American Schools Are Failing Students with Dyslexia: What Can We Do About It?
Emily Hanford is a senior correspondent and producer for APM Reports, the documentary and investigative journalism group at American Public Media. She has covered education for more than a decade. Her work has appeared on National Public Radio and in The New York Times, Washington Monthly, Los Angeles Times, PBS NewsHour, and other publications. Her audio documentary and article, Hard Words: Why Aren’t Kids Being Taught to Read?, won a public service award from the Education Writers Association. In 2017, Hanford won the Excellence in Media Reporting on Education Research Award from the American Educational Research Association. She is based in the Washington DC area. You can find her audio documentaries at apmreports.org and on the podcast, Educate.
Across the country, public schools are failing to identify students with dyslexia and, therefore, unable to provide the intervention and treatment they need. In this special podcast honoring Dyslexia Awareness Month, Hanford will discuss how American schools continue to shy away from the word “dyslexia” and teach students with reading approaches not backed by scientific evidence. How can we help these students? What kinds of instruction are the most helpful? Hanford will examine these topics and more, as well as discuss her most recent podcast and article, At a Loss for Words: What’s Wrong with How Schools Teach Reading?, which addresses the three-cueing system and why we are teaching students to guess at identifying words rather than learn how to read.
Narrator: Welcome to EDVIEW360.
Emily Hanford: So, I was interested in learning disabilities, in general, because what I was hearing from the students in remedial classes who told me they had dyslexia is that they didn’t get any help. In order to actually have helped those kids that are desperately struggling, we need a much broader understanding of how to help all kids. There is a big story here because there’s this vast amount of research about reading and it’s not well known.
Narrator: You just heard Emily Hanford, a senior producer and correspondent with APM Reports from American Public Media. Miss Hanford is an award-winning journalist who follows critical trends in education and is our guest today on EDVIEW360. Here’s your host, Pam Austin.
Pam Austin: Good day, everyone. I’m so excited to welcome you to our very first podcast of the brand new EDVIEW360 podcast series. My name is Pam Austin and I will be your host. Although my heart belongs to my native New Orleans, I’m conducting this podcast today from the heart of Voyager Sopris Learning®. Our office is in Dallas, TX.
Today we’re honored to have Emily Hanford with us. Emily is a senior producer and correspondent for APM Reports from American Public Media. You probably know Emily from her impactful eye-opening work, such as her latest podcast and article, At a Loss for Words: What’s Wrong with How Schools Teach Reading? And the revolutionary article, Hard Words: Why Aren’t Kids Being Taught to Read? Emily is making quite an impact in the world of education and opening up discussions that need to be had. Welcome, Emily.
Emily Hanford: Hi, thanks for having me.
PA: Oh, so glad that you can be here with us today. We are so honored to have you. Can you tell us a little bit about your background? How did you get involved in reporting on education and reading of all things?
EH: Well, it’s kind of an interesting story. I’ve been a reporter for a long time, and for a little bit more than 10 years, I’ve been working at American Public Media covering education full time. In those years covering education, I have been particularly interested in how family income, generally, and how poverty, in particular, affect educational opportunities and educational outcomes. And I’m also really interested in how people learn, like the findings from cognitive science about learning and how those play out—or not—in the classrooms.
And in this 10 years that I’ve been doing reporting focused mostly on those general areas, most of the stuff I’ve done has been focused on secondary and post-secondary education until a few years ago when I realized that early reading instruction is truly where it is at if you’re interested in educational equity opportunity and how people learn.
PA: So, not waiting until they get to that point where they’re in secondary education and all of a sudden saying, “Whoa, what’s going on? What’s happening?” Right?
