Reading Recovery Research Monograph

Stanley L. Swartz



    Reading Recovery is an early intervention program designed 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 supplementary, 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 those 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.

Research Results

    The success of Reading Recovery has been carefully documented since its inception.  Pilot studies in New Zealand and the United States demonstrated that the program provides children in the lowest 20 percent of their class with the strategies necessary to read at or above grade level in an average of 12-20 weeks.  Follow-up studies in both countries further showed that Reading Recovery children continue to read at an average level or better after receiving the intervention, reducing the need for long-term remediation.

How do students who complete the reading recovery program compare to their peers at the end of first grade?

    In a California study (Swartz, Shook, & Hoffman, 1993), of the 1334 children who received full programs, 1037 were discontinued as successful readers.  All children who completed the program were shown to have made accelerated progress.  Eighty-nine percent were at or above average levels in writing vocabulary, 95 percent on dictation, and 89 percent in reading, indicating that this group of children made quick gains and caught up with their peers.  The total performance on each exceeded the average band of a group of randomly selected children not in the program.  This comparison provides a very rigorous test for Reading Recovery children because the average band was drawn from the middle and upper level achievement groups.

    Table 2 displays beginning and end-of-year scores (1995-96) for the children in the Reading Recovery and Descubriendo La Lectura (DLL)/Reading Recovery in Spanish programs.  Of the children who received full programs, 5377 (76 percent) were discontinued as successful readers (Swartz, et al., 1996).  Growth rates are shown for Reading Recovery and Descubriendo La Lectura children on measures of writing vocabulary, dictation, and text reading.  All children who completed the program showed gains, and scores from both Reading Recovery and DLL were found to be comparable.

    A goal of Reading Recovery is to help children build self-extending systems that allow them to continue to learn without extra help.  children who enter the program early in the first grade year are likely to be released midyear and are expected to continue to make progress through participation in regular classroom instruction alone.  The extent to which this goal is reached is indicated by assessing the progress made from midyear to end-of-year by the group of children who are discontinued during the year.  Discontinued children (Table 3) entered the program with an average text reading level score of .50, exited the program with a 11.44 score, and ended the year with an average reading level of 16.27.  Descubriendo La Lectura children entered the program with an average text reading level score of .34, exited the program with a 11.99 score, and ended the year with an average reading level of 18.38.  To put this into perspective, they entered as nonreaders, discontinued at a level considered to be the end of first grade, and at the end of first grade reached a level equivalent to second grade.  This continued growth was achieved with no additional tutoring or special assistance.

    A review of the data after the first five years (1991-1996) of California implementation indicated that more than 76 percent of the children served by Reading Recovery were successfully discontinued from the program.  Even though each year a large number of the participating teachers were still in training, these data are a clear demonstration of the continued potential the program has to help California’s at-risk students become successful readers in their first year of school.

    Reading Recovery students, all of whom begin first grade at the bottom of their class, make considerable progress as a result of the program, especially when combined with effective classroom instruction.  Even students who enter the program and are not discontinued due to lack of time in the program make considerable progress in learning to read and write.

    The first end-of-year study on Reading Recovery in the United States (Pinnell, DeFord, & Lyons, 1988) indicated that 73.5 percent of the 136 randomly assigned Reading Recovery students were discontinued from the program.  Over 90 percent of the discontinued students were performing at or above average on four measures of reading ability at the end of first grade, and more than 70 percent were performing at or above average on three other measures of assessment.  At the end of the year, the gain score of the Reading Recovery students on a nationally normed standardized test, California Test of Basic Skills (CTBS), was 8.6 compared to a score of 2.4 earned by a similar group of randomly assigned first graders who had received another form of compensatory education.


Students maintained progress in second, third, and fourth grades.

    Researchers at Texas Woman’s University found that the 1789 Reading Recovery students who successfully completed the program performed at an average or better level on three measures of reading and writing ability at the end of their first grade year (Askew, Frasier, & Griffin, 1993).  Individual Reading Recovery sites documented similar results in their annual reports.  The Halifax, Canada (Talwar & Hill, 1993) site reported that in the spring of 1990 their discontinued Reading Recovery students read an average text level of 15, compared with an average first grade band of 11-19.  At the end of the school year in 1991, the discontinued Reading Recovery first graders were reading an average text level of 16, compared to an average band of 11-21, and in 1992, discontinued Reading Recovery students read at an average level of 16, compared to an average band of 15-22.

    In 1995-96 (National Diffusion Network, 1996).83 percent (59,266) of all the children in the United States who had received a complete Reading Recovery program were discontinued.  when compared to a random sample of classmates at the end of the year, 86 percent of these students scored at or above the average band range on writing vocabulary, 95 percent on dictation, and 84 percent on text reading.

    As Reading Recovery has grown, the academic community has shown interest in various effects of the program.  Researchers have compared Reading Recovery with other intervention programs, evaluated its cost-effectiveness, and studied its long-term effects on children.  Others have explored such areas as the success of the teacher training component and the impact of the program on learning disabled students.  This research, combined with the data collected each year on children who receive the program, provides answers to some of the most commonly asked questions about Reading Recovery.  No other early intervention program has provided comparable data or significant, extensive studies of the actual application in districts over time.

Are the gains made in Reading Recovery sustained over time?

   Research indicates that Reading Recovery students not only become average or better readers in first grade, they develop a self-extending learning system, which enables them to continue learning in the regular class setting without further intervention.

    A study of Ohio school children (Table 4) showed that students served in Reading Recovery maintained progress in second, third, and fourth grades (Pinnell, 1989).  Fourth grade Reading Recovery students demonstrated that they could accurately read text at the sixth-grade level or above.

