Comments on Investor’s Business Daily

Reading Recovery professionals comments on Investor’s Business Daily editorial

The editorial of April 1, 1999, “When Education Theories Go Bad,” is both inaccurate and irresponsible. The editorial claims that Columbus, Ohio, is turning to Sylvan Learning Systems (as opposed to Reading Recovery) because only Sylvan can offer phonics. The assumption is that Reading Recovery has failed – thus the title of the editorial. This letter will address several of the inaccuracies and misguided assumptions about Reading Recovery, about New Zealand, and about Columbus, Ohio.

The editorial claims that Reading Recovery has failed. This is patently untrue. Reading Recovery is a highly effective tutorial program for first graders who are at risk of failure in learning to read. Reading Recovery works in public schools and collects data on every single child served in order to document the replication of results. Over 13 years of data collection a total of 436,249 children entered the program and 60% of these children were successfully raised to average performance level for grade level (counting every child, including those that had as few as one or two lessons). Of the 313,848 children who had time to experience a complete program (about 30 hours of tutoring), 81% satisfied rigorous criteria for successful release. Reading Recovery is an early, short-term intervention to help children to make accelerated progress so that they become readers and writers. Of course, they still need ongoing high quality classroom instruction every year they are in elementary school.

Reading Recovery success is clearly documented in the literature. According to researchers Cunningham and Allington, “No other remedial program has ever come close to achieving the results demonstrated by Reading Recovery.” (Cunningham, P.M., & Allington, R.L., Classrooms That Work, Harper Collins Publisher, 1994., p 254). Two other independent researchers conducted an exhaustive review of research. They said, “Evidence firmly supports the conclusion that Reading Recovery does bring the learning of many children up to that of their average-achieving peers. Thus, in answer to the question ‘Does Reading Recovery work?’ we must respond in the affirmative.” (Shanahan, T., & Barr, R. A synthesis of research on Reading Recovery, Reading Research Quarterly, 30, 1995, 958-996).

We challenge the writer to show comparable research results for any other intervention or remedial program. The editor should examine the research on Sylvan Learning’s track record in the public schools. Where are the data?

The editorial insinuated that Reading Recovery is a “business.” This is not true. Reading Recovery is a not-for-profit program that involves collaboration among schools, districts, and universities. Districts that adopt Reading Recovery are granted a royalty-free use of the service mark for the program. Sylvan Learning, on the other hand, is a business.

The editorial referred to Reading Recovery as a “whole language” program. Reading Recovery is not aligned with any classroom program. It is designed to provide one-to-one extra help. The teacher works with the child to determine just what he needs, whatever the classroom program.

The Reading Recovery lesson provides a masterful combination of components that are consistent with the recommended research by Clay (Guidebook for Reading Recovery Teachers). Marilyn Adams, who provided a U.S. government funded comprehensive survey of research on beginning reading says that the Reading Recovery program has been methodically designed to establish and secure that whole complex of lower-order skills on which reading so integrally depends.” (Adams, M.J. Beginning to read: Thinking and learning about print. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press., 1990, p. 419). Instruction provides for learning in the areas of phonological awareness, letter identification, concepts about print, word learning, problem-solving strategies and attention to meaning.

The editorial claimed that Reading Recovery does not teach phonics. This is completely false. Learning about letters, sounds, and words are part of the established Reading Recovery procedures. Adams (1990) noted that developing the ability to hear the sounds in words (phonemic awareness) is explicitly recognized in the Reading Recovery program. Independent researchers provide evidence that students in Reading Recovery made significantly greater improvement in phonological processing tasks than students not served in Reading Recovery (Stahl, K.A.D., Stahl, S. McKenna, M.C., in press, The development of phonological awareness and orthographic processing in Reading Recovery). Data collected on all students in Reading Recovery show that they make dramatic gains in letter identification, phonemic awareness, and the ability to hear and record sounds when writing from dictation.

The editorial claimed that that the New Zealand government says that Reading Recovery is ineffective. That simply is not true. No reference was given for the “study” mentioned in the editorial; however, government figures indicate just the opposite. A very high percentage of children (over 90%) are successful in Reading Recovery. The number referred on for special education is lower than 2% of the six-year-old population. We could learn something from this country. (See Kerslake, J. A summary of the 1995 data on Reading Recovery. Research and Statistics Division Bulletin, No. 5, Ministry of Education, Wellington, New Zealand).

The editorial claimed that Columbus, Ohio was dropping Reading Recovery. Inaccurate and misleading. Reading Recovery has never been in all schools in Columbus; it typically serves schools in lower economic areas where there are compensatory funds. Currently, each school may select classroom programs and intervention programs under an organizational structure called “site based” management. Based upon results and school choice, Reading Recovery will continue to serve children in many Columbus schools.

I want to emphasize again that Reading Recovery is an early intervention program for young children, not a complete literacy program. It is research-based. It has one clear goal: “to dramatically reduce the number of learners who have extreme difficulty with literacy learning and the cost of these learners to educational systems.” (Quoted from Marie Clay’s implementation visit to North Carolina, 1994). It is designed to be part of a high quality, comprehensive program to assure literacy learning at every grade. It gets children started and it does it very well.

Reading Recovery has never been the whole answer to reading issues and neither is anything else. The leaders of the National Institute for Childhood Health and Development, Washington, D.C., have recognized the complexity of learning to read as well as the challenge. The findings of all research must be interpreted with caution; always more investigation is needed. Lyon cautions against simplistic interpretations:

The tendency to interpret the NICHD research, often in the name of “science,” as supporting phonics instruction as a panacea for literacy problems is particularly disturbing. For example, materials distributed by the National Right to Read foundation as well as a report that purports to summarize NICHD research (Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning, 1996 [Grossen, B.], exaggerate the findings of these studies, especially the extent to which the intervention results support the instructional recommendations in the reports. NICHD researchers have used a variety of phonics techniques, often as part of a comprehensive approach to intervention. No NICHD data support a single approach to phonics, much less a specific sequence, number, or set of rules that must be learned, or an essential role for decontextualized drills. We lament the reliance on ideology and invective as opposed to the more difficult task of completing the research that will help educators and policy makers implement effective reading practices. No simple, single message can be obtained from the NICHD research (Fletcher, J., & Lyon, R. (1998). Reading: A Research-based approach. In W. Evers (Ed.). what’s gone wrong in America’s classrooms. Hoover Institute Press, Stanford University, CA.

Reading Recovery has helped many thousands of children to become readers and writers. It is available as an integral part of our school system. It has a long and trustworthy track record. Like anything else, it must be implemented with high quality and it must be part of a good school program.

I must assume that this editorial was written in the absence of any reliable information. Perhaps it is part of a business competition strategy.

Gay Su Pinnell
The Ohio State University

Maribeth Schmitt
Purdue University, IN

Noel Jones
University of North Carolina Wilmington

Adria Klein
California State University San Bernardino

Barbara Schubert
St. Mary’s College
Moraga, CA