#368: Sold A Story
...and I urge you to come discuss “An American Education,” by Eli Saslow, on Nov. 20
Welcome to November, loyal readers. I’m happy that last week’s article, “An American Education,” caused a buzz (especially among educators), and so before anything else, I want to make sure to invite you to our discussion on Sunday, Nov. 20.
You’re invited! You’re particularly invited if you’re a teacher or administrator or parent or if you’ve never joined an Article Club conversation before. I’m 115% sure you’ll find the people kind and the conversation thought provoking.
All right, now that we have that out of the way, let’s get right to this week’s selection. It’s another piece on education (wow, two weeks in a row?), but instead of an article, I’m recommending a six-part podcast series. It’s called “Sold A Story.”
It’s about reading instruction, my biggest passion in education. It’s by journalist Emily Hanford, whom I’ve interviewed (and about whom I have complicated feelings). It features John Corcoran, whom loyal reader Anne has interviewed for our podcast.
It’s also abundantly popular right now. No fewer than 15 of you have sent the podcast my way. “Are you listening to this?” loyal reader Ben asked. “You have to listen to this,” loyal reader Jenn said. “I assume you’ve listened to this,” loyal reader Trevor wrote.
The answer is yes: I have listened. And I spent last Sunday re-listening to the first three episodes and taking notes. (The fourth episode comes out today.) Now I’m ready to share some of my thoughts, urge you to listen, and encourage you to get in on the conversation. Let’s go.
First, the gist: Ms. Hanford argues that the reason 65 percent of American children can’t read is that they’ve been taught wrong, and the reason they’ve been taught wrong is that teachers have been “sold a story” by culty reading gurus.
Second, a warning: Ms. Hanford likes splashy headlines. She’s not a journalist who looks for nuance. She likes holding power to account. Her body of work over the last five years demonstrates that she does not back down. Though I sometimes find her style bombastic, her argument is nevertheless compelling.
Ms. Hanford believes that reading research, which she calls “the science of reading,” has established that phonics instruction is the most effective way to teach young children how to decode words, and decoding words is the most effective way for young people to become skilled, fluent readers. Other methods of reading instruction — most notably “whole language” and “balanced literacy,” which remain popular today — do not work and are in fact harming children, Ms. Hanford argues.
Here’s a little bit more about each episode so far:
The episode begins with two young kids reading. One is skilled and one is not. The struggling reader fumbles, stops and starts, skips words, and makes words up. It’s hard to listen to. Ms. Hanford points out that more than one-third of fourth graders sound like this when they read. Why? “I have an answer,” she says. It’s because one publishing company and four famous authors have deceived teachers for decades into believing that sounding out the words is not the best way to teach kids to read.
Good thing parents of dyslexic children caused a ruckus and started knocking on classroom doors to hold schools accountable. Otherwise, Ms. Hanford argues, nothing would have happened. We’d continue being OK with plummeting NAEP scores and dismal achievement among 82 percent of Black fourth graders. To be sure, the pandemic stunted young people’s academic growth. But it also offered an opportunity for parents to observe firsthand how their children were (not) learning to read. “I don’t blame teachers,” one parent says. But she made sure to tell Ms. Hanford.
The second episode offers a detailed history of the whole language approach to reading instruction. In the 1940s, New Zealand graduate student Marie Clay designed a study to compare the moves of skilled vs. unskilled readers. She noticed that the best readers moved quickly through the words, not stopping at individual letters. This caused Ms. Clay to conclude that reading is natural for children and that focusing on words and literacy-rich environments was preferable to structured, pedantic lessons on phonics.
This progressive, Deweyan approach to reading instruction became immensely popular in the 1980s. Prof. Clay’s methods were central to Reading Recovery, a program that spread nationally to 49 states and tens of thousands of elementary schools. Prof. Clay was so influential, she was appointed a British dame in 1987. But at the height of her cult status, researchers using new fMRI technology were completing study after study that proved Prof. Clay’s theory wrong. Surely the science would win out, right?
Not quite. Then came the battle, also known as “the reading wars.” Despite a barrage of research that established that the whole language approach was ineffective, Prof. Clay and her devotees — most famously Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell – stood by their beliefs and programs. “We cannot count on science,” Prof. Pinnell said at a 2005 conference, according to Ms. Hanford.
The controversy deepened as President George W. Bush launched his Reading First initiative in 2001 as part of No Child Left Behind. All of a sudden, reading became politicized. Republicans threw their weight behind phonics, while Democrats advocated for whole language and balanced literacy. The gloves came off. The tribes dug in their heels. Each side had their statistics and their culty leaders. And whenever someone wanted to introduce nuance into the conversation, an opponent was ready to call them a denier of science.
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