How Teaching Kids to Read Went So Wrong: Emily Hanford Visits ISPS to Discuss the Science and Politics of Reading Instruction

Authored By 
Rick Harrison
May 12, 2023

A child reads along in a book using her finger, including link to webinar video

On May 9, New York City’s school chancellor announced that he will introduce new curriculums because many schools have been teaching children to read incorrectly. The nation’s largest school system is the latest to overhaul instruction in accordance with the best science on how children learn.

Emily Hanford, a senior correspondent and producer for American Public Media, has reported on this topic for years. Earlier this month, the Institution for Social and Policy Studies invited her to Yale for a discussion of what she has learned, as chronicled in her most recent podcast, “Sold a Story: How Teaching Kids to Read Went So Wrong.”

“The decision of New York’s schools to act shows why we must pay attention when someone like Emily Hanford sounds the alarm through careful reporting and engaging storytelling,” said ISPS Director Alan Gerber. “Outstanding science communication is a vital part of turning raw science into positive social change.”

More than half of Americans ages 16-74 read below a sixth-grade level, according to a 2020 Gallup analysis of U.S. Department of Education data.

Low levels of literacy are correlated with lower levels of income. After adjusting for age, gender, parental education and other factors, the data show that people who attain the minimum level of reading proficiency earn about $24,000 more each year on average than people who score at or below the lowest level.

What are we doing wrong?

ISPS sought to answer that question in an online event with Hanford, as part of ISPS’s Democratic Innovations, a program designed to identify and test new ideas for improving the quality of democratic representation and governance, particularly how well government services are provided. Gerber framed the conversation as a chance to reflect on how government is doing to meet its basic and essential responsibility to provide quality education for children.

“I think it’s very fair to say that Emily has the distinction of being a person who has really changed the national debate on a matter of importance to everyone,” said Gerber, who hosted the conversation with the help of Eric Patashnik, chair of the Department of Political Science at Brown University. “It is remarkable to see her work have that kind of an impact.”

Hanford recalled how a trip to Connecticut in 2016 led her to meet a nurse with dyslexia who had made it through college without opening a book and memorized enough written words to communicate at work. As Hanford began to dig into the subject of reading deficiencies among Americans, she discovered that parents with financial resources could teach a struggling child to read but so many others had no safety net.

“I was like, whoa, what — reading?” Hanford said. “This is the most basic thing here. This is the foundation upon which all learning is built.”

She eventually observed that reading does not come easily to many people, regardless of their intelligence. Reading, she discovered, is just hard. But, thankfully, researchers have compiled a large body of evidence about the best teaching methods.

“There are lots of really smart people who struggle to learn how to read,” she said. “And they can learn to read. They can. But they really need someone to teach them how to do it. To show them how it works.”Emily Hanford

Hanford’s presentation focused on a basic equation to understand the components of reading comprehension, developed in 1986. In this view, bolstered by subsequent research, becoming a successful reader involves equal parts spoken language comprehension and the ability to decode and recognize words.

Most American children entering school have very little decoding abilities, as they have usually just begun learning the alphabet. And many children have limited vocabularies, particularly those for whom English is a second language. Hanford said the science suggests that schools should account for an individual’s strengths and weaknesses but always stress both sides of the equation: building spoken language comprehension and decoding the letters.

However, Hanford said, many schools have mistakenly deemphasized the need to teach decoding and word recognition by which students are shown how to sound out words. Instead, they are taught so-called cueing strategies to figure out the words: Look at the first letter. Look at the pictures on the page. Think of a word that might make sense. Or skip the word and try to understand the sentence through context.

“The problem is, this is not the way that skilled readers do it,” she said. “This is not the way that skilled readers read.”

Skilled readers do not need to guess or predict words, Hanford said. Instead, skilled readers instantly know tens of thousands of words in a split second. The words get burned into long-term memory through a process called orthographic mapping in which the brain links three components together: the awareness of how a word sounds when spoken, its meaning, and its spelling. After the brain has done this mapping and storing, Hanford said, it can process the word “book” faster than a picture of a book.

“Once a word has been orthographically mapped to your memory, you know it instantly on sight,” she said. “In fact, you cannot suppress your ability to read the word. It’s fascinating. You don’t have to consciously sound out the word when you see it. But you know the word in a split second because at some point — maybe when you were like 8 years old or 5 years old — at some point, you successfully sounded the word out, and you linked the spelling of the word in your mind with the meaning and the pronunciation of that word.”

Hanford said that by second grade, a typically developing reader only needs a few exposures to a word’s pronunciation, meaning, and spelling for it to be mapped into memory, giving those students more capacity to focus on the content of what they are reading instead of spending brain power on identifying words. But the cueing strategies interrupt this process by encouraging students to look away from words they don’t know to find clues to their meaning.

While answering questions from the online audience, Hanford said that efforts to promote reading instruction based on the cognitive science literature may have suffered from an image problem: Teaching students to sound out words might seem boring. However, Hanford suggested that this perception might largely fall on parents and educators but not students. Because, in her experience, children embrace any method that produces successful results.

“If you are in a classroom where kids are really learning how to read and cracking the code, they’re pretty excited about that,” she said. “I know people can remember those moments where it clicked for them, where they were finally reading. It’s an incredibly powerful and exciting thing for a child to begin to learn how to read.”

Hanford said that providing children with broad instructions for cueing strategies might seem more empowering for students than working through detailed decoding methods, but not all students will catch on.

“It’s not going to be a joyful, beautiful experience if you can’t do it,” she said. ““We are really, I think, dramatically widening gaps — opportunity gaps — very early on in education, when we don’t teach kids directly and explicitly the things we want them and need them to know.”

And even if students learn to read through cueing strategies, Hanford said they are often falling behind students who learn words through orthographically mapping sounds, meaning, and spelling — efficiently making early exponential improvements in reading and setting themselves up for better academic and career success.

“Kids who get off to a good start in reading like reading, and then do it more, and like it more, and get better at it, and do it more,” she said. “And most of what you know about language — and the vocabulary you know and the knowledge — comes from reading.”

View a video of the entire discussion.