reading recovery: is it effective? is it cost-effective?

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  • Reading Recovery: Is It Effective? Is It Cost-Effective?Author(s): Gerald W. BraceySource: The Phi Delta Kappan, Vol. 76, No. 6 (Feb., 1995), pp. 493-494Published by: Phi Delta Kappa InternationalStable URL: .Accessed: 24/06/2014 21:04

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  • ~~Research

    Reading Recovery: Is It Effective? Is It Cost-Effective?

    By Gerald W. Bracey

    NE OF the more popular pro grams for remedial reading in struction in the last decade has been the import from New Zea land known as Reading Recov

    ery. In Reading Recovery, children whose reading skills place them among the low est 10% to 20% of students are pulled out of classrooms for half an hour of one-on one tutoring.

    The tutor first spends 10 sessions try ing to determine what knowledge about reading and print a student already has.

    The tutor then launches the student on an individually tailored program through a series of books that are graded for diffi culty. In each session, the child reads sev eral books, beginning with one that is al ready familiar. The child may also prac tice with individual letters or words. When the student has had 60 such sessions or has reached an oral reading level equal to the average of his or her grade, the pro gram ends. The goal is to instill in stu dents strategies for approaching reading that will allow them to continue to im prove. It looks like a good approach, and, given its rapid increase in popularity in this country, others seem to agree.

    Now, however, in a comprehensive re view of the literature that deals with Read ing Recovery, Elfrieda Hiebert of the Uni versity of Michigan has concluded that the impact of the program may have been over estimated and that the analysis of its cost effectiveness may have been defective. Her analysis appears in the December 1994 issue of Educational Researcher.

    The cost-effectiveness of Reading Re covery was determined by assuming an average salary of $33,000 per teacher and 16 students per teacher, per year. This yielded an annual cost figure of $2,063 per student for the program's services. For

    GERALD W BRACEY is a research psy chologist and an education consultant living in the Washington, D.C., area.

    comparison purposes, Hiebert points out that the provision of Chapter 1 services for four years costs an additional $3,772, that special education services for four years cost an average of $6,604 more than a year of regular schooling, and that a year's retention costs $5,208. Hiebert al so notes that Reading Recovery teachers typically reach only 11 students, not 16.

    However, this simple analysis still contains some questionable assumptions: namely, that all Reading Recovery students are successful, that they never need addition al services, and that students in alterna tive remedial programs are not success ful. Indeed, the data show clearly that some students in Reading Recovery are going to need additional services and that some are going to be retained.

    When Hiebert recalculated the costs per successful Reading Recovery student, she arrived at an annual cost of $8,333 per student. Hiebert questions whether we can afford such a program on a large scale. She calculates that if Reading Recovery were made available to the 26% of first graders in California who now receive some federal- or state-funded compensa tory program, Reading Recovery would occupy 10,593 people full time. Providing Reading Recovery for 15% of California students would require the full-time equivalent of 6,150 people. That's an an nual cost of $282,900,000 (since the av erage elementary teacher in California earned just over $46,000 in 1993-94). Currently, the total number of first-grade teachers in California is only 13,492. Oth er states might not need to have such a high percentage of Reading Recovery teachers, but Hiebert notes that the need for compensatory resources would be greatest precisely where the resources are least available.

    And even then, Hiebert contends, we don't know whether or not the program is successful at its conclusion or whether

    whatever gains are made will hold up over time. (For some reason, no thought has ever been given to providing Reading Re covery "refresher" courses for students in the later grades.) Hiebert questions Read ing Recovery's use of word-level accuracy

    on an oral reading task as its principal cri terion for success, rather than some meas ure of comprehension or of automaticity (which correlates with comprehension).

    The single longitudinal study that has compared Reading Recovery with other treatments did not find much difference. It is problematical, though, that this re search has focused on examining mean differences among groups. Hiebert writes:

    When mean differences in perform ance are the primary way of evaluating the effectiveness of a program, the in formation that policy makers and prac titioners need to make informed deci sions can be obscured. In particular, in formation on who benefits most from the tutoring, the number of children who can be served, the portion of the school population that the children represent, or the aspects of literacy that are pro moted by the tutoring may be difficult to glean from analyses of effect sizes.

    When Hiebert looked at fourth-grad ers who had been through Reading Re covery or other treatments, she did not find much difference and did not find high performance. "An average grade-equiva lent of 3.0 at the end of fourth grade for the [Reading Recovery]-tutored group sug gests that the proficient oral reading per formance at grade 1 has not resulted in self-extending strategies to other literacy tasks in subsequent grades," she writes.

    Hiebert worries that we may have im ported a program that was designed to meet one set of needs and are now trying to use it with students who have different problems. Most children in New Zealand attend small community schools, and the

    FEBRUARY 1995 493

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  • Research nation has a high literacy level. A program such as Reading Recovery may be suf ficient under such conditions. But what about our inner cities and our poor rural areas?

    A preliminary report from New York City suggests that reading levels and dis continuation rates are lower in schools with low-income students. The report also sug gests that Reading Recovery is adversely affected in these schools by high levels of

    mobility and absenteeism. Moreover, the criterion for success reaching the av erage proficiency of the school is like ly to be too low to ensure a student's fu ture success.

    Hiebert does observe that Reading Re covery exhibits five attributes known to be characteristics of successful beginning reading instruction: phonemic awareness, deliberate instruction, high expectations, repeated reading of text, and experiment ing with letter/sound correspondences through writing. Hiebert suggests that we take these aspects of Reading Recovery and other programs and try to apply them in nontutoring situations. That might "move

    American reading instruction away from the elusive search for a single best method to the confrontation of a fundamental is sue: Why are the instructional elements that have consistently been associated

    with high levels of literacy attainment not a given in all Chapter 1 programs?"


    Emergent Literacy W T HILE Elfrieda Hiebert is won

    dering whether one-on-one tu toring by teachers is cost-ef

    fective, G. J. Whitehurst, J. N. Epstein, A. L. Angell, A. C. Payne, D. A. Crone, and J. E. Fischel, all of the State University of New York at Stony Brook, suggest in the December 1994 Journal of

    Educational Psychology that, for low-in come children, one-on-one tutoring by someone may be essential.

    These researchers tested the impact of what they term a "modest" addition to the Head Start program: modest in cost, mod

    est in the amount of time needed to train people, and modest in the amount of time required in the classroom. The addition consists of what they call "dialogic" read ing. Dialogic reading consists of adding to regular books a variety of prompts: "com pletion prompts" that require the child to fill in a blank; "wh-prompts" that ask

    what, where, or why; "recall prompts" that ask the child to remember a bit of the story; and "distancing prompts" that re late the story to events outside of the book. In addition, a guide for the person read ing the story to the child explains the story or the purpose of the book and presents hints on how to read it. The idea is to al low the child to interact with the book and

    with the reader.


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