demonstrates Reading Recovery Really Works.

Here is a link to a PDF entitled Overview of Reading Recovery. The PDF is a product of readingrecoveryworks.org (LINK). A screen capture of the last page of that document now follows:

The screen capture is of the last page of a four-page document. It contains three very important research search-based pieces of information.

  1. In one of the largest controlled studies ever conducted in the field of education, the growth rate for students who participated in reading recovery was 131% of the national average rate for first-grade students.
  2. 72% of reading recovery students read at grade level after a full series of lessons
  3. 99% percent of students who successfully completed reading recovery lessons don’t need to be referred to special education for reading at the end of Grade 1.

Let’s talk about the significance and implications of each of these in turn. Statement one demonstrates reading recovery does what it’s designed to do. When Marie Clay first created the term Reading Recovery, she talked about recovery in the nautical sense. Recovery means getting back on course. It is clear that given one and two, students completing the full course of study provided by reading recovery get back on course; they are ready to benefit from the district’s mainstream literacy program.

The crucial point is that they can start progressing like all the other kids in the district’s mainstream program. In districts with a working mainstream program, the gains from RR stick long term. In conversations on Twitter and my interview with her (LINK), Susan Vincent reported that data from her district showed the learning stuck over long periods. I’m well aware that some naysayers claim Reading Recovery gains don’t stick. They provide studies to prove that. As in all research, the devil’s in the details. Their studies failed to control for those districts that don’t have a mainstream program where students don’t make average to above-average progress. In those districts, the RR students can be expected to progress at a much slower rate. That is misinterpreted to mean the RR learning didn’t stick. When asked how the studies they cite account for this factor, not one of the naysayers has responded to date. The upshot is that the RR gains can and do stick.

This PDF is not the only source demonstrating that Reading Recovery works. What Works Clearinghouse has for years found RR works, and RR helps both decoding and comprehension. Here is a blog containing information about what WWC has said. (LINK) In next week’s blog, I’ll also provide some additional links.


Comprehension is the Achilles heel of the current SOR movement. I’m not going to use the strawman tactic of claiming SOR doesn’t teach comprehension. They do, sort of. If asked, they will remind you that their collection of practices includes the five pillars. Those were gleaned from the National Reading Panel report. One of those pillars is comprehension. In his book, Paul reminds us of the limits and limitations of that report (a topic for another day!). That point aside, there are additional problems. One of them has to do with accepting Willingham’s work around comprehension at face value.

This is what Willingham had to say:

Building on Willingham’s research Karen Vaites wrote a blog entry about comprehension:

(LINK) Here is a screen capture giving the key to her entry:

Notice that the key conclusion here is that “background knowledge is key to reading comprehension.” On the one hand, I could not agree more with the concept that background knowledge is incredibly important to comprehension. Virtually all folks schooled in literacy instruction would agree to that. On the other hand, the issue becomes is it “THE KEY” or “A KEY”? I subscribe to the latter point of view. So do many experts in the reading field. Based on Willingham’s limited look at the research, some questionable practices are beginning to emerge. I say his look is limited because he does not give proper consideration to or explanation of the findings of Pressley, Pearson, Duke and others. What has happened is that folks like Vaites are using Willingham’s work to say teachers need to change how they teach. Teachers should spend lots less time teaching reading strategies and lots more time simply building background. Implied in that is that building background is all of (most of) what it takes to “teach” comprehension. This results in calling on teachers to spend much less time teaching comprehension strategies. All this is based on Willingham’s views, including his contention that these strategies are quickly and easily learned.

Unfortunately, this “new way” of teaching comprehension flies in the face of several decades of research by folks like Pressley, Pearson and most recently Duke. In a nutshell, those aforementioned researchers have found that teaching reading strategies using a gradual release model raises reading test scores significantly. On the one hand, I agree with Willingham that too much of the time teachers spend on reading strategies is not well spent. That is because the time is often spent on the wrong things. Time spent naming strategies or practicing test questions that ostensibly test for the use of reading strategies is not what the research has indicated should be done. Rather GETTING THE STUDENTS TO INTERNALIZE AND USE THE COMPREHENSION STRATEGIES AND ASSESSING WHETHER OR NOT THEY ACTUALLY USE THEM is what “teaching reading strategies using gradual release” entails. Teaching the strategies in that way is critical to building students’ ability to make meaning out of text. I find nothing in any of the three-plus decades of work that the aforementioned researchers completed indicates that those strategies are quickly and easily learned. Teaching in a gradual release model takes time. However, I do find study after study after study that shows that teaching these strategies does raise test scores significantly.

