Few reporters in education journalism have had greater impact in recent years than Emily Hanford. In the five years since she started exploring why America’s students have a hard time learning to read, states across the country have made encouraging progress in advancing early reading policies. Today, the first two of six episodes of her newest podcast, “Sold a Story: How Teaching Kids to Read Went So Wrong,” became available. I got access to embargoed copies recently, and came away impressed and eager to listen to the remaining episodes, which will be released individually over the course of the upcoming weeks.
Hanford’s first documentary on reading examined the failure of America’s schools in serving students with dyslexia. Subsequent stories and podcasts sorted through the reading mess from other angles, all infuriating as well as heartbreaking. In these new podcasts, Hanford homes in on the complicity of one publishing company and four of its top authors. The publisher remains nameless through the first two episodes, but anyone who has followed Hanford’s work or have themselves worked in an elementary school anytime in the last twenty years will deduce that she’s referring to Heinemann, a division of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH).
Sold a Story opens with a recording of a fluent fourth grader effortlessly reading a passage about guide dogs, juxtaposed starkly against a reader who haltingly fumbles and stumbles her way along the same passage. It’s a short vignette, but it powerfully hits home the devastating effects when children are not taught how to decode—an avoidable negligence with severe and lasting repercussions. Hanford explains how reading instruction in primary classrooms went so off course:
Kids are not being taught how to read because for decades teachers have been sold an idea about reading and how children learn to do it. And that idea is wrong. The people who have been selling this idea—I don’t have any reason to believe they thought it was wrong. I think they wanted what I think everyone wants. They wanted kids to learn how to read. They wanted kids to love reading. But they believed so deeply in their idea about how to do that that they somehow ignored or explained away a whole lot of evidence that showed the idea was wrong. And they went on to make a lot of money.
A lot of money. Heinemann was the primary driver of HMH’s annual revenue of nearly $600 million annually. I’d like to share Hanford’s generosity when it comes to motives, but I can’t help but suspect that some of those pushing this misbegotten idea knew perfectly well what they were doing.
The rest of the show traces the gut-wrenching stories of parents like Corinne Adams and Lee Gaul, who painfully discover that their children did not read as well as they had been led to believe. When their kids were home doing Zoom school in response to the pandemic, Adams and Gaul were able to watch everything, and what they learned was that their children’s schools weren’t teaching their kids how to read. They were teaching kids, as Gaul put it, to sound like they could read. Luckily, Adams and Gaul intervened, but not all children are so lucky to have parents with the bandwidth or wherewithal to swoop in when their schools fall short.
The second episode focuses on the bad idea driving the poor reading strategies that have become so pervasive in America’s elementary schools. Simply put, the idea is that beginning readers don’t have to sound out words. Instead, they can look at the picture or use other cues to make educated guesses when confronting an unfamiliar word. This notion is deeply entrenched in American education. From educator preparation programs to professional development and curriculum materials, teachers encounter it everywhere. Having a big hand in the idea’s proliferation is the first of the four authors Hanford targets in the documentary: New Zealander Marie Clay, the founder of Reading Recovery. (Close followers of the Reading First story may recall that Chris Doherty, the first director of the program, was vilified for attempting to keep programs like Reading Recovery and Heinemann from receiving federal grants.)
Clay did not believe in phonics instruction. In fact, she described it, regrettably, as “nonsense.” Instead, Clay’s theory dovetailed with what has become known today as “whole language.” She was of the opinion that the letters in a word are “incidental” to reading; sounding out a word should only be used as a last resort, when all other clues are exhausted. However, brain scans and eye-tracking technology now show the opposite to be true: Skilled readers are able to recognize words without relying on context or cues at all. Good readers aren’t good problem solvers, as Clay thought; they see a word and recognize it—all in a split second.
It’s hard to overstate the lasting footprint of Clay’s research and advocacy, but Hanford provides the listener a strong sense of the scope (and damage): Former President Bill Clinton and his education secretary Richard Riley were enthusiastic proponents. By the end of the 1990s, Reading Recovery was in more than one in five American schools, to say nothing of its reach across the English-speaking world, from Australia to Britain. Indeed, the Queen made Clay a dame, equivalent to a knight. According to one survey, Clay was the researcher most likely to be introduced to teachers when they were in training, followed by two American women we’ll learn more about in the next episode.
Without getting too deep into the reading wars, Hanford’s first two salvos in her latest offering will feel both bracing and familiar. Listeners who know her work will recognize the formula—agonizing stories interwoven with science, data, and a just-the-facts-ma’am ethos—and be spellbound by it nonetheless. The truth is that reading scores were low even before the pandemic, and they’ve been that way for a while. Many have come to accept student illiteracy as something schools have little to no control over. Adams, one of the parents Hanford interviews, says that her big takeaway from all of this is that if you want to make sure your child can read, you should teach her yourself. Now there’s an idea that schools, schools of education, and textbook publishers alike should think long and hard on.