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What is recovered in reading recovery?

P. J. Lewis
Gulf Islands, British Columbia

The word recovery implies that something is to be recovered. In order to recover something I must have possessed it at an earlier time. The word recovery as understood is, to get back something; to retrieve that which was lost; to regain one's status or health (Oxford Dictionary 1997). Does that mean that those students who come to Reading Recovery are there to regain that which they once possessed? Continuing with this thought, does that mean that those children who come to Reading Recovery have:

Reading Recovery is not a 'scheme or method. It is an addition to well directed teaching which is already in place' (Wade & Moore, 1993, p.4). That is, most children, as long as 'well directed teaching' is in place, will learn to read without the benefit of Reading Recovery. Also '(children) will learn to read in classroom programs of many different kinds' and it has been stressed 'that a Reading Recovery program can be used with children from any kind of classroom program. . . (and) it brings the hardest-to-teach children to a level where they can be full participants in that classroom program' (Clay, 1993, Notes of Caution before p. 1).

The Reading Recovery program begins by adopting the idea of 'prevention of reading and writing difficulties' based upon 'three steps to prevention' (Clay, 1993, p.1). The first step is to have 'good preschool experiences available to all children'; second is to have a 'good curriculum for literacy learning in the early years of school' and the third step, actually has three items within it: to have a method to 'check on the age group at the end of the first year of school, a second-chance program for those who need it (and) specialist services for those very few whose problems persist after intervention' (Clay, 1993, p.1).


Have the children lost the ability to read?

It is generally accepted that 'most' people possess the ability to read unless they have suffered some neurological damage or are otherwise physically and/or mentally impaired, or have a learning disability of some kind. I believe we can say that these children have not come to Reading Recovery to retrieve an ability they once had because, for the most part, they possess it, or at the very least the potential to possess it. Perhaps it would be more accurate to suggest they come to Reading Recovery to retrieve the opportunity they once had to learn to read. However, that is something entirely different and I will return to it later.

Have these children lost their status as readers?

As set out in the Reading Recovery program it would be at the end of grade one that most of the children would be readers and have that high status bestowed upon them. However, there would remain those few who no longer possessed that status. One might be quick to point out that the children, at the outset of grade one, did not actually have that status, it was in fact gained through the course of the year. In a strictly technical sense that would be accurate, nevertheless, most grade one children, and their parents and teachers, begin the year with the notion I'm learning to read bestowed upon them. Nonetheless, I will have to assent to those who would say that the status had to have been gained through the school year and it was not possessed by the children at the beginning of the school year.

Have the children lost their health as readers or the health of reading?

This question seems somewhat more difficult to answer. Certainly those who are not readers at the end of the year may suffer mental and/or emotional discomfort when realising that most of their peers are readers and they are not. It may also create the potential for the child to view learning to read as an illness to be overcome. Concomitantly, for those, through intervention via Reading Recovery, when they do become readers their mental wellbeing may shift to a more positive place. As to whether there is a direct health benefit from being able to read I am unaware of it, however, I can state from my own experience that if there is an extended dearth of reading in my life I believe my health suffers.


Thus far, I seem to have established that there is not, exactly or clearly, something that is regained that was once possessed through the Reading Recovery program. At this juncture maybe we should attempt to shift our perception of things. That is, looking at what Marie Clay (1993) has said about the three steps to prevention we may come closer to answering the original question in the title. If the three steps are in place, perhaps, what is meant by recovery in Reading Recovery is, the recovering of those children lost from the regular classroom program. However, having said that a new question emerges, related to the lost opportunity mentioned earlier: Why are there children lost from the regular classroom program?

I can only assume it is because the three steps to prevention were not in place or in full force. That is, the children did not have a 'good' preschool experience; the children did not benefit from a 'good' literacy/reading program in school; or there was not a 'check' method and a 'second-chance program' and 'specialist services' for the children (Clay, 1993, p.1).

Reading Recovery seems to possess an inherent critique of literacy programs within schools. If the school has not taken the three steps to prevention in the Reading Recovery model then they are destined to have children who are not learning to read. In fact, as many as 20 per cent of first year children are expected to require the program (Clay, 1993, p.1).


Reading Recovery is one of the fastest growing 'early intervention' programs in literacy development. It has gone through a period of accelerated expansion in Australia and the United States and is making itself known in Canada. In Australia during the period 1990 - 1995, Reading Recovery went 'through a cycle of rapid expansion (particularly in Victoria and some of the other states)' (Richardson, 1995, p. 156). In the United States 'from 1984 to 1993 Reading Recovery grew from one training site at Ohio State University (to 201 sites in the United States, from 55 pupils to approximately 35,000 pupils annually, and from a dozen teachers to 5,450 teachers' (Hiebert, 1994, p. 15).