This is one of many examples that demonstrate that SOR advocates’ advice goes off the tracks too often because they fail to look at all the research before handing out their advice. Other examples of this abound. These include failure to consider research about retentions before implementing things like the Florida “miracle” model or ignoring research by early childhood experts about what and how to teach our youngest students. Next week I will continue this discussion and further discuss the whole issue of assessing reading. I’m going to suggest that many of the “miracle studies” cited by SOR are very heavy on assessing decoding and very light (or simply don’t) assess comprehension. We’ll be looking at Duke’s work on how reading is measured by gold-standard reading tests. Those are tests like you find on state-wide reading assessments. BTW those tests involve much more than simply reading a word list, a testing method that is used in many SOR studies.  

In the meantime, I will leave you with this thought.

What Works Clearing House found Reading recovery helps BOTH decoding and comprehension.

That is a huge advantage and an important reason to consider the use of Reading Recovery. Here is the blog where I explore what WWCH had to say LINK.

Next week we will explore why reading recovery does such a good job of teaching comprehension. We’ll also further explore the problems that arise because the approaches of some  SOR folks often leave out key elements needed for successful reading comprehension. Reading comprehension strategies need to be taught directly and explicitly. We’ll also take a long hard look at the issues of phonics and how phonics is an integral part of Reading Recovery.

I’ll be suggesting that one semester of RR in first grade is one of the best moves a district can make to help get control of its reading problems, especially in light of the current state of things in the Dyslexia community. They lack a widely agreed-upon definition of Dyslexia. They do not have a reliable screen. Instead, they are now recommending legislation that requires testing everyone for Dyslexia. Given the current state of their screening instruments, this practice is guaranteed to glut programs with false positives. See the most recent issues of Reading Research Quarterly and check out the information in Paul’s book to verify that the Dyslexia community has a long way to go in both these areas. Please don’t misinterpret my position. I think there should be services provided to those kids who need extra help. I spent over 40 years working in Title 1 buildings giving help to students of greatest need. Giving expensive specialized services to children who don’t need them is a huge waste of resources. Those resources could be used to help other children. I am seriously suggesting that giving a semester of RR to struggling children might be the most effective screening possible. Until the Dyslexia community develops better screenings and better definitions, that might very well be the way to go. Remember that Reading Recovery is NOT an ongoing program. It is an intense short-term intervention that gives the kind of positive results listed at the start of this blog.

In anticipation of the naysayers using the public relations ploy of discount and discredit concerning the data on the efficacy of Reading Recovery- I would point out that I could use information like that found in Paul’s book to counter many of the things SOR folks advocate. If we go down that road, the pendulum will swing indefinitely. This is a centrist saying, let’s try using things from both sides. Let’s start acting like we are all on the same side, the side that wants to help kids. I’d be very interested in hearing from districts using RR first, then testing for Dyslexia. I’m betting that such districts will not have as large a problem of overidentifying children needing a program based on the practices suggested by the  Dyslexia community. I’ll bet that would go a long way toward assuring that the resources will be there for the children who really need them.   

Until next week then- Happy Reading and Happy Writing

Dr. Sam Bommarito, aka the centrist who uses ideas from all sides to inform his teaching

Copyright 2022 by Dr. Sam Bommarito. Views/interpretations expressed here are solely the view of this author and do not necessarily reflect the views of any other person or organization.

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2 thoughts on “Why I Still Like Reading Recovery and More Things We Can Learn From It (REPOST) by Dr. Sam Bommarito

  1. luqmanmichel

    I don’t know much about RR to comment.

    However, I cannot agree with ‘Reading Recovery gains don’t stick.’

    It is my opinion that any gain from anything learnt will stick.

  2. Pingback: The Weaponization of Research and its Implications for Reports on the Efficacy of Reading Recovery & other Constructivist-based programs- by Dr. Sam Bommarito | doctorsam7

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