The Ohio State University’s and Heinemann Publishing’s Fountas and Pinnell aka Reading Recovery
Girl reading

Part Three

Very real debates continue about appropriate expectations for children of different ages and for variations especially by social, physical, and intellectual conditions at each age. Astonishingly, human differences play no role in Reading Recovery. In fact, in their response to dyslexia educator, Reading Recovery actually attempted to deny that well-established, not uncommon human condition. Read their statements and especially the International Literacy Association’s ignorant and failing effort to defend them from well-documented criticism from the dyslexic community. (See International Literacy Association, Dykstra)

For at least two decades and especially since 2017, the most sustained criticism of Reading Recovery comes from dyslexia experts including teachers and parents. The most detailed and documented critiques come from Pamela Cook and her colleagues, especially their peer reviewed “The Reading Wars and Reading Recovery: What Educators, Families, and Taxpayers Should Know” (2017), “Effective Early Literacy Practices: What We’ve Learned and How to Replicate in Your District” (2017), and “Response to ‘The Truth about Reading Recovery” (2020).

Cook and colleagues painstakingly reviewed a variety of Reading Recovery/Fountas and Pinnell promotional pieces with special attention to Henry May and colleagues “‘evaluation’ research” reports, only one of which was independently peer-reviewed. None were professionally published. May et al are members of a collaborators’ group with Reading Recovery; they are not independent objective reviewers, a major fact that they do not admit. Cook et al also examined Reading Recovery Council statements.

Cook et al’s unassailable conclusions are blunt. May et al and Reading Recovery Council systematically breached accepted research ethics and standards of conduct. Simply put, May et al found that the long-term impact of Reading Recovery “interventions” was “highly successful” but at the same time had a “not significant” effect. On one hand, May et al did not confront, or even admit this contradiction. On the other hand, no subsequent Reading Recovery publications mentioned this “not significant effect.” In other words, they hid the debilitating fact.

Moreover, with the exception of year one of the study, no data are publicly available for students when they were in year 2 or 3. Even more, it appears that the lowest achieving students—special education, retained in first grade, etc.—were excluded systematically from the Reading Recovery instruction. Cooke, Rodes, and Lipsitz (2017, 12) conclude, “Overall, there is very limited evidence of Reading Recovery’s efficacy as an effective long-term reading intervention.” They also make suggestions for improvement.

Reading Recovery Council of North America’s lawyers—not researchers—responded immediately by threatening legal action against Learning Disabilities: A Multidisciplinary Journal. They demanded retraction. With few resources and no counsel of their own, the journal withdrew the article.  Unfortunately, they did not demand that Reading Recovery Council explicitly state their legal grounds. Reading Recovery’s action, presumably with the advice and consent of Fountas, Pinnell, and Heinemann, is unacceptable among researchers and scholars, let alone those who care about all children’s development.

If that were not sufficiently excessive and unwarranted, Reading Recovery Council of North America posted a dishonest screed of a response on its website. Entitled “The Truth About Reading Recovery,” and including a single page from May et al—with the rest anonymous--it is exactly the opposite of that. A scattering of misrepresentations of the criticisms, distortions of the studies criticized, and irrelevancies, it is almost unprecedented in my more than 50 years in higher education and literacy studies. In a word, it is shameful. Cook and Lipsitz made this unmistakably clear in their 2020 point by point response.

But even that was not enough for Reading Recovery. Their next step was commissioning both posted and published supposedly affirming studies by Pinnell’s OSU colleagues D’Augustino and Rodgers, and others.

This is an unusual in-house relationship. They followed the lead of the earlier studies in highly selective reporting, confusing numbers and durations of “observations” of programs, and inappropriate distancing and distorting statistical methods. Special pleading moves point counter point with unacknowledged selectivity. Combined with Reading Recovery/Fountas and Pinnell and Heinemann’s marketing, this is their modus operandi. It is unethical academic conduct.

At least two separate parties have filed formal charges of academic misconduct against these researchers and Reading Recovery at OSU with the university’s Office of Research Compliance. One from the parent of a child with dyslexia was dismissed without investigation or explanation. The State of Ohio Board of Education did not welcome his testimony. The second from a retired teacher and dyslexia researcher has also been dismissed without explanation. It documented established patterns of research misconduct, especially falsification and selective reporting, over decades.

