How children are taught to read faces a reckoning
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Kids in the U.S. are struggling to read. And have been for years.
“We weren’t teaching kids what they we needed to know. We were teaching them the habits of struggling readers, no wonder we have so many struggling readers,” Emily Hanford says.
Research shows early readers need direct instruction – meaning how to sound out letters and words.
But for years, many classrooms have used curriculum that teaches kids ineffective reading shortcuts instead.
“I’m not saying people have to throw everything out and start all over again, but I do think this is a pretty profound change,” Hanford says.
“We need to get on a different road.”
Today, On Point: A major reckoning in teaching children how to read.
Emily Hanford, senior correspondent at American Public Media. Host and reporter of the radio documentary Hard Words: Why Aren’t Our Kids Being Taught to Read? and Sold a Story: How Teaching Kids to Read Went So Wrong. (@ehanford)
Missy Purcell, former elementary school teacher and mom from Georgia. (missy_purcell)
Jack Silva, assistant superintendent and chief academic officer at the Bethlehem Area School District in Pennsylvania. (@basdjacksilva)
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: Here is a very basic expectation that we all have. That when kids go to school, they’re going to be taught how to read. I mean, it’s kind of the entire purpose of early elementary education, isn’t it? Well, Missy Purcell thought that. And in fact, for as long as she could remember, she loved to read. So much so that Missy also knew she wanted to be a teacher. So when she grew up, Missy began training for her teaching career at the University of Georgia.
MISSY PURCELL: My entire training was in what I didn’t even know at that time was the term, but it was balanced literacy. And I was really trained in the reading and writing workshop approach. There was a huge emphasis on getting kids to love to learn, to read and write. And as a reader and a writer, that resonated with me. And I wanted my kids, my future classrooms to do the same thing that I did. I wanted them to love to learn, to read and write.
CHAKRABARTI: Now, balanced literacy is an approach to teaching literacy that’s extremely common in America’s public schools. More than 70% of elementary special education and K-2 teachers said their schools used balanced literacy. And 65% of College of Education professors teach it to aspiring teachers, and have for many years.
Now, those numbers are according to a 2019 survey by Education Week. So, it seemed utterly natural to Missy to take this approach, this balanced literacy approach, into her classroom when she landed her first teaching job outside of Atlanta at the Gwinnett County Public Schools.
PURCELL: My room screamed balanced literacy. A cozy reading nook and comfy seating for a reading in a classroom library. And the focus was on quantity. I remember, you know, there was this pressure to get kids to write more, which I don’t disagree with, but it was more about the quantity of getting them to write more and find the joy, because they wrote so much. And read more, and therefore they would become better readers because they read.
CHAKRABARTI: Now, the balanced literacy approach, though, didn’t work for every kid. In fact, Missy soon learned it didn’t work for a lot of kids. But the balanced literacy pedagogy stresses that loving reading, like really, really loving it is an important key to literacy.
PURCELL: If a kid was struggling and not where they needed to be, that was the only advice I gave parents was. Read more. They’ll become fluent. If you read more, you know, write more. Create experiences in your home where you read the book and watch the movie and talk about it. Like things felt good. And I felt like an expert telling parents that, and parents would listen to me.
CHAKRABARTI: All that changed when Missy became a parent herself. In 2007, Missy left teaching to raise her three sons Harrison, William and Matthew.
PURCELL: My older two boys, when they left preschool, they give you a skill sheet that lets you know, Hey, this is what your kid mastered in preschool. This is how many sounds they know, how many letters they know. Matthew, unlike my older two children, only knew how to identify the letter M for his name, Matthew. And he only knew about three letter sounds. And all my other boys knew all of them.
CHAKRABARTI: Matthew was just six years old at the time and he was being taught how to read using the same balanced literacy approach Missy had used herself as a teacher, so she wasn’t too worried at first. But Matthew failed to make much progress, and later he was diagnosed with dyslexia that qualified him for extra support. So, he was put into a program called Reading Recovery, a short-term intervention used for struggling readers.
