But whether the initial gains last and translate into better performance on state reading tests remained a question. This new study on the long-term impact of Reading Recovery is the largest, most rigorous effort to tackle that question, according to May.
The fact that students who participated in Reading Recovery did worse in later grades than similar students who did not get the program surprised May.
"Was Reading Recovery harmful? I wouldn't go as far as to say that," he said. "But what we do know is that the kids that got it for some reason ended up losing their gains and then falling behind."
In a written response to the study, the Reading Recovery Council of North America, the organization that advocates for the program in the United States, disputed some of the research methodology and maintained that their program is effective. It also said: "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 and their teachers."
U.S. schools have been dropping Reading Recovery
At one point, Reading Recovery was in every state. But school districts have been dropping the program – today, it's in nearly 2,000 schools in 41 states.
In fact, the first district to implement the program in the U.S. recently decided to stop using it.
Leslie Kelly, executive director of teaching and learning at Columbus City Schools in Ohio, said 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, didn't align well with that science.
Her advice to other districts that are still using Reading Recovery is to take a close look at the program's effectiveness: "Do your research. Read a lot, and really look at do you have evidence of impact? That's really the key. Do you have evidence of impact, and how do you know? And if you don't have evidence of impact, you have to ask yourself why and then what are you going to do about it?"
Reading Recovery was already controversial
Critics of Reading Recovery have long contended that children in the program do not receive enough explicit and systematic instruction in how to decode words. In addition, they say, 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. They say kids can seem like good readers in first grade but fail to develop the skills they need to be good readers in the long run.
May said this could explain his latest research findings. "If you don't build up those decoding skills, you're going to fall behind, even though it looked like you had caught up in first grade."
He said the results could also be explained by the fact that about 40% of the students who received Reading Recovery got no further intervention after first grade. "Because the kids didn't get the intervention that they needed in second and third grade, they lost those gains," May said. "I think that's a plausible hypothesis."
But the study also found that the students who were in Reading Recovery were more likely than the comparison group to receive extra help for reading after first grade. Advocates for Reading Recovery have justified the program's high cost — estimated to be up to $10,271 per student — by saying that the program reduces the need for further reading intervention.
This new research comes as schools and states are looking for ways to help students recover from the disruptions of the pandemic, including disruptions to their reading development. May's findings are something for policymakers and school leaders to consider as they make decisions about what programs to invest in.