California Early Literacy Learning and Reading Recovery:
Two Innovative Programs for Teaching Children to Read and Write

Stanley L. Swartz
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In the past few years much has been made of problems facing the public schools. Of particular concern has been the reported difficulties that many children are having becoming literate (Education Commission of the States, 1995). These poor performances, whether real or imagined, have created a furor about the best way to teach children how to read and write. Many public schools have turned to outside experts to help them identify effective methods of literacy learning.

In California, a group of educators from public schools, universities, and foundations developed a partnership and completed an extensive review of available programs to address the needs of a large group of children considered at risk of reading failure. Three variables were important in the selection process; 1) only reading instruction methods with a strong research base would be considered, 2) the importance of early intervention would be paramount, and 3) the likelihood of general school reform through professional development must be evident. Two major initiatives have been undertaken because of this research; the development of a framework of early literacy activities in California Early Literacy Learning, and the implementation of Reading Recovery in California.

California Early Literacy Learning provides professional development in a basic system of classroom instruction designed to ensure early acquisition of literacy. Each child is provided a powerful learning experience in a classroom designed to accommodate multiple levels of experience and proficiency. Reading Recovery is provided as a safety net strategy for those children who need extra help in learning to read. The successful implementation of this model requires a commitment to professional development.

California Early Literacy Learning

California Early Literacy Learning (Swartz & Shook, 1994; Swartz, Shook, & Klein, 1998) is a staff development program designed to support elementary teachers in their efforts to strengthen their teaching of reading and writing. The California Early Literacy Learning (CELL) training model is a peer coaching approach to helping teachers learn how to use a framework of teaching activities effectively in their classrooms and how to integrate the individual elements of this framework into an overall system of classroom instruction. CELL is also used as a school change program that supports team building and school restructuring.

The CELL model stresses and encourages active participation from each child regardless of their current level of literacy acquisition. High progress children are encouraged to continue their rapid growth while low progress children are guided through the process of literacy acquisition with continuous support. The opportunity to try new learning in a risk free environment and practice new strategies throughout the day is encouraged. This model trains teachers to use a gradual decline of teacher support and a gradual increase in student independence based on demonstrated student capability. This decrease in teacher support is based on observations of individual child growth in understanding the processes of literacy. The child's use of a variety of problem-solving strategies is supported through good teacher decision-making about ways to assist each child toward the goal of independence. The elements of the CELL framework for instruction are designed to help each child and the whole class move together toward that goal. The framework has been designed to structure a classroom that uses literacy activities throughout the day of every school day. This model emphasizes that the primary instructional role in the elementary grades is to teach reading and writing.

The balance of literacy activities used in the CELL framework is designed as a system that provides maximum learning opportunity for all children in primary classes. This intense focus on literacy acquisition can be expected to help children in the short term for gaining proficiency in reading and writing and in the long term for learning in other subjects when literacy is a requisite skill. Each day in the primary classroom would include shared, guided, and independent reading and interactive and independent writing, all organized in to a flow of activity that keeps all children involved. This system allows the teacher to engage each child at their level and to provide experiences that advance their learning. Children making good process can be given time for independent work and for activities that are self-directed or peer facilitated. Children not making adequate progress will need more intensive assistance.

To ensure schoolwide support for CELL, a School-Based Planning Team (principal, reading specialist, special education teacher, and one teacher from each grade level), participates in a year long series of school change planning activities and training in the elements of the framework. The teachers from each team receive initial training in the teaching methodologies and begin implementation of this framework immediately after the first session. They receive feedback regarding their efforts at each subsequent session. This format allows a school to begin partial implementation of CELL and develop a resource for observation, demonstration, and support of the project.