And Reading Recovery uses the same balanced literacy approach, as well. Well, a few months later, Missy got an email from her teacher saying Matthew was not making progress. And the teacher’s only suggestion? Missy should read more to Matthew at home. It was the exact same advice that Missy had given to so many other parents when she’d been a teacher.
PURCELL: So a child that we already know is flagged for not becoming a proficient reader, who’s in a very expensive, intensive remediation program that’s not offered to everybody, is plateauing. And the only advice I got was to read to him more. And we’re going to keep plugging away. We’re going to keep doing the same thing, even though we’re not getting any results.
CHAKRABARTI: At the same time, though, Matthew kept getting into trouble at school. He was acting out. And always during portions of the literacy curriculum known as Guided Reading.
PURCELL: And my favorite one was he was making armpit noises during guided reading, and he couldn’t write because on the action plan you have to write what you did. So he drew a photo of himself making an armpit noise, and then he tried so hard to write, you know, I was making an armpit noise and it was, you know, incredibly impossible to read because he didn’t have the encoding skills and he didn’t have the decoding skills.
CHAKRABARTI: Her son was simply not learning the most basic skill schools are expected to teach. He was not learning how to read. Missy couldn’t stand it. So, she started doing her own research online.
PURCELL: And that’s when I stumbled upon the Facebook page The Science of Reading: What I Should Have Learned in College. And I was just, you know, gobsmacked that there was a whole community of people like me. I was not a unicorn. My child wasn’t a unicorn. And there were all these people who literally, just like me, didn’t know. And we didn’t teach kids the right way. And then, sadly, everything that I did to kids now was happening to my own child.
I’m never, ever going to blame teachers because I was one. And I know why they did what they did. But, now that we do have the opportunity to know better and we’re getting training and we’re getting access to the right materials now there’s accountability. We now know better. So now we just really have to get everyone to want to do better.
CHAKRABARTI: That’s mom and teacher Missy Purcell. We’re going to hear more about what happened with her son Matthew a bit later in today’s show. Now, Missy’s story is featured in a blockbuster new podcast called Sold A Story, reported by Emily Hanford. Emily has been reporting on why so many American children are struggling to learn how to read.
And the podcast uncovers the personalities, the money and the deep-seated beliefs behind the pervasive literacy curriculum in the United States that schools follow. Now, this literacy curriculum is not based on decades of research. It is not based on decades of research showing how the human brain actually learns how to read. And Emily Hanford joins us now. Emily, welcome back to On Point.
EMILY HANFORD: Hi, Meghna. Thank you so much for having me. Thank you for that great introduction.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, thank you for diving deep. Two years’ worth of reporting to really uncover this profoundly complicated story. So, first of all, there are lots of people listening right now, Emily, who do not know what balanced literacy actually is. How would you describe what this method of teaching reading to young kids is?
HANFORD: Yeah, I’m not sure I would exactly call it a method. I would sort of call it an approach. And it’s not one curriculum. There are many curricula and materials that describe themselves as balanced literacy. And I think you did a really good job in the introduction, sort of beginning to unwrap what that means. What you find in surveys is that most elementary schools say they’re using a balanced literacy approach. There’s not a precise definition of what that means, and it sounds really good.
We all want balance in all things. It would be nice if our world had more balance. And I think balance literacy started with some good intentions. The idea was that kids need some phonics instruction and some exposure to text and vocabulary and comprehension. And there were sort of a suite of things. There were sort of five major things that were identified by this big panel in the late ’90s and early 2000s. And the idea was, Give kids a little bit of all of it, and that will be balanced literacy.
And I think what happened along the way is that balanced literacy really was sort of foundationally grounded in this whole language approach to reading, which Missy sort of talked about. Sort of a general idea that if kids are exposed to written language, if people read to them, they will eventually learn to read. And it is founded on a belief that many people aren’t exactly sort of aware, that this is the belief that it’s founded on, sort of founded on the basic belief that learning to read is a lot like learning to talk, that if you are exposed to the language, you will learn how to do it. Yeah.
