Reading Recovery: first impressions of bad teaching

One of the best aspects of my job is when I get to observe other practitioners in action. I’ve been very lucky to have such generous colleagues. This is the story of the first time I saw someone using Reading Recovery. Yes, it’s a story, an anecdote, and therefore not data, please bear that in mind. If you would like the science on Reading Recovery, you can find it here and here for starters.

When I started my private practice, one of the programs I kept hearing about was Reading Recovery. It seemed like every child who came to me for intervention had had this teaching.

Most of the local schools had a Reading Recovery teacher and every workshop I presented would have a of couple Reading Recovery-trained people there.

I found this slightly odd, as, from what I could glean, it was meant to be a long-term, highly effective intervention for struggling readers. Why did these children, who had accessed this program, then need further intervention?

At this point in my career, I was fairly unaware of the deep divide in theories of reading, known as the Reading Wars. I was on neither side of the fence, since I had no idea the fence existed. I had come straight from a linguistics background and into a working environment that was basically an uninterrupted flow of logical information put to good use.

I had already watched hundreds of children and adults become readers and I really didn’t think that helping people learn to read was a big deal. It was relatively easy to do and my colleagues and I spent our working lives fully expecting our students to read.

The hardest part of my job was getting people to spell well and write fluently. It still is. Spelling and writing are extremely complex processes. They make reading seem easy by comparison.

What caught my attention at this time though, was that Reading Recovery-taught children behaved differently to those who had not had access to the program. I observed three distinct habits in these children that others tended not to have:

  1. When getting ready to read aloud to me, the first thing their eyes would do would be to search around the page for a picture or ask me what the story was about. I use pictureless texts in my clinic because I want the children to decode the letters, not use comprehension strategies to guess words. My training and experience all pointed to this being logical and effective.
  2. When actually reading a text and coming across an unfamiliar word, their eyes would leave the word and start scanning around, again, looking for a picture clue.
  3. When they weren’t doing this wild, panic-stricken scanning, they would sometimes blurt out a word that began with the same letter as the unfamiliar word and carry on reading. For example, if I had a dollar for every time a child said ‘house’ for home, I’d be retired by now.

Not only did these children need explicit instruction in the alphabetic code, in sequencing, in segmenting and in blending sounds in words, but they needed to spend time undoing the awful habits 1-3. Their time in the clinic sometimes tripled because of the re-learning they had to do.

I began to be able to identify a Reading Recovery child at 50 paces. This made me very curious about how their lessons were conducted. To help gain a more informed opinion, I decided to take a look at the program and its underpinnings.

I started finding answers by observing a Reading Recovery session. I was invited to do so by a friend and colleague who worked in one of the local Catholic primary schools. I had the greatest admiration for this friend. She was a caring, intelligent person dedicated to doing the best she could for her students.

Taj was a seven year-old boy who had made no progress in reading and writing in two years of schooling. As such, he qualified for Reading Recovery. Surprisingly, no formal assessment had been given and no diagnosis had been made.

He had been informally assessed using the Observation Survey and several Running Records from Reading Recovery itself, but this was hardly an indicator of his underlying deficits and gave no instruction about how to tailor his intervention. Instead, he was put at a certain ‘level’ and the goal was to move him up to the next ‘level’.

Marie Clay, the author of Reading Recovery explains:

“For Reading Recovery we do not need an elaborate definition of reading difficulties. One simply takes the pupil from where he is to somewhere else.

Oh if only that were true. But such a scattergun, vague approach is folly. We have the tools and knowledge to pinpoint a wide range of cognitive and linguistic deficits that impair reading. Good assessment is a gift to any practitioner. I found it disturbing that none of these had been used to gain a clearer picture of Taj.

Still, he was there and my friend was trying to help him. And besides, I’d watched many sessions with other practitioners and had been to dozens of professional development seminars, and I had never failed to come away with some good ideas about how to improve my practice. There was always some nugget, or innovation or something I could learn from watching others in action.

This time it was different. This time I sat there in shock and surprise. As part of my job as a mentor at Lindamood Bell Learning Processes, I would sit back and evaluate other clinicians, so I was used to novices making rookie mistakes. That is not what this was.

I myself have had observers suggest a slightly different approach for a problem encountered by a student and I have embraced that approach with success; a need for tweaking you might say. That is not what this was.

It was quite evident that my friend had spent many hours practising the elements in the lesson. She was no rookie. She delivered clear and precise instructions with confidence and ease. Her pacing was flawless, her manner was perfect, her equipment was organized and on hand and she really did come across as a seasoned professional. She and Taj had an excellent rapport and she genuinely cared about him and treated him with gentle deference at all times.

But for the first time in my career, I spent my observation time holding myself back from screaming, “What are you doing?! How is that going to help this child? What on Earth are you doing?”

I have not reacted so strongly to any teaching I’ve witnessed, before or since (except other Reading Recovery sessions on YouTube). Let me take you through it as well as I can remember it. The order of proceedings may vary from a standard Reading Recovery session since I’m recalling from over a decade ago, but these are the parts that stood out.

Taj came in and pulled out a book they had been practising. It contained surprisingly complex words but was predictable and repetitive with great big pictures and he read it from memory. I thought that this must have been some kind of warm-up, since nothing useful was being taught or learned. I was looking forward to the “enchantingly interesting” texts coming up that Clay talks about in her guidebook.

