How can you recover reading when there was none? A revealing case study of academic dishonesty, capitalizing education, institutional and collegial collusion, and damage to children

Part Two

Faculty members and OSU College of Education degree holders Gay Su Pinnell and children’s literature professor and Pinnell’s teacher Charlotte Huck were the receiving agents of Clay’s rhetorical sketch. Without testing to confirm Clay’s “observation” studies, Pinnell in conjunction with Lesley’s Fountas proceeded to institutionalize and promote Reading Recovery/Fountas and Pinnell. Neither has expertise in early literacy nor reading. Clay’s limited studies do not stand up to scrutiny. (See Buckingham, Chapman and Tumner)

While visiting Columbus in 1984-1985, Clay began “teaching one trainer, three teacher leaders, and 13 teachers,” according to the OSU College of Education. An entry on its website states that “Since 1984, Ohio State has trained over 200 teacher leaders and trainers” in almost 40 years. That’s approximately 5-6 per year, an unimpressive total. They do not define “leaders and trainers.” They do not seem to be classroom teachers. OSU exposes both its operating and marketing methods here.

The institutional source leaps from 1985 to at least 2018. “Reading Recovery is now widely implemented in the United States. During 2017-2018, the [undefined] intervention reached 35,579 first graders in 2,975 school buildings, from 964 school districts over 42 states. Teacher training or continuing professional development was offered by 255 teacher trainers to 4,526 teachers.”

When these numerators are divided by the denominators into fractions and percentages, they are not impressive. Consider, for example, first graders per building--or is it per school, per district, per state, or teachers per trainer per …? Reading Recovery, OSU, Reading Recovery Council, Heinemann: no one says or seems to know. Their fallaciously titled “evaluation research” cannot keep its samples or numbers clear.

At the same time, those numbers led directly to billions of dollars in sales for Heinemann, and millions for Pinnell, Fountas, their foundations, and OSU. The profits, revealingly, far outweigh the numbers of students affected and any measurable beneficial impact. (For information on sales, see APM, Heinemann, and OSU)

As this example illustrates, along with its self-commissioned unacceptable published and unpublished defenses, Reading Recovery/OSU has fundamental problems with arithmetic, let alone research methods, numerical data, and professional-level interpretation, and academic honesty. This marks both uncontrolled promotion and what OSU and its collaborators present inaccurately as “evaluation ‘research’” in defense of Reading Recovery. It is not what professional scholars call “evaluation ‘research.”

Reading Recovery also has basic problems with language. Key terms and concepts are never defined. This is equally true for its public, purportedly professional, and purely marketing statements. No basis for its programs is established within the relevant critical and contextual literature. Promotion continues revealingly: “Sixteen (16) university training centers oversaw fidelity to Reading Recovery’s many implementations. Reading Recovery’s trademark is held by Ohio State.” The second clause is the critical element.

I have no idea what OSU, or its public relations staff, mean by “oversaw fidelity.” This is not a scholarly or social scientific concept. It typically applies to marriage or financial responsibility. The best translation in rhetorical context is “strived to confirm Reading Recovery’s success regardless of complications in order to ensure sales and protect copyright and licenses, and to be Reading Recovery’s collaborators.” This is not independent professional “evaluation research.”

The embedded slipperiness of all Reading Recovery communications continues: “Of the first graders who were served in 2017-2018 and had the benefit of a full program, 70% were successfully discontinued from the intervention within 17-20 weeks.” Nowhere are “served,” “full program,” “successfully discontinued,” or “intervention” defined. Words matter. Meaning must be clear. It is not.

Nor, at least as critically, are the 30% unsuccessful rate and the absolute short duration of the program admitted and addressed. As I show below, and others have demonstrated, neither the 70% nor 30% claims are supported by credible scholarly investigation. And who, other than Reading Recovery and its in-house associates, OSU, its formal collaborators, and Heinemann considers 30% failure to be acceptable? (See further criticism below, and compare May et al, D’Augustino et al with Cook, Denton, Dykstra, Somer, APM, and Education Week)

Each of these terms has specific meanings. Is Reading Recovery’s and its paid agents’ problem ignorance or commission? It matters a great deal. How can we “recover reading” if meaning does not matter? That is another clue to the contradictions of Reading Recovery.