EH: I mean, I would actually say, to add a little bit more to the story, back in 2015, 2016, I was working on a story about remedial education in college, or developmental classes in college, and the fact that 40 percent, more than four in 10 college students, end up in these remedial classes. And most of the students who end up in remedial classes don’t end up getting college degrees. And what happened is that as I was interviewing people who ended up in these remedial classes, I met several people who told me they had dyslexia. And I didn’t know anything about dyslexia. I have no familial experience with it. I hadn’t encountered it in my reporting as far as I knew. And that got me really interested in learning disabilities, in general, and dyslexia, in particular. And that’s kind of where this whole reading thing started for me.
PA: Right. It’s interesting. The path that will take you, that will lead you, and it’s just amazing because you know October is Dyslexia Awareness Month, right? And this journey that you shared with us so far, we know it let you to focus on dyslexia, as you just shared. How did your reporting transition when you think about this particular topic? Where did you go next?
EH: Yeah, so I was interested in learning disabilities, in general, because what I was hearing from the students in remedial classes who told me they had dyslexia is that they didn’t get any help for their dyslexia in school. It didn’t even get identified or sort of dealt with in any way by the school. So, they had really struggled through school, struggling to read and no one really helped them. And I started on this journey of thinking like, “Huh, I wonder what’s up with that?” So, I started making a bunch of phones calls. That’s what we do as [a] reporter, good old-fashioned phone calls. And I started talking to lots of parents with kids who have dyslexia and I heard the same story over and over again. Like, first I heard it in one state and I thought, “Well, something wrong with that state.”
Then, I called parents in another state, “Oh, there must be something wrong there.” And, then finally, I had talked to parents all over the country and the basic story I was hearing is their kid went to school, kindergarten, first grade, they knew something wasn’t right. They knew something was off. The kid seemed to be struggling with reading but the school kept saying, “Oh, don’t worry about it. He or she’s fine. All kids learn differently. It’ll come together. It’ll be OK.” And second grade comes. And third grade comes. And fourth grade comes, in some cases, and mom is thinking, “Gosh, I know there’s something wrong with my little boy. He doesn’t get reading. He doesn’t like it. He’s avoiding it. Maybe he’s starting to act up. He’s starting to get anxious. He doesn’t want to go to school and the school keeps telling me, ‘No, don’t worry about it. No problem. He’s fine. It’ll all come together.'”
And I started to realize really through the parents, mostly the moms of kids with dyslexia, who as you know have gotten very organized about this issue about trying to bring attention to the plight of struggling readers in schools, because schools are not, for the most part, identifying kids who have reading problems and giving them help that’s really helping them become good readers. And it was really the moms of kids with dyslexia and a documentary I made about this problem of getting the help you need in public school if you have dyslexia. It was those moms who really helped me understand that there’s this gigantic body of research on reading, like how skilled reading works; what people need to learn to be able to do it; and what is going wrong when kids are struggling to read.
They introduced me to this science and I started digging in and realized, “Whoa, there’s a big story here.” Because there’s this vast amount of research about reading and it’s not well known among educators and in schools. And I think the bottom line reason that kids with dyslexia have a hard time getting the help they need in public school is because a lot of schools don’t really know what they need to know about reading and how it works. And, so, they don’t really know how to deal with a struggling reader. And that’s sort of what led me on this larger journey that’s obsessed me for the better part of three years to understand what the reading research says. And to also understand just how all kids are being taught to read, not just kids with dyslexia, but how all kids are being taught to read.
PA: Yes, I just love the fact that this was a discovery on your part. Starting off with discovering, “Hey, this is not just an isolated situation from one state after another. And the philosophy has been Wait and See.” I totally agree with you there and it’s just so wonderful that we’ve got parents, moms, who want the best for their kids who kept questioning, “What’s going on?” “What’s happening?” “What can I do to help my student?” And there is research out there and you helped to uncover that. You’ve written an article called, Rethinking How Students with Dyslexia are Taught to Read and also Hard to Read: How American Schools Fail Students with Dyslexia, as well as Hard Words.
And I am taking a look at you making that discovery and pulling it all together, right? In Hard Words, you mention that whole language is still a big issue in today’s schools. You talked about how we’re not teaching our students. When I think about whole language, how is that a pathway or a methodology that’s not helpful for our students with dyslexia?
