New Podcast Examines Why Teachers Have Been "Sold a Story"on Reading Instruction
Complex and fascinating as it is, the podcast only looks at one small part of the problem.
An eagerly awaited new podcast from journalist Emily Hanford delves into why reading teachers have long been trained to believe in an approach that conflicts with scientific evidence. Complex and fascinating as it is, the podcast only scratches the surface of our literacy crisis.
Hanford has done yeoman work over the past five years in raising awareness of fundamental problems with the way children in the U.S.—and some other countries—are taught to read. In four major radio documentaries for APM Reports, she has laid out the story in lucid and engaging terms.
That story is essentially this: For decades, the standard approach to teaching kids how to decipher, or “decode,” text has rested on the assumption that it’s not necessary to explicitly teach the vast majority of them how to connect sounds in words to the letters that represent them. Teachers may throw in some of that instruction, often called “phonics,” but they’re guided by their training and materials to encourage kids to guess at words, using context or pictures. Scientific evidence has clearly shown, however, that many if not most children will struggle to become fluent readers unless they get systematic instruction in phonics.
Now Hanford is back with another series of episodes, co-reported by Christopher Peak, that delves into the history behind this divergence between reading instruction and science. It’s called “Sold a Story.” I was given advance access to the first two episodes of the series, which were released on October 20, 2022; the remaining four episodes will be released once a week after that.
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It’s clear Hanford and Peak have done extensive research, but there’s nothing dry or didactic about the podcast. Hanford uses interviews and archival audio clips along with down-to earth narration to build what amounts to a detective story. How, she wants to know, could this have happened? Listeners will want to know as well.
For those who have followed Hanford’s previous work, the first two episodes will cover some familiar ground. But that’s to be expected. Not every listener can be counted on to have that background knowledge—and even those who do will hear new voices and compelling stories. The fresh material that is woven in brings some eye-opening revelations, even for those who, like myself, feel they already know a lot about the topic.
A company, four authors, and a “wrong idea”
In the first episode, Hanford promises to explain “why a company and four of its top authors” have been able to peddle a “wrong idea” about reading instruction for so long. By the end of episode two, that company has yet to be named, along with at least three of the four authors. But I’m going to make an educated guess that the company is Heinemann, a leading curriculum publisher, and the authors are Marie Clay, Irene Fountas, Gay Su Pinnell, and Lucy Calkins.
Together, these four women might be seen as the founding mothers of what is now the dominant approach to reading instruction, “balanced literacy”—a philosophy that promises to balance phonics instruction with literature that instills a love of reading. The theory sounds appealing, but its inadequate attention to phonics leaves many kids, and especially those from less educated and lower-income families, unable to read fluently. It’s hard to love reading if you can’t read.
In the second episode, Hanford traces Marie Clay’s seminal role in selling this “story.” A reading teacher and researcher in New Zealand, Clay in the 1970s devised a program for struggling readers called Reading Recovery. It’s based on the assumption that good readers sound out words only as a last resort. First, Clay theorized, they look to other “cues”—context and sentence structure. After Clay’s work was discovered by some professors at Ohio State (not named in the episode but—spoiler alert—likely to include Gay Su Pinnell), the program spread quickly throughout the U.S. and is still widely used.
The podcast includes a telling clip from a 1978 interview with Clay, who died in 2007, in which she says we don’t know what’s really going on in the brain when children read—and, she adds, “it’s unlikely we will ever know.” But, as Hanford explains, we’ve since found out a lot about that, and what we now know conflicts with Clay’s theories. Unfortunately, the information has been slow to penetrate schools of education and instructional materials designed to teach kids to read.
This latest podcast is a valuable addition to Hanford’s body of work, and I urge anyone with an interest in education—or the state of our democracy—to listen to it. Balanced literacy and its similar predecessor, “whole language,” have left us with a staggering number of citizens who are not only unable to do the kind of reading that enables them to hold down well-paying jobs but also unable to understand many newspaper and magazine articles. Democracies can’t function without a reasonably literate citizenry. And 54% of American adults read below the equivalent of a sixth-grade level.
Decoding instruction isn’t our only problem
Important as “Sold a Story” and Hanford’s other podcasts on reading are, though, they leave crucial parts of the current mess unexplored. You could listen to all of them and come away with the idea that if we can just fix the problems with decoding instruction, our literacy crisis will be solved. Unfortunately, it’s a lot more complicated than that.
Decoding is crucial, but it’s only one component of literacy—and complex as it is, it’s the simplest to address. The problems with the way our education system approaches reading comprehension are even more widespread and better hidden, and Irene Fountas, Gay Su Pinnell, and Lucy Calkins have a lot to do with that. The standard approach to writing instruction is equally problematic, and Calkins is a key figure there as well. Hanford wouldn’t even have to seek out a new cast of characters to explore those two aspects of the issue, and they would make for an equally fascinating story. I cover both of them in my book The Knowledge Gap, but education journalists, including Hanford, have generally skirted them, instead training a laser-like focus on decoding and phonics.
Those journalists often feel, understandably, that they have their hands full with phonics. But here’s the problem: If we don’t simultaneously focus on our failures with regard to comprehension and writing instruction—the latter of which is crucial in familiarizing students with the complex syntax of written language, among other things—we may jeopardize the progress now being made in teaching phonics.
Why? Because at some point, after kids have gotten good phonics instruction, we’re likely to discover that many of them can decode words in complex text but can’t understand the text. At that point, the phonics skeptics may well say, “You see? Phonics doesn’t work.” And the pendulum will swing back to something like balanced literacy or whole language, perhaps under yet another name.
That may sound ridiculous. After all, phonics doesn’t enable you to understand what you’re reading. Just think what it’s like to read text in another language if you know the alphabet and rules of pronunciation but very little vocabulary. But that’s what’s happened before. And if we’re not careful, it will happen again.
This post originally appeared on Forbes.com.