Consider the marketing term itself: Reading Recovery. “Recover” what, if young students are unable to read in the first place? The notion of “recovery” is never addressed. If the program is “served” to students generally, how is it an “intervention”? 

Similarly, “reading” and “literacy” are employed interchangeably. See, for example, on the OSU Reading Recovery website, “Reading Recovery is a research-based, short-term intervention of one-to-one teaching for the lowest-achieving first graders;” and “Reading Recovery: Scaling Up What Works, 2010-2015” and “Response to Long-Term Impacts of Reading of Recovery Through Third and Fourth Grade: A Regression Discontinuity Study from 2011-12 Through 2016-17” (2022). How many disconnected short-term “interventions” lead to undefined levels of “reading”? No one says. Does anyone know?

For brief superficial and misleading descriptions of Reading Recovery, see Heinemann websites. In particular, I readers to

Reading Recovery at OSU operates with institutionalized paternalism, nepotism, and collusion at its core. By definition and in practice, this violates established standards of professional honesty and academic ethics. In another technical term, it is “pay for play,” with the goal of enriching the principal concerned parties including the College of Education and the university.

To illustrate how this plays out, consider, on the one hand, the conjoint operations of Reading Recovery at OSU and its pseudo-independent Council with dues-paying membership, donors solicitated with matching contributions, and attorneys who threaten reputable non-profit publishers of criticism. This took place in 2017 when Learning Disabilities published Cook, Rodes, and Lipsitz, “The Reading Wars and Reading Recovery: What Educators, Families, and Taxpayers Should Know.” This is a careful, closely focused critique and expose of Reading Recovery. It was peer-reviewed.

The resource-short—unendowed--journal succumbed to the Council’s unprofessional, undocumented, extra-legal bullying. It removed carefully presented and documented criticism from its publication site. Professional scholars and people actually committed to childhood literacy do not do this. Reading Recovery does.

The for-profit enterprise conducts its own purported program of (self-) evaluation with the inflated title of International Data Evaluation Center (IDEC). The Reading Recovery Council self-servingly elaborates in proclaiming, “With more than 30 years of research and evaluation results, Reading Recovery is world’s most widely studied early reading intervention.” If any terms were defined, this dictum would be impossible to sustain. This is the language of marketing and self-promotion, not scholarly research.

The punchline follows: “IDEC is an ongoing research project in the College of Education and Human Ecology at The Ohio State University and is responsible for collecting and analyzing data.” This explicit contradiction of any degree of academic responsibility and independence of evaluation is unacceptable professionally and publicly.

This multiplies through Reading Recovery’s existence within the College of Education as a formal component of a chartered public university; in direct relationship to marketing educational materials for commercial publishing for profit; and in applying for, accepting, and conducting funded governmental and privately sponsored research. Each of these relationships represents significant conflicts of interest and ethical violations.

Completing the circle or tightening the noose, through her personal foundation, Gay Su Pinnell funnels her profits from collaborator Heinemann back to her institutionalized operation at OSU. From her multiple shells (including Reading Recovery Council, Fountas and Pinnell Literacy, Fountas and Pinnell Classroom Guided Reading Collection published by Heinemann, aa division of Houghton Mifflin, Harcourt), she “donates $7.5M” to OSU’s College of Education.

The meaning of this is unclear. Long before this announced action, Pinnell endowed the two clinical, non-tenure track “professorships” that her former students hold. Are those funds included in the $7.5 million? What about the proceeds from trademarks and licenses? This matters because the foundation’s website states holdings of $4.5 million, or $3 million less than the amount publicized as “largest gift by an individual in college’s history” as of the end of 2022.

These are direct conflicts of interest and violation of academic ethics. They amount to collusion, and even worse, given the documented failure of Reading Recovery/Fountas and Pinnell as a curriculum for sale.