The teacher then pulled out a new, equally predictable book, but instead of getting down to reading the words, she asked him to point out the front cover, the back cover, and other things about the book that he plainly knew. Time was ticking away and still no teaching or learning had taken place.

The teacher then did the most incredible thing. She told him what the story was about and what was going to happen in the book. Spoiler alert! I don’t know about you, but if you want me to throw a book on the bonfire, just tell me what happens in the story. It’s the same with films. Tell me the plot and I can guarantee I’ll never watch it. You will have spoiled it for me.

So now there is a child sitting there with a big frown on his face, fidgeting, about to stumble his way through an already boring story that he knows is going to go a certain way and who, ten minutes into the lesson, has learned nothing.

More incredulity followed when the teacher, after some lengthy talking about the book, opened it up to the first page, pointed to the picture and then asked him to find a certain word. My memory won’t deliver the precise word to me, but let’s say she asked him to look for the word tree. Here is the dialogue:

Teacher:    There is a tree in this story. What does tree begin with?

Taj:            …umm, t.

Teacher:    Good, now find the word tree.

Taj:            Points to top.

Teacher:    No.

Taj:            Points to tree.

Teacher:    Good.

Me in my head:   Wait. What? Why aren’t you getting him to read the sounds in the word top and comparing it to the word he’s looking for? Why would you leave that opportunity to teach him to read just sitting there? You’re just getting him to guess based on incomplete information. What on Earth are you doing that for?

And so, after a bit more of this pointless shilly-shally word-searching, and after looking at all the pictures, page by page and talking about each excruciating plot point in the story, this yawning boy is directed to the first page again and told to read the book.

He came to a word he couldn’t predict. For the life of me I cannot remember the word, but he made a clear error of omission, in that the second letter, an embedded consonant like the t in stop, wasn’t pronounced. The teacher let him continue to the end of the sentence and then the crazy questioning began. For the sake of an example, let’s say he read ‘sap’ for slap. The dialogue went as follows (with me climbing the walls trying not to interrupt):

Teacher:    Let’s look at this word here. What does it say?

Taj:            Sap

Teacher:    Would that make sense?

Taj:            I don’t know.

Teacher:    What do you see in the picture?

Taj:            (Mutters something about the picture.)

Teacher:    What is the first letter of the word?

Taj:            S

Teacher:    What would make sense here?

Taj:            (frantically looking at the picture): I don’t know.

Teacher:    What other letters do you see?

Taj:            (naming the letters) l-a-p

Teacher:    Can you see any words inside that word?

Taj:            No.

Teacher:    (pointing to the l) Okay, what is this letter?

Taj:            L

Teacher:    Do you know the sound it makes?

Taj:            /l/

Teacher:    Good. So what does this word say?

Taj:            Sap.

This went on for precious minutes until the teacher told him the word and moved on.

Afterwards I asked the teacher if she was aware that Taj couldn’t perceive that he was saying ‘sap’ for slap. And that saying each sound in sequence and being aware that he had to articulate an /l/ sound straight after the /s/ would have helped him. I asked her if she was planning to do any follow up work on embedded consonants with him. She said she wasn’t planning to, no.

Then it was time to write a sentence. Again, I can’t remember if Taj wrote the sentence or the teacher wrote the sentence, but they did the funniest thing with it afterwards. They cut it into pieces, word by word, and Taj had to reconstruct it. It had to be the most pointless ten minutes of teaching I have ever seen. It was the kind of mindless busy-work a casual-relief teacher dreams up in order to take an unofficial break from teaching.

They also played about with some colourful magnetic letters, sorting them into groups based on their colours (!) and naming the letters, but making no reference to the sounds they represented, again, with no real purpose, sequence or system.

This was truly the worst reading lesson I have ever seen, even to this day. Taj was not being helped in any significant way. His needs were being overlooked. The causes of his difficulties were being ignored. The strategies he was being given were nonsensical and went against everything I’d ever learned about literacy acquisition.

And it wasn’t the teacher’s fault. As I said before, this was a friend and a colleague; a nice person with the best will in the world, highly trained and experienced believing she was helping him. It was bizarre.

I read everything about Reading Recovery that I could get my hands on. I spoke to countless Reading Recovery teachers and watched more excruciating Reading Recovery lessons on YouTube to make sure that this teacher was not an anomaly. Indeed she wasn’t.

What I found most disturbing was that she believed she was being helpful, and with no valid pre or post testing, nothing was contradicting her. Taj may very well have progressed through the program, memorizing and predicting the books, but I shudder to think where he is now.

It saddens me to see this execrable program being so widely embraced. Part of the reason is that Reading Recovery is incredibly systematic. Marie Clay wrote with clarity and authority. Her books, from a prose perspective, are a pleasure to read (provided you don’t know anything about teaching reading).

Its adherents are rigorously trained and the organisations behind it have means to distribute it that are staggeringly efficient. It’s just that it’s wrong.

Moves are afoot to rid schools of it in some districts. It’s very expensive and some in power recognize its ineffectiveness, but remnants of those techniques are everywhere; a story for another day.

Some approaches to reading instruction are more likely to bring success, while others bring an unacceptable rate of failure, no matter how well they are designed and implemented.

We need to begin with a better approach than Reading Recovery and its whole language cousins, and we need to ensure that teachers are trained to implement this better approach with the greatest skill possible. It is not enough for teachers to believe they’re helping children to read.

Leave a Reply