CHAKRABARTI: I’m going to play the role of the parent, being a parent as I am. So yeah, I mean, we’re all told to talk as much to our infants as possible, and it does seem a little bit like magic that they actually end up talking back to us, because human beings are very orally verbal. But I don’t understand how the same is supposed to work for reading. But that’s the assumption. You’re saying with the balanced reading approach that if you just read to your kids, that magically they will learn how to read the words should, could, would and did.
HANFORD: And for some kids, it really does seem to happen like this. You know, some kids really kind of figure out how written language works with a little bit of instruction to school and a lot of sitting on their caregivers’ lap and then pointing to the words, they start to figure out that there is a code of written language.
But essentially our brains, we are not born with brains that kind of are ready to do that thing called reading, because reading, like written language is kind of new. Like we human beings have been walking around on this world for a very long time and just for a little bit of that time, we had figured out this whole written language thing.
So, we’re not actually born able to do that automatically, whereas we are able to learn to talk. Right? And so, there’s just this assumption behind reading instruction. I mean, teachers in schools know that there are things they need to teach, but a lot of the instruction is sort of grounded on this idea that it will all come together in time as long as kids are getting exposure. And that turns out not to be true.
And most kids, this is one of the big, surprising things for me of this reporting … is a lot more people than I realized struggle with learning how to read. It’s actually quite difficult for people. It doesn’t have to do with intelligence. Very, very smart people struggle with learning how to read. Some of us, I think I was one of them, don’t need much instruction, but some of us need a lot.
CHAKRABARTI: Emily, I told you I would love to hear you describe what’s actually taking place. Say, in a typical day when this balanced literacy instruction is going on. And in order to help do that, I actually pulled a bit from the Sold a Story podcast.
This is an early moment in the podcast that really grabbed me, and it’s when a mom from South Kingstown, Rhode Island, her name is Corrine Adams. She was actually at home giving her six-year-old son, Charlie, a reading assessment. And I think she was at home because her kids were out of school due to due to the pandemic. So she had to give her son the reading assessment. And here’s how that went.
HANFORD: She gave him the test. They’re sitting in their kitchen. Charlie’s two-year-old sister is playing in the background, and Charlie has to read a book called How Things Move. … Charlie is grasping for straws. He has no idea how to read most of the words in this book. Some of the words he is saying are not even on the page.
CHAKRABARTI: Now, Emily, what was Charlie being taught that led him to think that guessing was the best way to try to read unfamiliar words?
HANFORD: Yes. Well, let me say this. Reading, it requires a lot of skills. You need to be able to identify the words and understand what they say. Reading comprehension requires a lot. But what I focus on in this podcast is the written words themselves. What does it take for a human being to be able to read written words? And how does a child learn how to do that and how are schools teaching that?
So what I identified years ago, and the reason I did this podcast, is because many kids in schools today are taught these strategies for how to read the words. They’re told that when they come to a word they don’t know, there are lots of different things they can do. They can look at the first letter of the word, the last letter of the word. They can look at the picture in the book. They can sort of think of what would make sense there. Think about the overall meaning.
And one of the things they might do is sound out the word. And many kids are getting a little bit of phonics instruction and they’re being taught something about how to sound out words. The problem with this approach is that kids are being taught that sounding out the word is one way to identify what a word is, but you have all these other strategies you can use instead. So that’s what Charlie was being taught, because that’s what his teacher was teaching.
Because that’s what the curriculum told the teacher to teach. Teach kids that they have all these different strategies they can use to figure out the words. That becomes a problem for many kids because they start to rely on those other strategies.
CHAKRABARTI: What are those other strategies?
HANFORD: Looking at the first letter, thinking of something that makes sense, looking at the picture in the book. So that’s what Charlie was doing. And the amazing thing when his mom gave him that reading test at home is that she was being told at that point that Charlie was doing well, that he was like reading well. And then she gave him this assessment and she’s like, Wait a minute, this is the fall of first grade.
And he can’t read any other words in these books. What is going on? And what I show in the podcast is part of this gets down to a very common way of assessing a child’s reading ability, using particular books that kids are familiar with, that teachers have given a lot of introduction to. They’ve often gone through the books, helped them identify some of the words. Kids memorize some of the words, they’ll look at the pictures. Kids will memorize entire books. But then when you hand them a book they’ve never seen before. Often what you’ll hear is something like Charlie, which is I have no idea what to do here.