Their academic misconduct includes 1) Reading Recovery’s history of refusing to respond directly and honestly to any criticism; 2) Reading Recovery’s direct and indirect sponsorship of unacceptable, basically irrelevant and distorting studies that dishonestly claim to demonstrate the program’s success; and 3) especially through its for-sale membership and private foundation-based Reading Research Council of North America, Reading Recovery’s regular one-two punch of denial and groundless threats to sue any critics. (See Reading Recovery items below)

I cannot count the number of anti-academic, ethical, and legal violations that together constitute Reading Recovery’s modus operandi. Over and over, profits trump children’s learning and all forms of scholarly honesty.

Fountas’ and Pinnell’s signed statements are misrepresentations at best. In Education Week, September 8, 2021, they declare, “Teachers, More Than Programs, Make for Great Reading Instruction. The label ‘balanced literacy’ serves no one.” Nor does their own irregular use of “structured literacy.” Review of their curriculum, on the contrary, shows the opposite.

They begin with a prejudicial, rhetorical mischaracterization of the “reading wars” that is slanted against “phonics” in favor of their own (shifting) brand(s) of phonetics: “Over the decades, beliefs about the ‘right’ way to teach reading have vacillated widely, from rigidly scripted phonics approaches that have the potential to take the interest and joy out of reading to romantic approaches that seem to expect children to figure it out themselves while having pleasurable literacy experiences.” This statement carries no meaning. Referring to “our long professional partnership with schools and teachers” without evidence, they privilege their own vantage point.

Fountas and Pinnell next argue against a series of straw figures that no knowledgeable person endorses. They confuse “daily, explicit phonics” which Reading Recovery does not include, with “word study, and teachers must have excellent knowledge of the alphabetic system and how it works to teach children to read.” Fountas and Pinnell constantly and confusingly shift back and forth, never clarifying any major issues and never fairly representing Reading Recovery or alternative approaches.

While claiming support from “scientific” research, they simultaneously minimize the overall thrust of “SoR” for “the narrow interpretations that may arise from it” They cannot find a divide that they do not attempt to straddle by distortion.

Contradicting the central thrust of their own curriculum approach, they assert “We caution against sweeping policy decisions that override the judgment of local educators.” Reading Recovery’s curriculum does just the opposite. A look at their grade level books shows this immediately. In the references, compare endorsements of SoR—and their limits—with Reading Recovery’s own contradictory declarations and practices.

Even worse, Fountas and Pinnell contradict their own commissioned “‘evaluation’ research” by declaring “As educators, we serve a highly diverse student population, including many children who come to school with disadvantages.” Reading Recovery both implicitly and explicitly ignores diversity and responds to irrefutable evidence that it has no place, for example, for dyslexic young people by asserting that dyslexia does not exist. (Among the references, see PBS, Dykstra)

This misrepresentation is accompanied by “Get the Facts: Responding to Misinformation About Fountas and Pinnell Literacy.” Children with disabilities are excluded from their studies. That fact alone disqualifies all their conclusions.

Consider this. “The Scale-up, 2010-2015” declares “The Reading Recovery literacy intervention targets struggling 1st grade students. The model is designed with the goal of early intervention to avoid reading difficulties becoming life-long struggles.” That in itself is a huge, unsustainable, undocumentable leap.

“The scale-up study was designed to target the lowest-level readers with supplemental pull-out reading…. The objective of the intervention is aiding students in developing a set of self-regulated literacy strategies that govern the use of meaning, structure, letter-sound relationships, and visual cues in reading and writing” only by teachers “trained” to “administer the intervention… through the Reading Recovery teacher training course.”

What does this mean in theory and practice, let alone pedagogical rhetoric? That is never clear. Especially with children with disabilities actually excluded, this is completely meaningless, no more than empty, misleading promotional verbiage.

