Struggling 1st Graders Make Strides Under Reading Recovery, i3 Study Finds

By Sarah D. Sparks — November 20, 2013 4 min read
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Students who entered first grade with limited reading skills made substantial progress in both reading words and comprehension through the Reading Recovery intervention, according to first-year results of the program’s massive expansion under the federal Investing in Innovation grant.

Participating students progressed nearly two months faster than similar peers who did not participate in the intervention, and gained nearly 30 percent more learning during the year than the average 1st grader nationally, according to the “Evaluation of the i3 Scale-up of Reading Recovery: Year One Report, 2011-12,” part of an ongoing independent evaluation by the University of Delaware’s Center for Research in Education and Social Policy and [UPDATE] a team from the Consortium for Policy Research in Education.

“Potentially that says a lot about closing gaps, specifically for kids entering 1st grade without significant reading skills,” said Henry May, the director of the center and lead evaluator, as well as a senior researcher at CPRE. “Reading Recovery is helping them catch up quickly to the peers in their school, and ... In many cases, these kids are going from not being able to read well, or not being able to read at all, to being able to read just as well as the average 1st grader nationally.”

The nearly three-decade-old Reading Recovery program provides intensive, individual instruction by trained teachers for 30 minutes each day to children reading at the lowest 20 percent of their grade. Trainers at 19 partner universities nationwide train teachers in ways to improve students’ phonics and comprehension skills. The program received $43.6 million from the first round of the i3 grant to train 3,690 new teachers and 15 new teacher leaders. Like a recent study on the reading program Success for All, the Reading Recovery study is one of the first round of evaluation reports coming from the i3 program, which provides funding based to expand and study the effectiveness of programs based on their prior research base.

The center’s researchers randomly assigned 866 students in 147 schools, all of whom performed in the lowest 15 percent to 20 percent of readers in their grade, to receive either receive normal reading instruction or Reading Recovery. By the middle of the school year, students receiving the Reading Recovery intervention performed on average at the 36th percentile in reading on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, double the performance of the control group, at the 18th percentile.

“I was really surprised at the size of the average treatment effect; it was many times larger than the impact of any other interventions I’ve studied,” May said. “There is a lot of variability in each school, but the vast majority of these schools are achieving moderate-to-large effects, so that’s incredibly promising.”

In separate analyses and interviews with teachers and principals at the Reading Recovery schools, the researchers found schools implemented the program very consistently, though many teachers reported it was “very demanding” to fit one-on-one tutoring and training into already crammed schdules, leading to long days.

However, Jerome D’Agostino, an education professor at Ohio State University who is leading the scale-up of Reading Recovery under i3, said the program has in some ways been more appealing to teachers and administrators than whole-school improvement programs. “We’re not overhauling a whole curriculum,” he said. “We’re coming in and targeting perhaps the most prevailing problem in schooling—struggling readers—early on. If you can’t read you can’t do much else. We don’t have an overwhelming imposition on the school or district’s time.”

More Context Forthcoming

The report is the first in a series of three in the five-year evaluation of the program. The second, expected next year, will expand on the effect of differences in teacher qualifications and experience with the program, as well as differences in the way schools identified students to be served. For example, May said, prior studies have criticized some Reading Recovery schools for excluding students with severe absenteeism, behavior problems, or Individualized Education Plans. The next report will delve into the effects of differences in placing students in the program, though May noted that so far, exclusion has been rare in the participating schools.

“From what wee see, you have to have a pretty severe absenteeism problem or behavior problem to be excluded,” he said. “It doesn’t seem as though they are cherry-picking students, but does seem they are being careful with how they allocate the resources; a Reading Recovery kid is getting a half-hour of a teacher’s time every day for 20 weeks, and if that child doesn’t show up, that’s wasted time. They can’t just go on to the next kid.”

The third report, due in 2015, will look the intervention’s final long- and short-term effects on students and reflect on potential improvements for the program going forward. The evaluation will repeat this year’s experiment with four separate groups of students—ultimately evaluating about 5,000 students in more than 800 schools—and will follow the ongoing effects of the program in the first group of students through grade 3.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.