Concurrently there has also been increased discussion about what benefits, if any, are there for schools, teachers administrators, parents and students who adopt Reading Recovery. The results of studies, such as Reading Recovery in Context Final Report to the New Zealand Department of Education (Glynn et al.,1989), have shown the 'uncertainty of the data', reports of 'modest gains' and uncertain conclusions (Richardson, 1995, p. 156). Shanahan (1987 p. 119) in reviewing Marie Clay's The Early Detection of Reading Difficulty concluded that the research as presented by Clay was fundamentally flawed in that it had been 'designed in such a way that it is impossible to know whether or not the program was successful'. More recently, Hiebert's (1994) exhaustive analysis and review of Reading Recovery research studies carried out in the United States highlights fundamental flaws in the design and analysis of some of the most important evaluative studies frequently cited by Reading recovery proponents (Hiebert, 1994, pp. 18-24). Hiebert reaches similar conclusions to Shanahan (1987) stating that 'the impact of this program clearly requires further investigation' (Hiebert, 1994, p. 23) Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, he suggests that it should be recognised that 'Reading Recovery was a response to a different set of needs when it was developed in New Zealand' (Hiebert, 1994, p. 23).

Why has Reading Recovery enjoyed such rapid growth and support amongst educators? Desire and perception are probably the best answers accompanied by stories and anecdotal reports of success. As educators we are constantly striving to do the best for the children in our care. We endeavour to be open to new ideas, practice, strategies, programs, theories and stories that will facilitate our teaching and the learning of students. However, I would stress the need to approach these 'new' things with an open but cautious attitude so that a new dichotomy between believers and non-believers is not created through the fervent embracing of the new by those on the horizon of change. One need only look to the tired battle between whole language advocates and their detractors to get a sense of what I refer to.


So, what is recovered in Reading Recovery? Well, a great deal according to some people (Clay, 1993; Pinnel et al., 1996; Askew & Frasier, 1994; and Moriarty, 1995) while not as much according to others (Richardson, 1995; Hiebert, 1994; and Shanahan, 1987). Perhaps, we need to re-examine our 'regular' classroom literacy programs to determine why there are so many children having to recover lost opportunities in their reading development. I am not suggesting we do not need early intervention programs, even Hiebert doesn't say this, in fact she has developed her own program. What I am suggesting is we try to see the whole picture; teaching kids to read and to develop into life long readers. Also, it should be remembered that Reading Recovery is only one small possibility amongst a host of early intervention programs and no single program will be a panacea. Further scrutiny of 'regular' classroom literacy programs and practice may find ways of reducing the need for early intervention programs.


Askew, B. J. & Frasier, D. F. (1994). Sustained effects of Reading Recovery intervention on the cognitive behaviours of second grade children and the perceptions of their teachers. Literacy, Teaching and Learning, 1, 87-108.

Clay, M. M. (1985). The early detection of reading difficulties. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Clay, M. M. (1993). A guidebook for reading recovery teachers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Glynn, T., Crooks, T., Bethune, N., Ballard, K. & Smith, J. (1989). Reading recovery in context. Final Report to the New Zealand Department of Education.

Hiebert, E. (1994). Reading recovery in the United States: What difference does it make to an age cohort? Educational Researcher, 23(9), 15-25.

Moriarty, D. J. (1995). Our Reading Recovery results: 'Conclusive'. Education Week, 14(18), 36.

Pinnell, G. S., Lyons, C. & Jones, N. (1996). Response to Hiebert: What difference does reading recovery make? Educational Researcher, 25(7), 23-25.

Richardson, P. (1995). Reading recovery: Re-reading the research findings. The Australian Journal of Language and Literacy, 18(2), 156-160.

Shanahan, T. (1987). Review of the book 'The early detection of reading difficulty'. Journal of Reading Behavior, 19, 117-119.

Wade, B. & Moore, M. (1993). The promise of reading recovery. Bringham UK: Educational Review Publications.

Author details: Patrick Lewis is a PhD Candidate in the Graduate School of Education at The University of Queensland. He is a teacher and storyteller in the Gulf Islands, British Columbia, Canada.

Please cite as: Lewis, P. J. (1997). What is recovered in reading recovery? Queensland Journal of Educational Research, 13(2), 77-82. http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qjer13/lewis.html

[ Contents Vol 13, 1997 ] [ QJER Home ]
Created 29 Mar 2005. Last revision: 29 Mar 2005.
URL: http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qjer13/lewis.html