    Additionally, these children proved to be excellent spellers, producing spellings on a fifth grade level spelling test closer to conventional than their randomly selected peers.

    In the Long Beach Unified School District, beginning third grade achievement scores on the Individual Test of Academic Skills were compared for Reading Recovery children who successfully completed the program and the grade cohort.  On average, Reading Recovery children scored in the average stanine on overall language and text reading.  The data set for this large, urban district included children from black (58 percent), Hispanic (19 percent), white (13 percent), Pacific islander (5 percent), Asian (5 percent), and American Indian (1 percent) ethnic backgrounds (Giese, 195). 

    Smith-Burke, Jaggar, and Ashdown (1993) tested 174 second grade children who had successfully completed Reading Recovery as first graders in 1990-91.  Their performance on several measures was compared to that of a grade level, random sample of 177 children.  The following results highlight the strong residual effects of the program:

    Allen, Dorn, and Paynter (1995) followed Arkansas children who completed the Reading Recovery program and found text reading levels in the average band in first, second, and third grades.Scores of 25 for grade two and 30 for grade three were in the high average range (Table 5).

 How does Reading Recovery compare to other early intervention programs?

    Large scale and local investigations demonstrate that Reading Recovery is a particularly effective method to improve the reading acquisition of at-risk children.

    A study by Pinnell, Lyons, DeFord, Bryk, and Seltzer (1994) compared Reading Recovery with four other types of early intervention:(1) an individual tutorial program similar to Reading Recovery, but taught by a teacher with an abbreviated training program; (2) Direct Instructional Skills Plan (Cooter & Reutzel, 1987), an individual tutorial taught without Reading Recovery by experienced reading teachers; (3) a small-group intervention taught by trained Reading Recovery teachers; and (4) a control group, which received a standard federally funded remediation program.

    The final report concluded that Reading Recovery children performed significantly better than children from an equivalent control group and the three other intervention programs.  Reading Recovery was the only group that scored better on all tests, showing long-term improvements in reading.  At the end of 70 days of instruction, Reading Recovery children were reading five levels ahead of children who received regular remedial reading lessons.  Even though the control group continued to receive lessons for the rest of the year, Reading recovery children were still three reading levels above the remedial group average when all children were tested the following fall.

How does Descubriendo La Lectura compare to Reading Recovery?

    Escamilla (1994) reported that Descubriendo La Lectura students scored higher than comparison students on end-of-year measures, that the performance of DLL students improved at a faster rate than their at-risk peers who did not receive DLL, and that DLL students made significantly greater gains than both their average-achieving classmates and the comparison group based on results of the Woodcock Reading Mastery Test, the Metropolitan Achievement Test, a spelling assessment, and a miscue analysis.  Descubriendo La Lectura students not only caught up with their average peers, but surpassed them at statistically significant levels.

 Reading Recovery proves the unnecessary placement of at-risk children in special education.

    In a Reading Recovery program comparison among English only speakers, DLL, and English language learners, of the 5,273 children, a total of 76 percent of the students in all the programs were discontinued with a mean of 66 lessons delivered (Kelly, Gomez-Valdez, Neal, & Klein, 1995) (see Table 6).  These comparable results suggest that Reading Recovery delivered in English can be an effective early intervention for English language learners when instructional support is unavailable in the first language.

Is Reading Recovery cost-effective?

    Evidence indicates that Reading Recovery can reduce costs associated with at-risk students by lowering retention rates and thereby reducing the need for remediation and special education referrals.

    Dyer (1992) found that while reading recovery requires an initial and ongoing investment, its implementation is educationally sound and reduces the necessity of more commonly used means of intervention.  The study concluded that school districts implementing the program will realize significant long term cost savings through reductions in grade retentions, remedial Title 1 services, and education placements—savings that can more than offset the short-term costs of implementing and operating the program.


    In an analysis of program costs similar to the one reported by Dyer, Swartz (1992) developed a comparison of expenditures for remedial programs and Reading Recovery in the State of California (Table 7).  Using average student caseloads and average costs per student provided by the California Department of Education and student service configurations and length-of-stay reported by practitioners, Reading Recovery costs were found to be half of those for Title 1 and retention, and a quarter of those for special education placement.  The cost figures and estimates of various program elements were purposefully conservative to ensure that the important focus on program effectiveness was not distracted by inflated cost-effectiveness claims.


 What is the effect of Reading Recovery on grade retention and special education placement?

    Researchers have also examined Reading Recovery’s ability to reduce first grade retentions, the need for further remediation, and the number of students classified as learning disabled, with positive results.

    Lyons, Pinnell, and DeFord (1993) documented the experience of a district that reduced its first grade retention rate significantly in the five years following the implementation of Reading Recovery, which resulted in considerable savings.

    Another study found that the first grade retention rate in a school district that had implemented Reading Recovery dropped from 4.3 percent in the three years before implementation to 2.9 percent four years after implementation.  It also showed that the district reduced its enrollment  in learning disabilities classrooms at the end of first grade in the three years before full implementations to .64 percent three years after implementation (Lyons & Beaver, 1994).

    In a California study (Colton Joint Unified School District, 1996), the number of children referred to special education was reduced in Title 1 schools with Reading Recovery when compared to non-Title 1 schools not using  Reading Recovery (see Table 8).Reading Recovery is not assumed to ameliorate a learning disability; rather Reading Recovery is an early intervention that prevents the unnecessary placement of at-risk children in special education (Swartz, 1995).



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