Not surprisingly, skirmishes that became exposures of scandals gained more publicity over time. Major public reporting came from PBS NewsHour and American Public Media. On this level, Reading Recovery’s deny and threaten tactic was much less effective. In a phrase, Reading Recovery Council proved unable to adapt. As their history might predict, Reading Recovery has no learning curve. Nor have they learned that inappropriate overkill over time backfires.

After PBS NewsHour aired a segment on its nightly show in 2019, Reading Recovery immediately sent the president of PBS and executive producer of the show an ignorant attack that hurt them much more than helped them. Signed by Peter Afflerback and 57 mainly retired former professors and members of the International Literacy Association--most of them with limited knowledge of “early reading” issues and debates--the two-page letter had almost no content. It tripped badly in attempting to dismiss the relevance, in fact the existence of dyslexia.

That document prompted a very strong, documented response from psychologist Steven P. Dykstra. Frontally and factually, Dykstra made short work of the Afflerback/ILA fabrications. He identified some of the many false claims.

Focusing specifically on the issue of dyslexia among other dis- or different abilities, Dykstra wrote, “The 57 signers of the letter made a number of false claims, including that the APA (American Psychiatric Association) rejects dyslexia, that the DSM-5 dropped dyslexia as a diagnosis, and that there is no agreed upon best approach to remediating dyslexia. By promoting this misinformation, the signers themselves are responsible for creating much of the confusion…that they decry.” He concludes powerfully, “We must consider what it says about the state of reading instruction and scholarship that a letter so thick with lies could attract so many signatures from so many people of influence.”

These new phrases of the perpetual reading wars also came to greater public attention through the continuing attention of American Public Media through its website, podcasts, and broadcasts on PBS, and within a few years the national daily media.

Education journalist Emily Hanford brought the misconduct and human tragedy of Fountas and Pinnell/Reading Recovery to its largest audience. As it happened, her reporting was influenced by, and interacted with the current “reading war” of phonics rising and phonetics sinking a least for the moment. This led to continuing national media coverage, especially by the New York Times, Washington Post, and others. Unfortunately, Hanford and her colleague Christopher Peak do not understand that the fundamental issue is not phonics versus phonetics in isolation, but the interactions of the oral, visual, phonics, and phonetics in the dynamics of young peoples’ development. 

In successive reports, Hanford drew her audiences’ attention to “How American schools fail kids with dyslexia. Hard to Read” (APM Reports, Sept. 11, 2017); “How a flawed idea in teaching millions of kids to be poor readers” (Aug. 22. 2019); “Experts say widely used reading curriculum is failing kids” (Jan. 27, 2020); “New research shows controversial Reading Recovery program eventually….” (Apr. 23, 2022); and with Christopher Peak. “Influential authors Fountas and Pinnell stand behind disproven reading theory (Nov. 19, 2021). Peak examined Heinemann’s business models and sales in his 2022 APM series “Sold a Story.” Sarah Schwartz (2022) and Ben Tobin (2020) further amplified this in Education Week and Breaking the Code, respectively.

Reading Recovery has a failed, unscholarly relationship with criticism, honesty, and truthfulness, and with all things academic. It ignores everything that is not laudatory, threatens the publishers of criticism whenever possible. If and when that strategy fails, it distorts, denies, and pretends falsely to refute. Funding an in-house office of data evaluation (even naming it international) is part of that broken path.

Reading Recovery’s claims to uniqueness may well derive from its unscholarly and unprofessional refusal to practice scholarly ethics, admit problems, respond directly, and revise when necessary. It fails in all respects of accepted scholarly conduct.

Reading Recovery contrasts starkly with Columbia University Teachers College’s professor Lucy Calkins who is typically associated with teaching reading through phonetics although her approaches changed over several decades. In response to recent criticism of both Fountas and Pinnell, and Calkins as a result of non-profit EdReports studies, Fountas and Pinnell reject criticisms while Calkins announces her commitment to revise her curriculum.

EdReports published its evaluation of Fountas and Pinnell in 2021. Repeating long-standing criticism with new evidence and emphasis, it found that the program did not meet its stated expectations for text quality or alignment with standards. With Calkins’ Units of Study, Fountas & Pinnell received the lowest ratings for K-2 English/language arts, and among the lowest three for grades 3-8.

