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Podcast lays out how we learn to read and how we’ve failed to teach reading

Child reading
Ann Doss Helms
Reading time at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools' new Mint Hill Elementary School.

I hate to admit this, but I learned almost as much about reading instruction from four hours of listening to “Sold a Story: How Teaching Kids to Read Went So Wrong” as I have from 20 years of covering education. The podcast by American Public Media reporters Emily Hanford and Christopher Peak lays out decades of context for what’s been dubbed the reading wars.

It starts with how a New Zealand teacher’s 1963 study of 100 children turned into a movement that shaped the way American children were taught for decades. And it explores how politics, publishing companies and profits clashed with research on how children learn to read.

The whole language and balanced literacy movements have roots in Marie Clay’s observation of 100 strong readers in their first year of school in New Zealand. She concluded that they were problem solvers, finding clues to deduce the meaning of words rather than painstakingly sounding them out. That evolved into what’s known as “three cueing” — encouraging children to figure out an unknown word by looking for cues in the illustrations and the context of the sentence.

But her basic premise was wrong, the podcast reports. Later research demonstrated that good readers do learn to sound out words. They just do it so quickly and easily it becomes second nature. Once that happens, “you’re not using your brain power to identify the words. You’re using your brain power to understand what you’re reading,” Hanford says.

Relating to those children

Listening to the podcast is an intellectual voyage, but also a personal one. If you’re with friends or family, you’ll find yourself pausing to swap stories of how you and/or your children learned to read.

I was a contemporary of those New Zealand children in the 1960s. After five years with a stay-home mother who loved books, I entered kindergarten reading at fifth grade level. I remember sitting through first grade reading lessons with a mix of boredom and fascination. Reading was so easy, but learning to read seemed complicated.

I always thought I’d learned to read like I learned to talk. In fact, my mom almost certainly provided some low-key instruction in sounding out words — enough to flip the switch if you’re in that group that’s primed to read easily. Had an adult asked me, I couldn’t have explained phonics, any more than I understood the mechanics of walking and talking. And I used deduction exactly as Hanford describes it, to figure out new vocabulary.

As an advanced reader I was labeled smart. Age and experience have led me to scale back my estimate of my own brilliance, but the self-confidence that came with that label lasted a lifetime.

The majority of children don’t get to fluent reading that easily. And the longer they go without mastering it, the deeper the sense of shame and failure that can also shape a life.

Sold A Story cover
'Sold a Story' Podcast

Skipping straight to the magic

The instructional philosophies and curricula that evolved from Clay’s research emphasized the joy of reading, encouraging teachers to set up cozy nooks and giving children leveled books to read. That appealed to people who love reading — including many educators. As Hanford puts it, “I think people with good intentions wanted to get kids curled up with books in cozy nooks as fast as they could. They wanted to get kids to the good part. And they ended up teaching them shortcuts that don’t get a lot of kids to where they need to go.”

Those strategies didn’t work for a lot of kids. But as research accumulated that questioned the premises of whole language and related strategies, reading pedagogy had taken on political overtones. Phonics had been embraced by conservatives, while skeptics saw that approach as secondary at best, and at worst something that killed the magic of reading.

In the early 2000s, President George W. Bush’s Reading First initiative pushed phonics. But that met with serious pushback, including from authors who had staked their careers on strategies that de-emphasized sounding out words.

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The political polarization continues, as dismally low reading scores persist. I admit I rolled my eyes when North Carolina Superintendent Catherine Truitt, a Republican, rolled out the state’s science of reading bill in 2021 by telling reporters, “The science of reading won the reading war. Phonics won." That sounded more like political posturing than a sophisticated approach to a complex challenge.

In reality, as I’ve reported since then, the training financed by North Carolina’s bill covers more than just phonics. I’ll get back to that. But first, a bit more about how we got here.

Map of the eastern US

CMS and Heinemann

The fifth episode of “Sold a Story” focuses on the role of Heinemann Publishing, a New Hampshire-based company that’s owned by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. It sells curriculum and assessments based on the balanced literacy philosophy.