In the second phase of the CELL project a Literacy Coordinator is trained to serve as a school-based staff developer who supports the implementation of the framework. The Literacy Coordinator continues to work half time as a classroom teacher and is released half time to support CELL implementation. This individual has no supervisory responsibility, but rather serves as a coach and mentor to colleagues on the instructional team. One of the major strengths of the CELL training model is the effectiveness of peer coaching. The direct support of a colleague has been found to be more effective in facilitating change than the more traditional model of evaluation and supervision. The Literacy Coordinators use their own classrooms for demonstration opportunities for their colleagues.

The CELL model is designed to make elementary schools self-sustaining through training of Literacy Coordinators who can provide staff development and peer coaching to teachers in their own school. This capacity-building model has been found to support long term change in participating schools.

Key Elements of CELL

There are key elements in the California Early Literacy Learning model that are important to school restructuring and professional development.

CELL recognizes that the teaching of reading and writing is the foundation for all later academic achievement. Teachers are encouraged to teach subjects using the framework of literacy activities. this restructures how we teach children to read and write by providing massive opportunities to practice in classrooms that use literacy activities as the basis for all instruction.

CELL is a balanced reading program that combines skills development with literature and language-rich activities. Teaching methods that have substantial support in the research literature are used and teaching methods are aligned within and across grade levels.

Diagnostic information to inform instruction and assessment data to ensure accountability is collected in all schools. Teachers are helped to improve their observation of children to inform instruction. CELL is a program of intensive professional development that also includes follow-up. A capacity building model that ensure long term support is used. CELL success is measured by student performance and has shown comparable success with English language learners. CELL also has the necessary attributes of an effective immersion program for English language learners.

California Early Literacy Learning Research

CELL research has focused on six major areas (Swartz, Shook & Klein, 1998):

1. Overall text reading increases. Text reading for focus children in Kindergarten, and grades one and two were measured in a large, diverse school in northern California. Observation Survey (Clay, 1993) average score increases for Fall and Spring testing were strong in all three grades, Kindergarten (non-reader - pre-primer), grade one (end of Kindergarten - grade two), and grade two (grade one - grade 4 four).

2. Impact of teacher training. Text reading levels for children in classes of trained teachers were compared to scores of children in classes where teachers received no training in a rural Native American School in Wyoming. Children in classes with trained teachers had significantly higher scores in each grade level than those children in classes where teachers received no training.

3. CELL impact on Reading Recovery implementation. Standardized test scores (Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills) were measured for children in grade one over a period of four years in a district with Reading Recovery implementation in years one, two and three and CELL School-Based Planning Team training in year four. Scores in total mathematics, total reading and total battery increased from a 22-31 national percentile range for Reading Recovery implementation to the 44-50 percentile range with the addition of CELL training.

4. Effect of developing local capacity. A study to assess the impact of training of a CELL staff developer was conducted over a three year period. Significant increases in text reading scores were found in successive years from Reading Recovery training in year one, CELL School-Based Planning Team training in year 2, and Literacy Coordinator training in year three.

5. Impact on special education referral. Referrals to special education were tracked in a large, urban school district in southern California. Referrals in Title I schools with Reading Recovery reduced referrals to special education by one percentage point over a three year period. Schools with Reading Recovery and CELL implementation reduced two percentage points over the same period. A preliminary report of a study to track referrals to Reading Recovery in CELL schools is showing a similar reduction in referrals.

6. Benefits of full CELL implementation. A study that compared full CELL implementation (School-Based Planning Team and Literacy Coordinator training), partial CELL implementation (School-Based Planning Team training only), and CELL clone training (training similar to CELL training but with reduced levels of training) found a significant increase in reading scores for those children in schools with full CELL implementation.

Reading Recovery

Reading Recovery is an early intervention program designed by Marie M. Clay (1979, 1985) to assist children in first grade who are having difficulty learning to read and write. Children eligible for the program are identified by their classroom teachers as the lowest in their class in reading acquisition. Children who are not taking on reading and writing through regular instruction receive a short-term, individually designed program of instruction that allows them to succeed before they enter a cycle of failure. Reading Recovery is designed to move children in a short time from the bottom of their class to the average, where they can profit from regular classroom instruction. The goal of Reading Recovery is accelerated learning. Children are expected to make faster than average progress so that they can catch up with other children in their class.

