Sold a Story: How Teaching Kids to Read Went So Wrong

There’s an idea about how children learn to read that’s held sway in schools for more than a generation — even though it was proven wrong by cognitive scientists decades ago. Teaching methods based on this idea can make it harder for children to learn how to read. In this podcast, host Emily Hanford investigates the influential authors who promote this idea and the company that sells their work. It’s an exposé of how educators came to believe in something that isn’t true and are now reckoning with the consequences — children harmed, money wasted, an education system upended.

EPISODES

E1 The Problem

Corinne Adams watches her son’s lessons during Zoom school and discovers a dismaying truth: He can’t read. Little Charlie isn’t the only one. Sixty-five percent of fourth graders in the United States are not proficient readers. Kids need to learn specific skills to become good readers, and in many schools, those skills are not being taught.

E2 The Idea

Sixty years ago, Marie Clay developed a way to teach reading she said would help kids who were falling behind. They’d catch up and never need help again. Today, her program remains popular and her theory about how people read is at the root of a lot of reading instruction in schools. But Marie Clay was wrong.

E3 The Battle

President George W. Bush made improving reading instruction a priority. He got Congress to provide money to schools that used reading programs supported by scientific research. But backers of Marie Clay’s cueing idea saw Bush’s Reading First initiative as a threat.

E4 The Superstar

Teachers sing songs about Teachers College Columbia professor Lucy Calkins. She’s one of the most influential people in American elementary education today. Her admirers call her books bibles. Why didn’t she know that scientific research contradicted reading strategies she promoted?

E5 The Company

Teachers call books published by Heinemann their “bibles.” The company’s products are in schools all over the country. Some of the products used to teach reading are rooted in a debunked idea about how children learn to read. But they’ve made the company and some of its authors millions.

E6 The Reckoning

Lucy Calkins says she has learned from the science of reading. She’s revised her materials. Fountas and Pinnell have not revised theirs. Their publisher, Heinemann, is still selling some products to teach reading that contain debunked practices. Parents, teachers and lawmakers want answers. In our final episode, we try to get some answers.

Sold a Story is an independent investigative journalism project from American Public Media.
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EXTRA CREDIT

Here’s a reading list put together by Emily Hanford.

The controversial educational publishing company has sold instructional materials and professional resources in almost every state, earning at least $1.6 billion over a decade. Explore a map of school districts.

More states are now requiring districts to adopt curriculum that adheres to the science of reading. Look up the policy in your state.

This discussion guide, created by a teacher, invites educators, parents, community members and kids to have a conversation about the podcast.

EMAIL NOTIFICATIONS

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TRAILERS

DOCUMENTARY ARCHIVE

August 6, 2020

A false assumption about what it takes to be a skilled reader has created deep inequalities among U.S. children, putting many on a difficult path in life.

August 22, 2019

For decades, schools have taught children the strategies of struggling readers, using a theory about reading that cognitive scientists have repeatedly debunked. And many teachers and parents don’t know there’s anything wrong with it.

September 10, 2018

Scientific research has shown how children learn to read and how they should be taught. But many educators don’t know the science and, in some cases, actively resist it. As a result, millions of kids are being set up to fail.

September 11, 2017

There are proven ways to help people with dyslexia learn to read, and a federal law that’s supposed to ensure schools provide kids with help. But across the country, public schools are denying children proper treatment and often failing to identify them with dyslexia in the first place.

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