Heinemann responded without explanation or evidence that “EdReports’ rubrics aren’t a good fit for the programs like Fountas and Pinnell Classroom and Units of Study.” Fountas, Pinnell, and Reading Recovery are silent (See Schwartz, 2021).

Of special concern is the research presented to confirm the success of the so-called Fountas and Pinnell “reading levels,” commonly referred to simply as Fountas and Pinnell. This is a proprietary system published by Heinemann to support their Levelled Literacy Interventions (LLI) series of student readers and teacher products.

In this package, a reading text is classified by various parameters such as word count, number of different words, number of high-frequency words, sentence length and complexity, word repetition, illustrations support, and so on. Classification—and therefore instruction—is guided by these considerations.

Type of syllables, a basic element in beginning reading, is not considered. Teachers are provided with small books with a combination of text and illustrations for each predetermined Fountas and Pinnell Text Level Gradient. Stunningly absent are real-life students with their fundamental differences. (32 Consult Fountas and Pinnell, and Heinemann websites)

Despite young children demonstrating a wide range of reading skills, each Reading Recovery/Fountas and Pinnell level is associated with a school grade that adopts reading levels for the pupils. This provides the foundation for the grade-level equivalence chart recommended by Fountas and Pinnell and embedded in their Heinemann materials. This is circular and self-confirming.

Not surprisingly, criticism is frequent. It focuses on 1) the amount and sequencing of phonics instruction; 2) both the evidence presented, and the evidence needed to evaluate the program’s effectiveness; and 3) the model of reading. For example, psychologist David A. Kilpatrick commented in 2015, “there have been no research studies on LLI published in peer-reviewed journals.”

Learning Difficulties Australia (LDA) states that it does not support Fountas and Pinnell approaches including Levelled Literacy Intervention and Guided Reading because they “follow a whole language or ‘balanced literacy’ approach.” In contrast, LDA endorses programs that take an “explicit structured approach to the teaching of reading … consistent with the scientific evidence as to how children learn to read and how best to teach them.”

Kilpatrick (2015) extends this by focusing on the LLI’s foundation in the “three cueing systems model,” “which focuses heavily on contextual guesses and does not promote sight-word recognition. The three cueing system has significant disadvantages for weak readers.”

More inclusive is the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s 2019 omnibus “Right to Read: public inquiry into rights issues affecting students with reading disabilities.” Part 8 criticizes whole language systems and cueing systems. It includes F&P balanced literacy specifically in discussions of “Ineffective methods for teaching reading” and “Balanced Literacy.”

The later emphases that the term “balanced literacy” is itself deceptive and its claims of scientific approach without merit. It underscores that balanced literacy is especially harmful for at-risk students while it fails all students in general.

Reading Recovery distorts and denies. On the Fountas and Pinnell-Heinemann website a blog post facetiously titled “Get the Facts: Responding to Misinformation About Fountas and Pinnell Literacy” prominently sits. Not surprising, absolutely no criticism is actually represented. The dishonestly labeled “misinformation” is the best a dishonest caricature, a mockery of a significant amount of reputable criticism. For two senior university professionals to put their names to this is disreputable.

Fountas and Pinnell also turn to limited prose with no concrete examples to fabricate a false narrative that their heavily marketed curricula of ready-made lesson plans and simple forms to fill in directly contradicts. Presumably strategically, they published their distorted defense in the K-12 newsletter Education Week (Sept. 8, 2021) with the title “Teachers, More Than Programs, Make for Great Reading Instruction.” In fact, that statement is partly true, but it does not describe their own product. They actively deny the body of their critics’ arguments and evidence. To anyone familiar with the mounting criticism, these combined dismissals, distortions, and denials raise more questions than they answer.

Reading Recovery’s second line of defense is no more successful or professionally acceptable. In one example, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, a branch of the collaborative (Mar. 17, 2016) misrepresents his “evaluation” as “independent.” He then falsely states that the so-called “13 Scale-Up Evaluation” of only 12 to 20 weeks of “treatment” as “highly successful,” and showing “strong gains in student reading achievement.” Are the disease metaphors intentional? By themselves, they are an offensively anachronistic mode of demeaning if not quite blaming the victims.

