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  • Laura Knudsen

The Science of Reading and Where Education Went Wrong

What would happen if teachers were taught the wrong way to teach children how to read?

The long-term effect would be dropping rates of literacy and the plummeting of standardized test scores used to measure the effectiveness of curriculum over time. Award-winning American Public Media educational reporter, Emily Hanford, and co-author, Christopher Peak, reveal how “teaching kids to read went wrong” in the podcast series “Sold a Story”.

I encourage you to listen to this six-part series. It is worth every minute of your time to understand why kids are having trouble learning to read and, potentially, why our 10th-grade reading proficiency rate is at a dismal 55% in Alexandria Area High

School. The podcast’s recount of decades of politicalization, educational leaders making assumptions about the existence of data and skilled marketing derailing education. It is a complex and heartbreaking story.


My biggest takeaway from the series is that it is not the teachers’ fault. A generation of teachers believed the methods they were being taught by their professors were the most current and effective, and were backed by research. As professionals in the classroom, teachers trusted the authors and publishers of curriculum assuming what they were being sold was backed by data.

Teachers did not know the Reading Recovery program, Guided Reading methods and the beloved Reading and Writers workshop environments were not backed by data. These curriculums prioritized cueing strategies over the teaching of phonics. Teachers excited to build their classroom libraries filled with “leveled books” were unaware that these books and the cueing method used to teach reading were actually teaching students bad reading habits.

The series goes into great detail on the history of how these programs were developed and implemented across the United States. Hanford interviews teachers and publishing employees to explain the culture of reading education that was created and how it excited teachers. Leading teachers to embrace ineffective reading programs.

The podcast series also introduces you to the people behind these curriculums. From the well-meaning but misguided New Zealand school teacher-turned-government researcher to the American superstar authors and publishing companies who made millions off the products they sold, without data to support them.

The most heartbreaking takeaway is understanding that politics got in the way of decades

of literacy. In 1998, President Bill Clinton endorsed “Reading Recovery” programs. He was likely advised these programs were a modern approach of helping struggling readers with early intervention. Presidents can’t be experts on every topic and have to rely on advisors. He was given poor advice, that went against the finding of the government’s National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD).

When President Bush Jr. took office in 2001, literacy was a priority. For the Bush family, it was personal. Bush’s younger brother, Neil, had struggled to learn to read. Their mother, Barbara, researched the science of reading to help him. What she found contradicted the methods of “Reading Recovery,” proving old-fashion phonics unarguably more effective than cueing strategies. Literacy became a priority for their family. The Bush administration created the “Reading First’ initiative.

However, in academia, Clinton was more popular than Bush. After “Reading First” passed in 2001, other curriculum authors, publishers and educators organized efforts against it. They successfully lobbied legislators and had the program defunded in a few short years.

The Science Simplified

If you’re still reading this far, you must be interested enough to want to know more about the science. There is a great deal of information in the podcast, but I’ll try to give you a simplified version here.

It starts with Marie Clay, the New Zealand school teacher I mentioned earlier. She earnestly wanted to help struggling students to learn to read. In 1963, she observed 100 students to try and determine what made a successful reader. From her observations, she believed good readers only skimmed words, and that a good reader did not look at letters or consider sounds as they read. They were more like detectives who asked good questions as they read a book.

In 1976, she developed a program called “Reading Recovery,” with the intention of teaching poor readers the strategies of good readers. She created easy read or “Little Books” as they were called in New Zealand. Clay created three strategies that developed into what is referred to in schools today as “Cueing Strategies” for students to use when they are stuck on a word.

These strategies are variations of the following:

1. Look at the picture, what does it tell you?

2. What do you know about the story already? (Context)

3. Look at the first letter of the word and think about what word makes sense?

Marie Clay’s theory that a good reader does not consider each letter or how it sounds as they read was proven false with the development of eye-scanning technology, also developed in the 1970’s. This advancement showed that skilled readers read every letter. They did not skim or look at the words as a whole.

Reading science went on to make other discoveries. By the 1990’s the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) had studied 34,000 children and adults, both skilled readers and struggling readers. One discovery was that humans were born wired to learn spoken language, but learning to read was much different. Sounding out words and looking at each letter activates an area of the brain that creates new neural networks in the brain. When a reader finds a word they are unfamiliar with sounding it out maps the word into the reader’s memory. In the long run, this process allows your brain to recognize words more easily, making reading faster and more enjoyable.

When a reader is taught look at a word as a whole, more like a picture than individual letters, and guess the word, an entirely different part of the brain is engaged, making it more difficult to learn new words, slowing down the reading process and decreasing the reader’s enjoyment.

Wrapping It Up

Please take a listen to this podcast series. I will try to post again soon about what I learned from the University of Minnesota literacy researchers. We need to make sure our school district takes appropriate and effective actions to correct the past systemic mistakes in teaching our students to read.

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