The APM reporters filed public information requests with 100 of the largest school districts, including Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, to get a sense of how much public schools have spent on the materials. CMS reported spending almost $291,000 over four years. That’s significantly more than Wake and Guilford counties, which each reported spending less than $10,000 on Heinemann products. But it’s a small portion of a $2 billion annual budget, and a lot less than districts like New York City ($21 million over 10 years) and Gwinnett County, Georgia ($14.5 million over 10 years).

The bottom line is that until the 2019 school year CMS was using the balanced literacy approach, which involves steering children to look for clues about meaning rather than teaching them to sound out words. And CMS used the leveled literacy books published by Heinemann, which assign children reading levels from A to Z and provide books to match those levels.

I asked for details of the CMS spending but didn’t get that information before leaving for Thanksgiving.

In 2019 CMS contracted with EL Education and began phasing in a curriculum that includes explicit instruction on sounding out words.

By that time districts and states across the nation were tuning into research on how children learn to read, driven partly by Hanford’s reporting. North Carolina is now retraining all elementary school teachers in a method known as LETRS, which involves teaching children phonics and other foundational skills.

The CMS public information office sent me a link to this document, which outlines the current approach. The peppy report is oddly studded with exclamation points — “The reading scores of American children have remained somewhat stagnant for over 40 years!” — and talks about how CMS is teaching children the foundations of reading, providing books that let them practice decoding words and helping them build knowledge and vocabulary as they advance.

If you read closely you’ll also find a renunciation of earlier practices: CMS no longer uses the Heinemann literacy levels and has abandoned the “three-cueing” system: “We want our students to look at every letter in the words, apply phonics knowledge, and sound words out!” Students still have small-group reading time with teacher guidance, but “we are choosing to distance ourselves from the term ‘Guided Reading” because that term is connected closely with the teaching of the Three-Cueing system which has been debunked by research.”

“We are committed to stop doing what doesn’t work and be guided by scientific research to ensure that we deliver on the promise of literacy for every CMS student,” the paper concludes.

Teacher with flashcards
Ann Doss Helms
Landy Solorzano, a student at Charlotte Early Teacher College High School, works with a student at Hickory Grove Elementary School in the spring of 2022.

Why so slow?

The obvious question is: If balanced literacy doesn’t work, why did it take so many people so long to figure it out?

The podcast notes that many parents didn’t see how their children were being taught until the pandemic forced kids to learn from home, often with mom or dad looking over their shoulder. When children struggled to read at school, some families were able to help with tutoring and supplemental material.

The podcast also touches on something I’ve learned as well: Federal dollars have long been pegged to research-based practices. But nearly everything on the market is labeled that way. And it doesn’t necessarily mean that a specific product or program has been scientifically tested and proven effective. Often it means the designers of the product looked at reading research and decided how to apply it. Not only does the company selling that product play up its benefits, but the districts and states that buy in become accomplices, hoping to justify their decisions.

I learned a lot of this in the early 2000s, covering CMS’ experience with the Open Court reading program. The district saw some early gains, and the superintendent at the time said that CMS was on the brink of solving the reading problem and closing racial gaps. And this is where things get really sticky. Because as some of you know, Open Court was a phonics-based curriculum. And CMS eventually abandoned it because the district did not see significant, lasting gains in reading proficiency.

It’s understandable that people are angry at decision-makers who pursued strategies that failed so many children. But it’s also fair to note that so far nothing has been proven to consistently teach all kids to read well. And many efforts, from public pre-kindergarten programs to various reading interventions, create test-score gains in early grades that fade later. As I recently reported, that’s been the case in Mississippi, which saw a dramatic jump in fourth-grade reading scores five years after introducing the LETRS program. But in 2022 Mississippi’s fourth graders still fared only about the same as North Carolina’s on national exams, and their eighth graders were below average.

Like so many challenges in education, this seems to be a “yes and …” situation. Yes, it certainly appears that many children will benefit from explicit instruction in the mechanics of reading. AND that work needs to start early, in the homes and pre-kindergarten. AND we need to figure out how to reach older students who didn’t get that instruction early enough but still need it. AND students and parents need support in all the other aspects of life that can encourage or discourage learning.

Compared with that, listening to a four-hour podcast doesn’t seem like so much. But it’s a great way to get us all talking and thinking about what needs to happen next.

This story originally appeared in WFAE reporter Ann Doss Helms' education newsletter.

Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.