And so some kids do figure out on their own or because they’re getting enough phonics instruction in school that the most reliable, effective way to figure out a word you don’t know is to sound it out and see if it sounds like a word in spoken language. But some kids have a really hard time with that, aren’t taught really the skills of how to do that and start to rely on these other strategies that turn out to be not very effective. When you start to get to more complex books that don’t have pictures, there are more words on the page.
The words are longer, and what you’ll see with a lot of kids is they can kind of look like good readers in kindergarten, first and second grade, and things sort of start to fall apart by third and fourth grade.
CHAKRABARTI: So the question is what happens when the pictures go away, right? … From your reporting, how common is this method of teaching? And specifically, there are a couple of very well-known curricula. How common are they in American schools?
HANFORD: Well, you know, it’s hard to answer that question with any precision. And this is part of kind of how we ended up in the situation we’re in, is that the United States is a very local control country when it comes to education, sort of schools, districts, schools and even individual teachers are in some ways able to do what they want and in other ways not. We kind of have this contradictory thing going on.
But anyway, at the end of the day, the idea is that schools can sort of teach reading the way they want. There’s not sort of a centralized system in most places that sort of collects information on how schools are teach from reading and what they use. And we have lots of school districts around the country, but we have a lot of survey data and other data of teachers and teachers’ beliefs that show us that this is very predominant. And the vast majority of elementary schools are using this sort of loosely defined balance literacy approach that typically includes these word reading strategies I was just referring to.
So teaching kids that when they come to a word, they have all kinds of things they can do to figure out the words, which lead to bad habits for some kids. And what you will find is that there are some particular authors who have become very prominent and very successful at selling this approach to teaching reading. So they’re not the only ones, but they have become very popular. And surveys will show that, you know, something like 20%, 30%, 40%, 50% of schools that are using something by these authors.
So what I was really trying to take apart in Sold a Story was identifying particular authors and companies that sell these products. But really what I was trying to show is that there’s a much more pervasive belief system. And while the idea is that schools have local control, it turns out that many schools across the country are teaching reading in the same basic way, even though they’re not all using the same curriculum or following the same person to teach them reading. Everyone’s swimming in the same sea.
CHAKRABARTI: Now, Emily … I promised that we would pick up a little bit with the story of Missy Purcell, who you feature first in your podcast, because I want to just talk for a second. I mean, thinking of that fifth grader, about the long-term effect that struggling has to read on kids. Now, Missy, when we talked to her, she shared more of her story of what was happening with Matthew, her struggling reader, and by the time he reached fourth grade, he still couldn’t read as a fourth grader, despite getting that extensive additional support in school, that was using the balanced literacy approach. And she said, Missy told us, just like she told you, Emily, that not being able to read was really hurting Matthew deeply.
PURCELL: He would shake when he would read, and he would rage at the end of the day. You know, at the end of school, I’d go pick him up and he would be so angry. I thought he was being bullied or something. No, he was just so frustrated. It broke my kid. We had him privately assessed that year, and part of the assessment included a social emotional survey. You know, like, what’s your greatest fear? And it was a spelling test.
What’s the one thing that you would love to learn to do? If I could focus enough, I’d love to learn to write. What’s your greatest dream in life? This is my little kid that has been able to hold a baseball in his little left hand since he was two and throw it. And I thought he would say his greatest dream was to be a pro player and it was to learn to read my fourth grade. His greatest dream was to learn to read, like that’s a kindergarten skill. That’s not what a fourth grader should be dreaming of.
CHAKRABARTI: Now, Emily, Missy eventually pulled her son out of school and put him in a completely different kind of school. But before we hear what happened with Matthew, let me ask you. So one thing that we learn pretty clearly from the Sold a Story podcast is that this balanced literacy approach isn’t actually grounded in a tremendous amount of research on how the human brain learns how to read.
And so we can’t go into all the detail that you uncover in your podcast … but what are the other approaches that we know do work that do have decades of exhaustive research behind them?
