Reading Recovery: Is it for Dyslexic Learners?

Written by Gen

I write this post with fear and trepidation. Well, that might be a little exaggerated, but right now there is no faster way to agitate the literacy world than to put out an opinion about dyslexia. But it has to be discussed because it’s a topic that is permeating our schools. There is a lot of misunderstanding around the diagnosis and even more controversy around how to address it.

I’d like to be clear about where I personally stand on this topic. There is no one who is more interested in doing for students what will allow them to reach their full literate potentials than me. I spend hours reading research, examining viewpoints both the same and different from my own, carefully analyzing my own students’ responses to teaching and monitoring their reading performance. I do not teach the way I do because I love it. I teach the way I do because it is steeped in research and I see what the research suggests playing out in the results from my own students. This post will mainly focus on who Reading Recovery programs are intended for and a second part to this post will focus on how the teaching within a Reading Recovery program can help students who struggle to read.

What is Dyslexia?

Ok, so let’s think about dyslexia together. The International Dyslexia Association (IDA) defines dyslexia as, “…a specific learning disability that is neurobiological in origin. It is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of language that is often unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities and the provision of effective classroom instruction. Secondary consequences may include problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading experience that can impede growth of vocabulary and background knowledge (IDA Board of Directors, 2002).”

Is Reading Recovery for students who fit the IDA definition?

Reading Recovery (RR) provides 12-20 weeks of intensive early intervention in first grade after students have had one year of formal schooling, just after decoding and spelling skills have begun to emerge in kindergarten. Reading Recovery seeks to find, “The children who have not been able to keep up with the rapid rate of progress of their peers in the first year of school (Clay, 2016 pg. 12).” Trained RR teachers use a tool known as the Observation Survey of Early Literacy Achievement in order to determine which students are most at risk for difficulties with literacy. The Observation Survey includes sub tests in the following areas:

  • Letter Identification
  • Word Reading
  • Concepts About Print
  • Writing Vocabulary
  • Hearing Sounds in Words
  • Text Reading

These sub tests allow the RR teacher to find confusions in the areas of, but not limited to, letters, sounds, word reading, understanding of how print works on a page, sequential use of phonological information, spelling of known words, decoding and understanding within continuous text. Stanine scores are used to determine how students compare to average first graders in each area.

Reading Recovery is exceedingly well researched. Data for students in the program as well as samples of students not included in the program is collected at different points of the school year every year. Reading Recovery was designed to intervene for all of the most low-performing first grade students, including those displaying the characteristics of dyslexia, as you can see from the content of the initial assessment tool. Reading Recovery is a short-term intervention. RR teachers look to make significant progress within 12-20 weeks of daily 30-minute lessons. Clay outlines the two possible outcomes of a RR program:

  1. Students catch up to their peers and can continue to learn to read and write by participating in their classroom curriculum.
  2. Students do not make enough progress to ensure survival in their classroom without support. These students are identified and provided with further assessment and long-term help that can be tailored to the students’ needs.

Clay (2016, p. 19) has this to say, “The more effective an education system is at delivering an early literacy intervention, the fewer children will need to be referred for further intensive help.” Reading Recovery takes in the most struggling first grade readers at the beginning and middle of the school year and efficiently identifies the few who need referrals for more individualized and longer-term help rather than putting all of the identified students into that category of instruction. Perhaps some of them are dyslexic. Perhaps not. It’s hard to tell when most first-graders are poor decoders and word-memorizers. In any case, Reading Recovery is intended to help all of its students either by bringing them to the point where they can learn by participating in classroom instruction, or by identifying them as students who need longer-term individualized support. With a 76.4% success rate of discontinuation, Reading Recovery is the place to start (“Outcomes for,” n.d.).

Mary Anne Doyle (2018, pg. 37), professor at the University of Connecticut, wrote a comprehensive response to the question of whether Reading Recovery is appropriate for dyslexic learners entitled, Communicating the Power of Reading Recovery and Literacy Lessons Instruction for Dyslexic Learners: An Ethical Response. She writes about the diagnostic nature of Reading Recovery, “…with its period of up to 20 weeks of individual instruction, [Reading Recovery] serves as a pre-referral for further assessment and ongoing special support…[It] is based on documented performance collected in the context of diagnostic teaching over an extended period of time, and this is a more reliable approach to the identification of learner needs than screening measures.” When highly skilled teachers work intensively with students over a 20 week period for thirty minutes per day, their observations of students’ needs are more accurate and finely tuned than a survey capturing student performance in a single brief snapshot.

So we’ve established that Reading Recovery was designed for all of the most struggling students in first grade. Doyle (2018, p. 47) writes, “Clay was very clear that labels should not deter children from early intervention irrespective of the severity of their challenges; and in fact, the substantial period of diagnostic teaching is advantageous both for preventing early failure and for identifying children at risk of ongoing literacy difficulties and in need of special education services.”

We can now see that Reading Recovery is for students with dyslexia. Stay tuned for a future post where I will dive into whether or not Reading Recovery can work for students with dyslexia. In the next part to this post I will talk more about what is taught during a child’s Reading Recovery program and, more specifically, how it is taught in relation to the recommendations from the IDA regarding instruction for dyslexic learners.

If you are interested in reading Mary Anne Doyle’s article, you can join the Reading Recovery Council of North America where you will have access to the Journal of Reading Recovery as well as many other very worthwhile resources.

If you liked this post, you may also like these previous posts:

Literacy Wars: Why Are We Fighting? How Do We Find Our Way?

Truth & Research: What to Consider Before Selecting Literacy Curriculum and Programs

References & Sources
Clay, M. M. (2016). Literacy Lessons Designed for Individuals. Australia: Scholastic.
Doyle, M. (2018). Communicating the Power of Reading Recovery and Literacy Lessons Instruction for Dyslexic Learners: An Ethical Response. Journal of Reading Recovery, Spring 2018, 35-49.
IDA Board of Directors (2002). Definition of Dyslexia. Retrieved from
Outcomes for Low Readers (n.d.). Retrieved March 10, 2019, from


3 thoughts on “Reading Recovery: Is it for Dyslexic Learners?

  1. TRUTH!
    “Perhaps some of them are dyslexic. Perhaps not. It’s hard to tell when most first-graders are poor decoders and word-memorizers.”
    So much information available as a result of Reading Recovery instruction.

    Too bad the folks clamoring for other programs have never “studied” Reading Recovery and prefer to make up their own stories about what it is and isn’t.

    Thanks for your bravery in posting this two part piece!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Barbara Schubert

    YES! Reading Recovery DOES work for students diagnosed (misdiagnosed) as dyslexic. Tried it, lived it, worked it…and it was successful! Takes a lot of time and effort but it is successful in the end.

    Liked by 1 person

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