One of the world's most widely used reading intervention programs, Reading Recovery, could be in danger of being reexamined.

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One of the world's most widely used reading intervention programs for young children has taken another hit to its credibility.

Reading Recovery is a one-on-one tutoring program for first graders that is based on a theory about how people read that was disproven decades ago. The public was made aware of the fact that reading programs based on this theory teach the strategies struggling readers use to get by. Poor readers are taught to read in a different way.

The study found that children who received Reading Recovery had lower scores on state reading tests than children who did not.

Henry May, director of the Center for Research in Education and Social Policy at the University of Delaware, said that it was not what they expected. May delivered the findings at a gathering of education researchers.

Since 1984, when the program first came to America from New Zealand, at least 2.4 million students have participated in Reading Recovery or its Spanish-language counterpart. The program is used in Australia, Canada and England.

The new research could prompt schools to reexamine their investment in Reading Recovery.

The new research shows children make initial gains, then fall behind

One of the largest randomized experiments of an instructional intervention in elementary schools was conducted by May. Evidence of large positive gains in first grade has been found in other research. The program's advocates point to the research as proof that the instructional approach is effective and based on sound science.

It was not clear if the initial gains would translate into better performance on state reading tests. According to May, this new study on the long-term impact of Reading Recovery is the most rigorous effort to tackle that question.

The fact that students who participated in Reading Recovery did worse in later grades than similar students who did not get the program was surprising.

Was reading recovery harmful? He said that the kids that got it lost their gains and then fell behind.

The Reading Recovery Council of North America, the organization that advocates for the program in the United States, disagreed with some of the research methodology and maintained that their program is effective. Reading Recovery has and will continue to change in response to evidence gathered from a wide range of studies of both students having difficulties with early reading and writing.

U.S. schools have been dropping Reading Recovery

Reading Recovery was in every state at one point. The program is no longer in nearly 2,000 schools in 41 states.

Do you have any proof of the impact? That is the key. How do you know if you have impact? What are you going to do about it if you don't have evidence of impact?

Columbus City Schools has a person named Leslie Kelly.

The first district to implement the program in the U.S. recently stopped using it.

The decision to drop Reading Recovery is part of a larger effort to bring the science of reading to the district. She said she and her colleagues realized that their approach to reading instruction, including Reading Recovery, did not jive with the science.

Her advice to other districts that are still using Reading Recovery is to research the program and take a close look at its effectiveness. Do you have evidence of impact? That is the key. How do you know if you have impact? If you don't have evidence of impact, what are you going to do about it?

Reading Recovery was already controversial

Critics of Reading Recovery have argued that children in the program don't receive enough explicit and systematic instruction in how to decode words. They say that children are taught to use context, pictures and other clues to identify words, a strategy that may work in first-grade books but becomes less effective as text becomes more difficult. Kids can seem like good readers in first grade, but they don't develop the skills they need to be good readers in the long run.

May said that if you don't build up those decoding skills, you're going to fall behind even if you caught up in first grade.

The results could be explained by the fact that 40% of the students who received Reading Recovery got no further intervention after first grade.

The study found that students who were in Reading Recovery were more likely to get extra help for reading after first grade. Advocates for Reading Recovery have argued that the program reduces the need for further reading intervention and that it is worth the high cost.

As schools and states look for ways to help students recover from the disruptions of the Pandemic, there is new research coming out. May's findings are something policymakers and school leaders should consider as they make decisions about what programs to invest in.

Christopher Peak is a reporter for the documentary and investigative reporting group at American Public Media. The story was adapted from their previous reporting. A collection of stories about how kids learn to read can be found here.