HANFORD: … There’s a lot of research that can sort of give you some support for a lot of different things. But there’s this foundational idea in the balanced literacy approach that is essentially, giving kids exposure will lead to them being good readers unless they have some sort of problem, quote-unquote, or disability, right? So that allows you to sort of say, okay, well, most kids are going to do fine in this environment. And then there’s a few kids who need more specific instruction in how to read the words.
So we got to flip that around and realize that, no, it’s the other way around. Actually, most kids really need this help, and there are some kids who figure it out on their own.
So the research shows … that learning to read doesn’t happen naturally. And then the other thing is that these strategies that I’m talking about have been shown to be inaccurate. So cognitive scientists took this on, starting back in the 1970s and 1980s, and we’re like, How do we read words? How do we do that?
How does the human brain do that? And they did a bunch of research about that. They did these experiments, and they showed very clearly by the 1990s that when you were a skilled reader, you were not looking at the first letter and the last letter. You’re not using context, you’re not making good guesses, you’re not skipping words and coming up with the gist of what you’re reading. You are looking at virtually every letter in the word and processing those letters very, very quickly.
And they are like stored in your brain for immediate retrieval. Because at some point you successfully sounded out the word and you linked the letters in the word, the spelling of the word with the pronunciation and the meaning. And those three things, spelling, pronunciation and meaning came together for you and sort of got locked together. And it actually sort of changes your brain when you start to be able to do that with words. A typically developing reader can see a word just a few times, sound it out. Oh, I know what that is.
Yep, I know what it means. I know how it’s pronounced. That’s how it’s spelled. I got it. Bam! And this is how you become a good reader. You get so many words into your brain that you don’t have to think about that when you’re reading. Instead, you do what is the goal of reading, which is you think about the meaning of what you’re reading.
What you’re doing. You’re not spending time on the words. There’s no cognitive load. It’s not conscious. The words are there for you, except every once in a while, when you come across a word you don’t see very often, or you’ve never seen before. Then research have shown in studies … it takes you a different millisecond amount of time to identify different words.
The ones that are most familiar to you, that you’ve really got locked in your brain, those come really quick. There are some that are a little less familiar. And then we all know as adults, every once in a while, you have to stop and be like, What’s that? And what do you do? You like, sound it out? Have I ever heard that before? You might look it up.
And we all have had embarrassing moments as adults where we realize that there are words that we’ve been reading for years and we weren’t pronouncing them right, and then we like say it wrong among people and then we’re like, oh, whoops. Like, the example I use is epitome. Which is something that my son was reading out loud and he was like, epitome. And I was like, Hmm, do you mean epitome? And my son was like, in high school at this point, and he was like, right, yes. Right.
CHAKRABARTI: … But the key distinction that you’re making here, so just to recap what you just said, is that researchers have found that the approach used in balanced literacy instruction doesn’t work. Because it doesn’t actually train the brain to recognize how, I’m looking at my script in front of here and I have the word three and sentences. That it doesn’t really train the brain to know that in the words sentences, this S makes a sound, and the C also happens to make a similar sound in this particular word. So balanced literacy doesn’t do that now.
HANFORD: It’s not like everything’s wrong with balanced literacy, but there’s sort of a fundamental foundational flaw. And that fundamental foundational flaw is teaching kids how to read the words, taking that very seriously, that’s incredibly important. Kids need to be taught how to read the words and teaching them how to do it.
CHAKRABARTI: But this is more than just, you know, phonics, right? … There’s the language around all that’s going on and literacy can be a little bit confusing. So the sort of other methodologies that you talk about in the podcast, we’ve just got a minute here before we have to take this next break, Emily, but it’s kind of loosely called the science of reading. Can you explain what that is?
HANFORD: Yeah. I mean, the science of reading isn’t a curriculum or an approach. It’s a body of research about how people learn to read. And there’s just growing awareness and people who are building curriculum based on that idea. I don’t think there’s a perfect curriculum out there or perfect approach, and it’s not like schools can buy one and then everything’s fine. I really think that most of this is about knowledge, teacher knowledge, educator knowledge, teaching them what scientists have learned about how people learn to read when educators start to understand that, and that’s been a big purpose of my reporting. They see the problems with the approach that they’re using and realize, Ah, we need to do something different here. We need to make some big changes.
