Inside the podcast that reignited the reading wars

Do you remember how you learned to read? I don’t, though I vaguely recall being assigned colors corresponding with reading levels, along with one-sentence picture books that encouraged me to sound out sentences like “See Spot run.”

As an education journalist and a parent, I’ve long been fascinated by the question of how children actually learn to read, a big topic for us here at The Hechinger Report.

I know that arguments and confusion over that question are as old as books, but they’ve been given a new twist following the exhaustive reporting and response to the podcast we ran on our site called “Sold a Story,” from our partners at American Public Media. The six-episode podcast investigates the teaching of reading based on methods and strategies that cognitive scientists have shown are wrong – and harmful.

Journalist Emily Hanford’s reporting has unleashed a new front in the reading wars, with passionate support for her findings on one side and defensiveness from those whose methods she questioned on the other. The podcast is spurring virtual happy hours and Facebook discussions, ushering in much-needed discussion on what must change to improve the way that U.S. students are taught to read.

Reading Matters: See more Hechinger coverage of reading instruction

I think we can all agree that such change is clearly needed. Test scores on national reading tests are sharply declining, and more than a third of U.S. students aren’t reading at a basic level by fourth grade. Powerful journalism and a constructive discussion on ways to improve reading instruction can focus attention on the latest research, on what works in classrooms and what lessons are worth sharing – all far more important than firing salvos.

Much of Hanford’s podcast focused on the so-called “science of reading,” a body of research that shows how children learn to read. This research suggests that all students – especially struggling readers – benefit from explicit instruction, including teaching children the relationship between letters and sounds.

Our own reporting highlighted ways that North Carolina is among the states finding success with this method, following a new law that brings uniformity to reading instruction and training all of the state’s elementary school teachers in the science of reading. Recently, more than a dozen other states have passed laws pushing phonics.

Related: Retraining an entire state’s elementary teacher in the science of reading

“Sold a Story” is a continuation of four years of reporting on Hanford’s part, showing that too many schools are failing to teach phonics and have instead been teaching reading using a word-guessing method: the so-called “three-cueing system,” debunked by cognitive scientists decades ago.

Supporters of Hanford’s reporting are flooding social media and my own inbox at The Hechinger Report, including shout-outs from parents, teachers and many others. A reading teacher from New Mexico – where reading scores are among the lowest in the country – wrote to say that Hanford’s reporting supports the overwhelming need to teach reading using phonics that she sees every day at the nonprofit literacy support center she runs, which tutors 360 children a week and has a waiting list of more than 100.

In recent years, many students have been taught via “balanced literacy,” which encourages a focus on choosing “just right” books that align with children’s interests, as opposed to sounding out words and letters.

Some 67,000 U.S. elementary schools are estimated to be using this approach, one popularized by Teachers College education professor Lucy Calkins, who also runs the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. (Note: The Hechinger Report is an independent unit of Teachers College, Columbia University.)

Supporters of Hanford’s reporting are flooding social media and my own inbox at The Hechinger Report, including shout outs from parents, teachers and many others.  

“Sold a Story” investigates the influential authors, including Calkins, who promote this approach, as well as Heinemann Publishing, a division of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, the company that publishes their work.

Calkins has recently rewritten her reading curriculum, taking out the cueing system and acknowledging the need to more fully embrace phonics. She’s also interviewed extensively in Hanford’s podcast.

Still, Calkins and others she works with wrote a lengthy rebuttal to the podcast, which was signed by 58 educators, many of whom are affiliated with Teachers College or Heinemann Publishing.

“We’re dismayed that at this moment in our history, when all of us should be banding together to support literacy education, the podcast ‘Sold a Story’ fans divisiveness, creating a false sense that there is a war going on between those who believe in phonics and those who do not,” the letter said.

The response came to my attention as a letter to the editor. We published it last week in our opinion section, as our partners at APM do not run such letters, with support from APM and Hanford herself, who noted: “We don’t think the letter accurately described our reporting,” but added on social media that “it’s a good thing to get views out in the open. Let people speak for themselves. You can judge and critique and agree or disagree.”

That’s exactly where we stand at The Hechinger Report, where we’ve received a barrage of social media responses, defending Hanford’s podcast and criticizing the authors of the letter.

Powerful journalism and a constructive discussion on ways to improve reading instruction can focus attention on the latest research, on what works in classrooms and what lessons are worth sharing – all far more important than firing salvos.

Today, we are publishing two more letters – one from teachers who contend that “Hanford has amplified changing the way we teach early reading and accelerating every student’s access to the alphabetic code and the wonders of literacy,” adding that “We invite the 58 signatories of the recent other letter — and the whole literacy community — to do the same.”

Another letter notes that “parents have sat by and watched for decades while our children have not been successfully taught how to read or write within the American education system, with curriculums that have been written and supported by the signers of letter to the editor.”

We hope to continue the conversation, and welcome opinion pieces. I personally wish I had known more about the debate over how kids are taught to read when my children were in elementary school.

We have an opportunity now to look forward, now that we all know so much more about how to help struggling readers and boost our country’s literacy post-pandemic. We don’t need to call it a war, but let the conversation continue.

This story about Sold a Story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our weekly newsletters.

The Hechinger Report provides in-depth, fact-based, unbiased reporting on education that is free to all readers. But that doesn’t mean it’s free to produce. Our work keeps educators and the public informed about pressing issues at schools and on campuses throughout the country. We tell the whole story, even when the details are inconvenient. Help us keep doing that.

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