Despite decades of public investment and a renaissance in reading research, the most recent round of NAEP scores shows no significant improvement in 4th or 8th grade reading levels since the early 1990s. So the question remains – why aren’t more students learning how to read?
Emily Hanford, Senior Correspondent at APM Reports, has been investigating this question since 2017 and has helped broaden awareness around how we understand – and respond to – the root causes of the national literacy crisis. Whiteboard Advisors’ Martha Baker and Tracey Marin sat down with Emily to get her thoughts on how schools teach reading, what needs to change, and what’s next for her reporting.
For those who haven’t been following your podcast “Sold a Story” and your reporting on the US literacy crisis, talk to us about the issue – what’s going on with how schools teach reading?
Millions of kids in this country can’t read well. The 2019 NAEP data showed that 34 percent of fourth-graders couldn’t even read on a basic level. And that was before COVID. Things are worse now.
Part of the problem is the instruction many kids are getting in school. There’s a huge body of research, commonly referred to as the “science of reading,” that researchers – largely psychologists and neuroscientists – have developed over the past several decades.
Thanks to that body of research, we actually know far more today than we have historically about how kids learn to read, and what – and how – they need to be taught.
But despite advances in science, we haven’t translated the research into practice in our nation’s classrooms. Teachers were rarely taught the science in their teacher preparation programs or in the professional development they get on the job. In fact, many schools of education have been pushing an approach to teaching reading that isn’t backed by evidence about how kids learn to read.
Why is a journalist raising the alarm on this issue instead of the people we might expect to bring this up, such as academic professors, educators or district leaders?
It is often difficult for people within institutions or systems to recognize, acknowledge or speak up about foundational problems. That’s one reason journalism is important; it’s our job to identify and expose problems.
“Sold a Story” focuses on one problematic idea that is in popular curriculum materials, intervention programs and assessment systems. The idea is that beginning readers don’t have to sound out words because they can use other cues to identify the words. They can do things like – look at the first letter, look at the picture, think of a word that makes sense. But cognitive scientists have shown that the most effective and efficient way to learn and remember a written word is to look carefully at the word, sound it out, and connect the pronunciation of the word with the spelling and the meaning. You can eventually learn and remember tens of thousands of written words if you do it this way. But many schools are teaching kids that they don’t have to sound out words because they can use other cues instead. This is making it harder for many children to learn how to read.
Many cognitive scientists and other researchers knew this was a problem. So did many parents and teachers. But they were having a hard time being heard. I think it took a journalist to dig into this issue, see the problem, and explain it. Now it’s getting a lot of people’s attention.
Relatedly, your work has generated some backlash, such as a letter from a number of educators and academics – including Lucy Calkins, author of a reading curriculum discussed in your podcast – that calls for “rejecting the newest reading wars.” How do you address such backlash?
I’m not surprised by the backlash. The people and the company we focus on in the podcast that continue to promote the cueing idea have been very influential in elementary education for a generation; the reporting raises profound questions that threaten their influence and their market share.
I don’t think this is a new reading war. This is the same reading war that was never settled. We’ve been arguing about how to teach kids to read for centuries; you can find fights about it going back to the beginning of public education in this country. People argued for good reason. Reading is an essential skill, and for a long time no one really knew how people learn to do it. But now we know. Hopefully the war is finally coming to an end, as more people better understand what scientific research says about reading and how it works.
Your journalism has made clear the need for action from educators, district leaders and policymakers to shift how children are taught to read in the United States. Since “Sold a Story,” what changes in policy and/or practice have you already seen?
Since “Sold a Story,” legislators in at least nine states are banning or considering bans on materials that use the cueing idea the podcast focused on. Kentucky lawmakers voted to end a state contract with a literacy center that supports practices we identified as problematic. School districts are making changes too, including Evanston-Skokie, Illinois; Charles County, Maryland; and, as we know from our reporting, Katy, Texas. Those are just a few examples.
The podcast is prompting a lot of discussion among educators. From what we’ve seen on social media and in our email, teachers and district leaders across the country are reexamining their beliefs and their practices. One veteran teacher called it the “biggest water cooler moment” of her career and organized a series of Zoom happy hours to discuss the podcast. The superintendent in Fargo, North Dakota, apologized to his former students for backing the approach that “Sold a Story” focused on: “[I] can’t shake my own remorse” for defending it as a teacher, he wrote on Twitter. An administrator in Washington, DC, said: “All of us need to reckon with what we were taught about how kids learn to read, the resources and strategies we used to teach them, and the curriculum and materials we use going forward.”
What major and enduring obstacles will educators, district leaders and policymakers need to overcome to elevate (and hopefully implement) science of reading into instruction?
We see a worrying trend, which was happening before the podcast. Some districts are adding more instruction in decoding. This is sometimes called “the phonics patch.” But they aren’t taking away cueing. We also see publishing companies and influential authors making small tweaks to their programs and slapping on the label “science of reading.” That’s a problem, too.
Based on your reporting and research, what role do you see parents and families playing in cultivating literacy-rich educational environments for their children?
Literacy-rich environments are critical. But literacy-rich environments don’t teach children to read. There’s a lot of confusion out there about this. Reading to children helps them develop the language comprehension and knowledge that’s absolutely critical to becoming a good reader. But children still need to be taught how to actually read the words. As cognitive scientist Mark Seidenberg has written: “Children who are read to until the cow jumps over the moon can still have difficulty becoming readers.”
Lots of parents have learned this the hard way. Many end up paying thousands of dollars for tutors to teach their kids to read. That’s not public education, though, if learning how to read depends on having parents with a bank account that can pay for private tutoring.
Many parents write to me to ask what they can do to advocate for better reading instruction in their schools. I tell them to find the other parents who are concerned about this. There are plenty of them out there. Learn about the science of reading and approach your schools together to ask how you can work with them to improve instruction for all kids.
Can you give our readers a preview of what’s coming next for your reporting? What are you excited to dive into?
My reporting has focused mostly on one small but essential part of becoming a good reader: learning how to read the words. I focused on that because we’ve been getting that part very wrong. But there’s a lot more to becoming a good reader than knowing how to read the words.
My reporting has also focused a lot on core classroom instruction. It’s important to recognize that even if schools get core instruction right, there are still kids who will need more help than one teacher with a classroom of 25 children can provide. Educators and policymakers can’t forget about that.
In terms of my own reporting, I don’t know yet what’s next. I get a lot of questions about how to help older students and adults. I’m interested in that. I get a lot of questions about math and other subject areas too. And there’s a lot of change going on. There’s a lot to document. There are a lot of places to visit and to ask – what’s working? What’s not? Why?
Emily Hanford and her reporting recently appeared in “The Right to Read,” a new documentary film on providing our youngest generation with the most foundational indicator of life-long success: the ability to read. To learn more about the documentary, visit therighttoreadfilm.org. And be sure to listen to the “Sold a Story” podcast at www.soldastory.org or on your favorite podcast app.