Reading Recovery provides one-to-one tutoring, five days per week, 30 minutes a day, by a specially trained teacher. The daily lessons during these 30 minute sessions consist of a variety of reading and writing experiences that are designed to help children develop their own effective strategies for literacy acquisition. Instruction continues until children can read at or above the class average and can continue to learn without later remedial help. Reading Recovery is supplemental to classroom instruction and lasts an average of 12-20 weeks, at the end of which children have developed a self-extending system that uses a variety of strategies to read increasingly difficult text and to independently write their own messages (Swartz & Klein, 1997).

Reading Recovery was designed to help otherwise successful teachers acquire the necessary understandings and skills to assist children who are at risk of failure in reading. Emphasis is placed on training teachers working with the children at the beginning of their literacy learning so that any misunderstandings or confusion that might occur in the child's thinking could be addressed early to avoid the habituation of a misplaced skill or strategy.

Teachers are trained to understand what a child may be thinking by becoming highly effective observers of children. The systematic observation that is key to Reading Recovery, helps teachers learn to watch a child's behaviors while reading and writing and informs the teacher as to the probable processes the child is using or mis-using as he reads or writes. The teacher can then guide the child to a more effective and more efficient strategy or skill.

Key Elements of Reading Recovery

Reading Recovery has a number of key elements that make the program an important opportunity to reform how we teach young children to read and write.

Reading Recovery is an early intervention program that supports early literacy. Reading Recovery focuses on early intervention, the advantages of which have been well documented. Beginning early, before problems begin, rather than on later remedial programs, has benefits to both individual student achievement as well as program cost effectiveness. Reading Recovery is designed to concentrate resources on first graders as they begin to read.

Reading Recovery also supports accelerated learning. Most remedial programs consider themselves successful even when only a small amount of progress is made. Unfortunately, children making only little progress will always be behind their class. Only acceleration can help a child catch up to the average of his peers and allow participation in the regular class program.

Reading Recovery serves the lowest achieving children. The lowest children in first grade, without exception, are selected to receive the program. None of the usual reasons used to explain non-achievement (e.g., likely referral to special education, lack of parental support) are used to exclude children from the program. Reading Recovery is effective with diverse populations. Data collected on program success from different geographical regions (throughout the United States, Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, and New Zealand) and from various groups of children (those with ethnic, language, or economic differences) are comparable. Preliminary data from the more recently developed Descubriendo La Lectura/Reading Recovery in Spanish are also similar to children receiving the English program.

Children develop a self extending system of learning to read and write. Children learn the skills to be independent learners who will just need the support of regular classroom instruction rather than remedial programs. Student outcomes are sustained over time. Research on students after program completion has demonstrated continued growth in reading and writing without continued Reading Recovery support or other specific interventions.

Reading Recovery teachers serve children as part of their training. Teachers in the program learn by doing and use the Reading Recovery lesson framework throughout their training year. Reading Recovery also provides continuous professional support for teachers. The continuing contact for trained teachers is provided as long as the teacher participates in Reading Recovery.

Unlike other teacher education programs which have little contact with students after the training period, Reading Recovery has ongoing inservice opportunities designed to maintain and improve teaching effectiveness. In addition, Reading Recovery teachers, staff developers, and university professors work with children daily.

Program success is directly tied to student performance. And by implication, success as a Reading Recovery teacher is related to student outcomes. Teachers are accountable for the amount of progress in reading and writing made by children in the program. Reading Recovery has been shown to be cost-effective because of its short-term nature. Comparable programs (e.g., Title 1, special education) are much more expensive because they are typically long-term. Reading Recovery has been found to be both less expensive and more effective (Swartz & Klein, 1994).