CHAKRABARTI: Now we’ve been receiving a lot of thoughts from people across the country about children struggling to learn how to read. This is Paula from Bakersfield, California. And she taught elementary school for 22 years and said she struggled to teach reading with the balanced literacy approach.
PAULA: I blame the state boards of education for teaching the whole language and then balanced literacy. When the science of reading had already demonstrated that these methods were not only ineffective but counterproductive, teaching children to guess that words instead of sounding them out. I am now working as a tutor in a first-grade classroom that is now teaching the science of reading. Hallelujah.
CHAKRABARTI: That’s from an On Point listener who used our VoxPop app.
Now, at least 20 states have or are considering measures related to the science of reading. States like North Carolina, Texas, Arizona, Rhode Island and Colorado are just a few that already have laws on the books.
And Colorado’s law – passed in 2019 – is pretty extensive. It requires school districts to completely overhaul their reading curriculum. As of this school year, all districts must use an “evidence and scientifically based” reading program, teachers all have to go through 45 hours of training on it, and they even banned curriculum rooted in balanced literacy such as Lucy Calkins “Units of Study.”
Jennifer Begley is the director of K-12 Humanities for the Denver Public Schools and a former reading coach and teacher. She says the new curriculum – just added this year – adds 60 minutes of foundational skills and 60 minutes of knowledge building for reading and writing. More than double what it was before. It also changed how they assess children’s reading levels.
JENNIFER BEGLEY: That’s when we made our big shift because we were not just identifying this is what our students that are struggling and we don’t know what to do about it. We were now saying, here’s the individual skills that these students are struggling with. Let’s go ahead and provide explicit instruction in this skill.
And when they’re we’ve mastered the skill and move on to the next needed skill and it becomes something that’s just a very systematic way to teach. That wasn’t necessarily happening in all of the classrooms before.
CHAKRABARTI: It’s only been three months, but Jennifer Begley says the district is already seeing positive results.
Now again, the science of reading and what that actually is. Emily goes into tremendous detail in her podcast. But, you know, we were wondering, is there evidence out there of different methods of reading that actually harness how the brain learns how to recognize letters? Do they work better than balanced literacy?
And Emily, as you know, it turns out there’s a ton of evidence that they do work better. And districts that have adopted different forms of reading instruction are showing that they work. And Bethlehem, Pennsylvania is one of them. Now, for years, barely half of the third graders in Bethlehem had scored proficient on the state reading test.
JACK SILVA: And I noticed in our data in 2011, 2012, 2013, that, you know, we weren’t improving at all. You know, we were still seeing, you know, a little bit over half of our students were proficient on reading measures. So we’re saying, well, that doesn’t sound right. Are there are better ways of being able to do this?
CHAKRABARTI: That’s Jack Silva, assistant superintendent and chief academic officer in Bethlehem. Emily reported first on what was happening in Bethlehem back in 2018. It’s a school district with about 13,500 kids. Majority are students of color and students who qualify for free and reduced lunch. But there are a lot of high to middle income students, too.
So Silva says his district looks a lot like America. Now, when Emily first reported on Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, in 2018, it was not long after the district had completely changed its literacy approach to one backed by scientific research. So we reconnected with him this week to find out what has happened in the intervening four years.
SILVA: All of our instruction, all of our curriculum, our assessment system, our professional development system, our leadership development system, our multi-tiered system of support system. All tried to transition into that new evidence-based practice. You know, how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time? In our case, it was one grade at a time.
So we started with kindergarten and then we would gradually develop each grade level and track the kids as they were progressing through exposure to our new program. And that’s when our teachers were learning the science of reading explicit instruction, structured literacy. So that was a big lift.
CHAKRABARTI: Big lift, because they had to train 50 teachers in each grade level, as well as all the principals on not just how to better teach kids how to read, but also how to better assess where their reading was at. Now, it was a lot of work, but Silva says even in that very first year with the kindergarten children, they started seeing progress.