Using statistical methods that remove analysis far from the primary data—so-called RCT, or randomized control trial—the study errs by comparing data collected differently in different national and US Department of Education-funded studies of RR ($45.6 million federal plus $9.1 million private sector “match”). Great pains are taken to place apples beside grapefruits. This is not acceptable.

Yet, despite the statistical manipulations, the study and its “evaluators” admit—indirectly of course--to an almost 30 per cent failure rate. Is that “highly successful”? Is 12 to 20 weeks a reasonable experimental period for young learners whose performances may change from day to day? Why are the numerous and varied “special needs”—dyslexia, for one example-- children never mentioned. (See Cook et al, 2017; Hanford, Sept. 11, 2019) The overwhelming amount of evidence from diverse methods agrees: No. (See Hanford, Aug. 22, 2019; Nov. 19, 2021; Apr/ 23. 2022; and Schwartz, 202; Tobin, 20201)

Over and over, Reading Recovery refuses to engage criticism professionally and responsibly. This is most revealing in the two peer-reviewed journal articles of 2017 and 2021 by OSU education professors who are part of the RR IDEC, part of the team not independent scholarly reviewers: Agostino, Rodgers, and Mauck, “Addressing Inadequacies of the Observation Survey of Early Literacy Achievement,” in Reading Research Quarterly, and Agostino, Rodgers, and Konstantopoulos, “The effects of HEROES on the achievement levels of beginning readers with individual educational programs,” Journal of Educational Research. (See Cook et al, 2017 for sustained critique of the first)

“Addressing Inadequacies” is another exercise in statistical manipulation that ranges from widening distance from the primary observational data and effectively replace direct data with statistical (Rasch) analysis. Overall, it actively distracts from specific criticism of Fountas and Pinnell/Heinemann and Reading Research. The references demonstrate both a lack of familiarity with the literature on reading and literacy, and a repetition of the publications of its colleagues.

Its avowed purpose—to demonstrate the inadequacy of the Observation Survey of Early Literacy Achievement (OSELA) that is used to criticize Fountas and Pinnell—is not achieved in either a narrow statistical sense or more importantly an interpretive imperative.

To close observers, it is an exercise in distancing, distraction, and confusion. Contradictorily, taken literally, it constitutes an argument against the original claims of Marie Clay and also Fountas and Pinnell themselves.

Adding to the contradictions and academic dishonesty, when the authors were interviewed by a USA Today reporter about the study, in the middle of their unproved assertations that “Children are better prepared when they enter first grade than they used to be. Kindergarten is the new first grade when it comes to be learning reading skills,” both Rodgers and D’Agostino “couldn’t explain why low-performers are falling further behind their classmates” and “the gap grew between low-performers and other students when it came to advanced skills of writing vocabulary and text reading” (Rossman, 2017). The answer is simple: it is the direct result of the program itself. All indicators and critiques agree on that. Everyone, that is, but the profiting principals. (See Cook et al, 2017. The same criticisms apply to D’Agostino et al, 2021).

I conclude with a prediction based on Reading Recovery’s history of unethical modus operandi. The Reading Research Council of North America will threaten legal action against the Columbus Free Press and me unless this fact-based and documented report is removed.

Unlike the underfunded Dyslexia Journal, to take only one example that they have illegitimately threatened or attempted to bully, we will respond: on what grounds? With what proof that is recognized by genuine authorities who are not part of the Reading Recovery machine?


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Harvey J. Graff is Professor Emeritus of English and History at The Ohio State University and inaugural Ohio Eminent Scholar in Literacy Studies. Author of many books, he writes about a variety of contemporary and historical topics for Times Higher Education, Inside Higher Education, Academe Blog, Washington Monthly, Publishers Weekly, Against the Current, Columbus Free Press, and newspapers. Searching for Literacy: The Social and Intellectual Origins of Literacy Studies was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2022. The Continuing Education of a Historian. The Intersections of the Personal, the Political, the Academic, and Place is forthcoming. “Reconstructing the ‘uni-versity’ from the ashes of the ‘multi- and mega-versity’” in in progress.