Research in Reading Recovery

Reading Recovery research has focused on five major areas:

1. Increase in student achievement. Studies have consistently shown that students served in Reading Recovery programs show significant increases in reading and writing with a high percentage (80 percent and higher) of children performing at or above average (Pinnell, DeFord, & Lyons, 1988; Swartz, Shook, & Hoffman, 1993; Askew, Frasier, & Griffin, 1993; National Diffusion Network, 1996).

2. Continued progress without tutorial. The success of Reading Recovery in helping children develop a self-extending system of learning to read and write can be demonstrated with a comparison of program exit scores and end-of-year scores. Children served by Reading Recovery have consistently shown a continued increase in reading and writing achievement for the remainder of the school year (Swartz, Shook, & Hoffman, 1993; Swartz, Kelly, Klein, Neal, Schubert, Hoffman, & Shook, 1996).

3. Longitudinal studies. Reading Recovery has shown good maintenance of achievement for children who received a full program. Children followed into grade three (Pinnell, 1989) and grade four (Allen, Dorn, & Paynter, 1995) were found in the average range of their classes. One study in a large, urban district found slightly higher scores for children who had been provided a Reading Recovery program (Griese, 1995).

4. English language learners. Reading Recovery has been reconstructed in Spanish as Descubriendo La Lectura (Escamilla, 1987). Similar results have been shown in a comparison of children who received the Spanish version and the English version (Escamilla, 1994) and no significant difference in a study that compared children who where English speaking and received the English program, children who were Spanish speaking and received the Spanish program, and children who were Spanish speaking and received the English program (Kelly, Gomez-Valdez, Neal, & Klein, 1995). This last study suggests the possible use of Reading Recovery as a method of English instruction.

5. Cost effectiveness. Because programs of one-to-one tutoring are considered expensive, studies have been done to evaluate the effect of Reading Recovery on grade retention rates and special education referrals. Studies have found a reduced rate of referral to classes for learning disability specifically (Lyons, 1997) and special education generally (Colton School District, 1996). The cost savings of not placing a child in special education is considerable. Studies of overall comparison of Reading Recovery and grade retention, placement in a remedial reading program, and special education placement found Reading Recovery to be the most cost effective because of its short duration (Dyer, 1992; Swartz, 1992).


California Early Literacy Learning and Reading Recovery are two programs that can be used to support school restructuring efforts. CELL provides the opportunity for team building at the school site and a format for the planning activities necessary to the school change process. CELL also provides intensive professional development to help teachers improve their teaching of reading and writing. CELL has a primary focus of ensuring that children in the elementary grades have access to good first teaching. It is through this kind of a powerful beginning in school that fewer children will need later remedial or special education.

CELL requires a schoolwide commitment to change in teaching methodology. Teaching is aligned within and across grades with massive opportunities provided for children to practice their reading and writing skills. Methods of assessment that help monitor children’s progress and inform teaching are used in addition to the usual methods of assessment used for accountability. CELL research has consistently shown significant gains in reading and writing. Studies have also demonstrated reduced referrals to special education and the benefits of schoolwide professional development and the use of a capacity building model.

Even with the good first teaching provided by CELL, a small number of children will still need extra help. Reading Recovery is a proven program of early intervention that provides a tutorial that accelerates the learning of children having difficulty. Though Reading Recovery is one-to-one program, it has been shown to be cost effective because of its short term duration. Most children who have received Reading Recovery achieve in the average range and do not need additional support other than the regular classroom program.

Reading Recovery has been found to be a primary impetus for change in many schools participating in the program. Though logic would suggest that a schoolwide program like CELL would be the first step in the change process, the unexpected growth of many at risk children in the Reading Recovery program has been a powerful demonstration of what might be accomplished with school restructuring and different teaching methods.

Both CELL and Reading Recovery are programs that provide professional development for teachers. Both believe that effective school change and achievement gains for children are only possible with increased support and training for teachers. Teachers that can make good decisions about what children need, teachers who can select materials and plan good instruction, and teachers who are supported in their work are what is best for children.