None of these never peer-reviewed pages of self-promoting jargon passes muster. This is not how diverse children learn. The rhetoric does not fit the exercise or the needs. “Evaluation by a randomized controlled trial (RCT) where schools [not students] were randomly assigned to either a program or a non-program group” does not evaluate the impact on any given student. Among numerical and logical problems, it fails on the ecological fallacy as any first-year statistics student once knew.(Compare Cook et al, Dykstra, with D’Augustino et al, and below)

The self-affirming irrelevance of the study is confirmed in the admission: “To select students to participate in the RCT, 1st grade students were identified by school staff as struggling readers. The eight students with the lowest Observation Survey of Early Literacy Achievement (OSA) scores in a given school were then selected to participate in the RCT.”

In other words, nothing is comparable, random, or repeatable. The statistical analyses performed by D’Augustino and Rodgers and colleagues, in particular, at each step move farther and farther away from the original data. Even more invalidating, “Students with disabilities: ‘Not Reported/Not Applicable.’” In other words, nothing in this “evaluation” meets basic research standards. The reported results have no validity. This is par for the Reading Recovery enterprise.

Similar failures compromise all Fountas and Pinnell/Reading Recovery research, none of which is longitudinal. Reading Recovery is a rhetorical and promotional venture not based on scholarly testing or validation.

Purportedly supporting research by Reading Recovery colleagues at OSU and by members of the same collaborative in Pennsylvania and Delaware fails on multiple grounds: from conflicts of interest and ethics to nature of sample data and statistical methods, to dishonest reporting. These studies confuse numbers and percentages, employ irrelevant statistical techniques, change samples and definitions in mid-study, neglect negative results, do not  employ control groups or comparisons, and never address change over time.(For example, May et al)

This is especially clear in Reading Recovery’s specially commissioned in-house of “collaborators’” flawed efforts to demonstrate Fountas and Pinnell’s efficacy and defend against all criticism without ever confronting the critics directly. This is symptomatic of the house of cards always falling down. Cook et al’s and Dykstra’s critical reviews confirm this with certainty. This has been reported to the general public, despite Reading Recovery’s complaints by Emily Hanford on APM and in Education Week and elsewhere.

In 2023, even 1960, this is unacceptable practice. It reflects a lack of familiarity with the scholarship in directly relevant fields since the 1950s. In itself, that is damning.

This is made worse by Reading Recovery’s (purposeful or ignorant?) confusion of “early literacy” inconsistently with first through fourth graders. No knowledgeable literacy or reading scholar in the 21st century considers ages 6-7-8 or 9 to be “early literacy.” That notion long predated the 1970s and 1980s.

Today “early” specifies 2- or 3–5-year-olds or up to kindergarten. Phonetics-based “structured” reading instruction never “serves” independently from visual, oral, and phonics, except in the imagination of Fountas and Pinnell. In effect, they are committing crimes against children’s development and against the “science” whose support they—sometimes--claim. Try to read their defense in Education Week, Sept. 8, 2021. I dare readers.

Reading Recovery was developed without empirical, longitudinal testing, revision, and retesting. The program itself is “served” by “trainers” to grade 1-4 teachers in isolation from knowledge of diverse children’s variable development and the larger elementary school—not “early learning or reading” curricula. It rests on a series of slogans without meaning, replete with contradictions.

This is especially clear in Fountas’ and Pinnell’s ”Get the Facts: Responding to Misinformation about Fountas and Pinnell Literacy” They move from untrue statements about phonics to undefined Leveled Literacy Intervention or LLI. It presents neither facts nor mis/information. I refer readers to the Fountas and Pinnell guidebooks on the Heineman website. Interested, concerned readers should consult Hancock and Peak in APM.



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_____. 2016b. Schwartz’s response to Chapman and Tunmer’s analysis of reading recovery data: Whose ideology and whose politics: Australian Journal of Reading Difficulties. 21: 59-67

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_____. 2020. A review of reading recovery for those who most need literacy supports. Perspectives on Language and Literacy. Winter: 41-45

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_____. 2023b. The Surprising Obstacle to Overhauling How Children Learn to Read. New York Times. May 25

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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.