SILVA: At the end of that school year, the students scored 88% at grade level for the end of the school year. Our kindergarten students had never been anywhere near close to that, so we knew that what we were doing was an improvement.
CHAKRABARTI: A change like that in one year. By 2019, almost 80% of their second graders had become proficient in reading. And that remarkable progress continued until 2020, when, you guessed it, the pandemic hit. And like everywhere, it had a major impact on kids in Bethlehem.
SILVA: But the students that had the least drop off were the ones who were in fourth and fifth grade, who had experienced the good stuff in kindergarten. And in first grade. We saw the kids who were last year in second or third grade fall back down the mountain because they had interrupted pre-K, they had interrupted kindergarten, they had interrupted first grade. So we’re in a state of right now rebuilding, and that’s good. The good news is we know what we’re doing. We have our method. But, you know, it’s just recovering those students.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, that’s Jack Silva, assistant superintendent and chief academic officer at the Bethlehem Area School District. We reconnected with him this week. Emily Hanford first featured Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, in her reporting going back to 2018. Now, Emily, you know what I learned a lot from your podcast is that a very deep-seated belief system in any world, but especially in education, comes from some place.
It comes from a place of wanting to help children. But we’re getting all these questions, like someone on Twitter, Ocean Lover, says whole language reading was a failed concept when my 35-year-old was in the first grade. How is this fuzzy idea still current in education? So what are the things that give balanced literacy, such sticking power and such a hold on educators and administrators?
HANFORD: Well, I think one thing is that, you know, people will say balanced or is the isn’t whole language. And they’re right. It is sort of a transition away there. If you look back in the sort of ’80s and ’90s, there really was a lot of sort of anti-phonics fervor. And I think that balance tried to sort of add that in. So I think of it as kind of like a phonics patch. There was a little bit more like, okay, yeah, we’re good. We’ll do a little bit of phonics, but we’re going to do everything else the way we’ve always been doing it.
And so my reporting is trying to show that the answer here, you can’t just add a little bit of phonics. You got to take the stuff away that isn’t helping kids, that is counterproductive to kids. And I think what my reporting has helped to show to the larger public and many people knew this, many parents and teachers and researchers knew there’s something going on, many schools are teaching kids the wrong way to read words or not how to read the words at all.
… No one is doing this on purpose. Right. You know, that, you know, teachers aren’t going to school today thinking, I wonder how I can not teach kids how to read, you know? Never. That never happens. And even the people who I think are selling these approaches, I really think a lot of them think and thought they were doing the right thing.
CHAKRABARTI: First and foremost, as you said, this is not about vilifying teachers, right? No one goes into education being I am not going to teach kids how to read. Everyone wants to do the best they can. … But the other thing that I learned from your reporting … One, is it really put this idea of balanced literacy, put this idea of this like sort of beautiful model of children becoming natural readers at the heart of it, which is a very compelling notion about children education.
And secondly, it was so clear to me from your reporting that it also put teachers at the center, meaning that they were getting through this curriculum, a ton of professional development. They were empowered by the kinds of materials and conferences, etc., that they had. They were appreciated in a field that often is so sorely underappreciated. And I think those things in combination are it seems to me, it’s one of those things that makes it hard to think, oh, maybe what we’re actually doing isn’t helping kids. Do you see what I mean?
HANFORD: Yeah. And I think part of the problem is that when people come in and critique or criticize or question what’s going on in schools, it can feel like rightly so, sort of an attack like you’re attacking teachers. So I think it’s been hard for people to raise questions. It’s been hard for individual parents to raise questions because they don’t want to be attacking the teacher.
And so I think I sort of understood that pretty early on in my reporting because I was hearing from so many teachers about what they didn’t know. And, you know, I think one of the reasons we ended up in the situation that we’re in now, a sort of foundational issue, is that many teachers are not taught about the scientific research when they’re in college, when they’re in their teacher preparation programs. So they graduate and they start teaching and they realize, like, I don’t know how to teach kids to read. I have no idea how to do this. Please help me.
