Emily Hanford has brought attention to reading, including several new podcasts, Sold a Story, claiming children have been harmed for years by reading instruction. She singles out programs she says failed. The stories about children are compelling. But she leaves out some history, and I don’t think she’s ever critical of any of the many online reading programs that currently flood the market.
Emily’s quest to fix reading coincides with a movement for school privatization and replacing professional teaching with technology. So, the absence of her critiquing private and charter schools, online reading programs, or mentioning privacy concerns parents have about online data collected on children is worrisome.
I won’t debate the programs she criticizes. There’s enough about that on social media. And I’ve never used them, although I knew some parents who appreciated Reading Recovery, and a few who didn’t.
I don’t always disagree with her. All children deserve quality programs, especially those with dyslexia or reading disabilities, who will likely benefit from intensive phonics and work on fluency, vocabulary, comprehension, and more.
I do question a Science of Reading. I taught a resource class for many years and used phonics, have an M.Ed. in learning disabilities (when that was an area of study), so I see the advantage of its use for students with dyslexia or reading disabilities. But I also effectively used other reading methods.
I’d also agree that states and school districts have failed children with reading problems, but not always for the reasons Emily states. And I respectfully argue with some of what seems incorrect or ignored about her reports.
1. Common Core and Online Instruction
Conservative parents initially fought Common Core, including phonics standards that have dominated classrooms since 2010.
I’ve not heard Emily mention Common Core or its phonics, prominent since 2011 in online programs like iReady. The data collected on children and privacy concerns abound.
She and other Science of Reading promoters also do podcasts for Amplify, Rupert Murdoch’s online program acquired by Laurene Powell Jobs. There’s a lack of research on its success for students. I can only find a study by Amplify.
Tulsa teachers questioned Amplify, concerned about its age-inappropriateness.
Since 1975 and the All Handicapped Children’s Act, teachers have struggled to better understand students with reading problems. Numerous policies have changed.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act 1998 and 2004 reauthorizations reduced special services to students with dyslexia and reading disabilities, placing most students in general classes, sometimes large, with little teacher support.
This leaves a wide range of reading abilities and difficulties in one class that one program won’t likely address. It isn’t fair to create a one-size fits all plan.
There’s a larger discussion here to lower class sizes.
Emily’s writings seem pro-NCLB, but the twenty-year-old law drastically changed teaching, unrealistically raising kindergarten reading expectations (see Is Kindergarten the New First Grade?) and pushing high-stakes standardized tests on young children.
This is one of the main concerns I dislike a Science of Reading. Advocates seem to think this intensive phonics is warranted for all children in kindergarten.
Demanding formal reading instruction (any program) on early learners, even children with disabilities, seems developmentally unsound, although increasingly accepted, unfortunately. It reduces or eliminates play, proven to develop cognitive and critical social skills.
Parents might believe their child is deficient if they’re not reading by first grade, but first grade was always the year formal reading instruction began.
4. Public School Reform
There’s a huge problem in that many public schools have reneged on the promise to provide Free Appropriate Public Education to children with dyslexia and reading disabilities, like in Texas and the charter schools in New Orleans, which have lacked services for children for years.
Few politicians and policymakers ever wanted to adequately fund programs for students with disabilities.
Claiming a specific program or a way of teaching all children will eliminate reading problems might mean that children won’t get the individual or small group services they might need or that parents seek and appreciate in private schools.
5. Reading First
Emily’s third podcast glosses over President Bush’s Reading First ($6 billion in six years), focusing on Marie Clay and Reading Recovery and others. She leaves out much.
At the time, Columnist Anne C. Lewis said about Reading First in Phi Delta Kappan:
—in trying to sort out the U.S. Department of Education’s “little Enron” scandal [Enron was a notorious accounting scandal], one needs even more, like maybe a giant spreadsheet and flow chart with lines and arrows in order to begin to comprehend who did what for whom. From the imperial Texas landscape comes an incredible tale of influence, intrigue, and incompetence. And it illustrates an inevitable truism: when you impose a market-driven mentality on public education, you get. . . well, you get the marketplace.
Despite this scandal, phonics results showed children learned sounds but lacked comprehension, important information to move forward.
6, Resource Class
Along with IDEA, most schools eliminated the resource class where students with dyslexia and reading disabilities could get one to two hours of intense reading instruction each day. Many parents wanted inclusion.
As a resource class teacher, this public-school class was critical for some children and helped teachers monitor student progress in other areas. If schools have eliminated it, they should bring it back for the parents who want it.
Many students with reading difficulties improve past third grade and shouldn’t experience the shame associated with being held back as their peers move on.
It would help if Emily spoke out loudly against this practice. The research is there.
8. School Libraries
We know there’s an association between schools that have good libraries and high test scores. Many poor schools lack libraries and school librarians.
I wish Emily would discuss other variables affecting how children learn to read, like school libraries.
Universities used to provide studies about learning disabilities. Teachers had to have certification to teach in this area. Now those classes seem condensed for general education teachers.
NCLB also paved the way for Teach for America and other fast-track alternative teachers who can be found, especially in poor schools.
Now with teacher shortages, who’s teaching reading?
Where’s that discussion?
So, while no child should struggle in school to learn to read, teachers should understand how to teach reading, and we should debate more programs; I wish Emily would address more about reading. There are likely other issues I’ve left out, I’m sure.
Emily has become a champion to many parents and teachers who have been convinced that phonics and a Science of Reading are best. Still, I worry about what she leaves out.
I wish I didn’t because public school teachers and students need a reporter in their camp now more than ever, and I’d like to trust her words. I just believe there’s more that needs to be included in her stories.
Lewis, A. (2006). “Dramatis Personae.” Phi Delta Kappan. 88 (4): 259-60. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/003172170608800402.
Manzo, K.K. (2004: September 26). Select Group Ushers In Reading Policy. Education Week. Retrieved by https://www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/select-group-ushers-in-reading-policy/2004/09.
Bailey, N. (2013). Misguided Education Reform: Debating the Impact on Students. New York: Rowman & Littlefield Education.