Journalist Emily Hanford, Senior Correspondent and Producer for American Public Media, keynoted Learning Ally’s 2023 Spotlight on Dyslexia, sharing her research on how kids learn to read and the nation’s response to it.
Since 2017, Emily Hanford has investigated why so many children’s literacy needs are not being met when it comes to reading instruction. This is especially true for children with learning disabilities like dyslexia and other reading challenges. Her research on early reading instruction has sparked a national conversation among parents, educators and policymakers about reading proficiency, and the lack of it in America’s schools and homes.
Hanford’s research and reporting have galvanized educators and created momentum around gaining a clearer understanding of how our brains learn to read through the science of reading.
One Big Idea
In Hanford’s six-episode podcast, Sold a Story, How Teaching Kids to Read Went So Wrong,” one big idea became her quest: Do beginning readers have to sound out written words to be a successful reader or are there other, just as effective, strategies that work – such as looking at the first letter of a word and guessing, and viewing an image and guessing?
The method we are describing is referred to as three-cueing. It is found in a Balanced Literacy instructional approach, which a majority of early educators currently use in America. In Balanced Literacy, “sounding out letters and words,” is not explicitly taught, according to Hanford. She says the omission of explicitly teaching word recognition and language development skills has caused the inability of tens of thousands of children to read proficiently.
“Cognitive scientists and decades of research prove that a child has to be able to first read the words in order for their brain to comprehend what they read,” says Hanford. She points to Covid and remote learning as having brought this instructional approach into full view for parents and caregivers of our earliest learners.
By observing the Balanced Literacy teaching method first-hand, parents heard a five-alarm bell moment. They could clearly see that explicit instruction in sounding out letters and words was missing from their child’s early learning experience. Hanford says, “When you haven’t been taught those skill sets, reading becomes a guessing game. This is exactly what struggling readers do to compensate for their reading barriers – they guess and skip words. Their reading becomes slow and laborious. They spend too much time trying to decode words and never getting to comprehension and meaning.”
Moving the Dial on Reading
To move the dial on reading instruction, Hanford cites that the research on the science of reading has matured and is now in abundance with more clarity and facts. She also credits the translation of reading science into actual proven educational instructional teaching practices as having led more administrators and educators to recognize the flaws of Balanced Literacy approaches. “Without a strong focus on phonics, word and language development, children will lack important reading skills,” she says, and suggests reading Mark Seidenberg’s book, “Language At The Speed of Sight, How We Read, Why So Many Can’t, and What Can Be Done About It.”
It is vitally important for students to be taught explicit skills in reading comprehension before 4th grade, or face the consequences of falling behind and never catching up. Many teachers have communicated with Emily Hanford about her research and given her their gut reactions to the science of reading movement. Many said they were missing the mark in their instruction, but confirmed they had little training in their colleges of education on the science of reading.
Science tells us that if we want more students to become fully literate, we must change the way foundational skills instruction and the dominant approaches used for teaching reading comprehension and writing are taught. As of this writing, a wave of legislators have put a spotlight on early reading curriculum and teaching practices with 18 states considering new laws, and 10 passing bans on the three-cueing method.
You can find all of Emily Hanford’s research reports at apmreports.org/reading.
About Emily Hanford
Emily Hanford is a senior correspondent and producer for American Public Media. Her work has appeared on NPR and in The New York Times, Washington Monthly, The Los Angeles Times, and other publications. Her work has won numerous honors including a DuPont-Columbia University Award and the Excellence in Media Reporting on Education Research Award from the American Educational Research Association. Emily is a member of the Education Writers Association’s Journalist Advisory Board and was a longtime mentor for EWA’s “new to the beat” program. Her 2018 podcast episode “Hard Words: Why aren’t kids being taught to read?” won the inaugural public service award from EWA. Emily is based in the Washington, D.C. area.