And they look around and there are some people that have been out there offering help, offering books, offering professional development, and teachers have been eating it up, really because they’re like, I want to know how to teach children to read and write. And one of the teachers says this in the podcast. And these people have been telling me that they know how to teach children how to read and write. So I want to do that. It’s just that teachers have been being taught not necessarily the right things. So, you know, I think there are a lot of victims here.
CHAKRABARTI: Again, through the story of Missy Purcell, she’s just like such an amazing demonstration of the differences for many children that other forms of reading, again I’m going to use that big catch all of using techniques based on the science of reading, the difference it can make. Because Missy Purcell was a teacher herself.
She had been using balanced literacy, only realized the problems with it when her youngest son Matthew was really struggling as a reader. Couldn’t even read into fourth grade. And so by that time, Missy felt like she had no option because balance literacy was at her local school. So she pulled Matthew out of school and put him into a private school that uses techniques based on the science of reading, but also specializes in kids with dyslexia.
PURCELL: So we went there in fifth grade and in one year he went from like writing maybe two or three sentences that you really couldn’t read, to a five or six paragraph story all about his dog that you totally could understand and read. He went from reading like 44 correct words per minute to almost where he should be developmentally, you know, somewhere around 150, 160, just in a year of that type of instruction.
He read his very first independent novel, you know, like a true chapter book that was a grade level appropriate book. And I’ll never forget, even last year, he got into my car one day and said, I went to the library and I got a book and he pulled it out. He started reading it in the car. He never even wanted to be around books. Books were not fun. They weren’t enjoyable. And to be excited about a book and get in the car, I want to read it. That is priceless.
CHAKRABARTI: That’s Missy Purcell. Now, of the many things about her story that are so eye opening to me is that she had to pull her son out of their local public school. Now, Emily, we’ve been hearing a lot from people that there’s been a sort of surge of recognition about something isn’t quite right, because of your reporting and the reporting from others and a lot of discussion going on in the world of education itself.
I mean, for example, Cathy Mason reached out to us. She’s an education specialist in Melrose, Massachusetts. She works to evaluate and identify children struggling with dyslexia. And she says the kids she works with, and their families have suffered tremendously from the adoption of what she calls balanced literacy as, quote, an erroneous teaching of reading.
CATHY MASON: The students that I see often come to me. When they’re many years behind in literacy development. And the immediate toll that this takes on the children and their parents is devastating. Parents become tireless record keepers and advocates for their children, yet often their concerns are met with misinformation and inaction. For the students, their reading difficulties interfere with self-esteem, peer relationships. Development of identity, ability to learn and function in the classroom. It’s time that we really commit ourselves to prioritize literacy development for all children.
CHAKRABARTI: Now, I should say, Emily, your reporting has been met with significant pushback. Because this is a decades long issue here. I don’t want to pretend like it hasn’t met with pushback, but I do wonder. More and more people seem to be saying, hey, something isn’t quite working with my kid. What would you recommend they do? What would you recommend that parents or educators themselves in communities that want to make change but are finding it difficult? What would you recommend they do?
HANFORD: I think they have to find each other. I think one of the things that’s been happening here is that people have thought they were alone. The teacher who noticed that a bunch of her students weren’t working has been like, I guess it’s me. Like she didn’t want to speak up. Like, I guess I’m not doing it right. I’m not doing this right. So this is my fault. What’s going on? The parents are like, this must be my kid. This is our secret. This is very hard. It’s embarrassing.
So people have had these gut level feelings and they’ve been thinking, it’s just me. And I think more and more people, there’s been apparent movement that over the past ten years, it doesn’t have anything to do with me that has really been sharing this like, hey, you are not alone here. And I think my reporting is just helped to further reveal this. You know, I think of it as sort of an awakening, like, oh, we’re not alone.
So I think that people need to find each other. Parents need to find the other parents. Parents need to find the teachers. Teachers need to find the parents, the superintendents, the school board members. In your community, there are a lot of people who are coming from a lot of different positions on this, who are feeling the same way and want to figure out how to improve things. So find those people and figure out what you can do together to make things better for kids. Because at the end of the day, this is about kids and what they need.
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
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