CELL and Reading Recovery have the shared philosophy that all children are capable of becoming readers and writers. Both also support the ideas that children who experience difficulty in the process of learning to read and write do so primarily because of the teaching methods that are used. Reading Recovery and CELL also share a theoretical perspective that is constructivist in nature. From this perspective it is believed that working from what children know and providing teacher assisted scaffolding, children at all ages are capable of rapid growth in their learning. CELL for classroom instruction and Reading Recovery as a safety net combine programs that are highly compatible and designed to complement one another. These two programs have been found to be powerful agents for school change.


Allen, A., Dorn, L., & Paynter, S. 1995. Are the gains made by Reading Recovery students sustained over time? Reading Recovery of Arkansas Newsletter, 1(2), 7.

Askew, B., Frasier, D., & Griffin M., 1993. Reading Recovery report 1992-93 (Tech. report, No. 4). Denton: Texas Woman’s University.

Clay, M.M. 1979,1985. The early detection of reading difficulties. Auckland, New Zealand, Heinemann.

Clay, M.M. 1993. The observation survey. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Dyer, P. 1992. Reading Recovery: A cost-effectiveness and education outcomes analysis. Spectrum: Journal of Research in Education, 10(1), 110-119.

Escamilla, K. 1987. Descubriendo La Lectura: An application of Reading Recovery in Spanish. Washington, DC: Office of Education Research and Improvement.

Escamilla, K. 1994. Descubriendo La Lectura: An early intervention literacy program in Spanish. Literacy, Teaching and Learning, 1(1), 57-70.

Griese, D.H. 1995. Evaluation of the Reading Recovery Program in the Long Beach Unified School District, year 4 - 1994-95. Long Beach, CA: Office of the Assistant Superintendent.

Kelly, P., Gomez-Valdez, C., Neal, J., & Klein, A.F. 1995. Progress of first and second language learners in an early intervention program. Paper presented at the American Education Research Association, San Francisco.

National Diffusion Network. 1996. 1995-96 discontinuation data (Research Report). Columbus: Reading Recovery National Data Evaluation Center.

Pinnell, G.S., DeFord, D.E., & Lyons, C.A. 1988. Reading Recovery: Early intervention for at-risk first graders. Arlington, VA: Educational Research Service.

Swartz, S.L., & Klein, A.F. 1994. Reading Recovery: An Overview. Literacy, Teaching and Learning, 1(1), 3-7.

Swartz, S.L. 1992. Cost comparison of selected intervention programs in California. San Bernardino: California State University.

Swartz, S.L., Kelly, P., Klein, A.F., Neal, J., Schubert, B., Hoffman, B., & Shook, R.E., 1996. Reading Recovery in California. 1995-96 site report. San Bernardino: California State University.

Swartz, S.L., & Klein, A.F. 1997. Research in Reading Recovery. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Swartz, S.L., Shook, R.E., & Hoffman, B.M. 1993. Reading Recovery in California. !993-94 site report. San Bernardino: California State University.

Swartz, S.L., & Shook, R.E. 1994. California Early Literacy Learning. (Technical Report). San Bernardino: California State University.

Swartz, S.L., Shook, R.E., & Klein, A.F. 1998. California Early Literacy Learning. (Technical Report). Redlands, CA: Foundation for California Early Literacy Learning.


Stanley L. Swartz is professor of education at California State University, San Bernardino and lecturer in reading education at the University of California, Riverside. He was the director of Reading Recovery in California for many years and has been the director of California Early Literacy Learning since its inception. He is the editor of two Dominie Press series of little books for emergent readers, Carousel Readers and Teacher's Choice Series, and a skills development series for beginning readers, Building Blocks of Beginning Literacy. He is the editor of Research in Reading Recovery, recently published by Heinemann.

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