EH: Yeah, well, a little bit of history in case people don’t know. But we’ve been fighting about, arguing about reading in this country for a long time and we had…it was such a big fight that it was known as a war, or the “Reading Wars” back in the 80s and 90s. And the basics of that war were between this whole language idea of how kids should be taught to read and I would actually say sort of more generally the kind of battle lines were drawn around this idea of whether or not you need to explicitly teach kids how to read words by emphasizing phonics instruction in the early grades or whether or not you do it in a more whole language way. And the whole language movement really, kind of at its core, said that you don’t need to explicitly teach kids how to read. It’s basically a natural process.
It will happen with a little bit of coaching and some direction from teachers. But, essentially, the most important thing is to surround kids with good books, motivate them to want to read, and if they want to read and they have access to good literature and good books, they will basically figure out how all those words work. So, we had really a war that was kind of about whether or not you need to explicitly teach kids how to read words or not and that was the “Reading Wars” of the 80s and 90s.
And what happened is while these wars were going there was just a ton of research being done about how do people learn how to read words? And one of the basic things that scientists have come to recognize is that we’re not born with brains that are wired to read. It’s not something that is going to happen for most kids by just surrounding them with books. I mean, it’s unlike speech, for example. So, if a little baby is born and as long as she doesn’t have a hearing problem or a major cognitive deficit, she is going to learn her native spoken language just by people speaking to her. She will learn to understand those words. She will learn to say those words. And, by the time a kid goes to kindergarten, they tend to know a lot of words. Some kids know a huge number of words. They’re very precocious little verbal talkers.
But what most kids don’t know, don’t have very much of is how to actually read the words, like the decoding skills that are required to actually read the words on the page. So, the whole language versus phonics debate was basically settled by the late 2000s because of this abundance of research that shows that it is something that you need to be taught and that most kids are not going to learn to be good readers without explicit instruction and that explicit instruction in the way our written language works benefits all kids. It’s good for all kids. It doesn’t harm them. It’s not unnecessary. It’s beneficial for all.
So, what happened is that the…and there really wasn’t, you know, we had this thing called The National Reading Panel in the late 90s that came out with a big report in the year 2000. It showed a tremendous amount of evidence that phonics instruction and other kinds of instruction are beneficial for kids and we really haven’t had much good evidence that the whole language approach is really teaching kids how to read. So, whole language in some ways went away or supposedly went away. You can’t find too many people now who say to you that they’re teaching whole language anymore. But what happened is that whole language really evolved into something called balanced literacy. And you can go into classrooms across America today and they will tell you that they are teaching balanced literacy.
Now, there’s no precise definition of that term. People can sort of debate what exactly balanced literacy means, but what I have found in my reporting is that balanced literacy at core is a lot of the same sort of theories and ideas about how reading work that were the organizing principles of the whole language movement. So, what’s happened is in a balanced literacy classroom you will find some phonics instruction typically because the research is overwhelming that phonics is necessary. Lots of questions to ask about how good the phonics instruction is, whether the teachers have good materials, whether they have good training, whether they, themselves, understand the nature of the written language well enough to be able to teach it to little kids.
Because, of course, a lot of the teachers in our classrooms today were taught in whole language or balanced literacy classrooms, where they didn’t get a huge amount, or any, of that explicit instruction and how their written language works. So, it’s not…
PA: And, they practice what they learn, right?
EH: Yeah, I mean…
PA: That and with that little sprinkling of phonics here and there, many teachers probably think, “Hey, I’m getting phonics instruction in there. It’s working.” But I guess the question is: Is it truly working, right?
EH: Yeah. I mean, one of the things that makes all discussions about reading instruction very difficult is there is a proportion of kids. Maybe it’s 40 percent. Maybe it’s 50 percent. There’s some proportion of human beings who take to reading very easily. Like, they don’t need a whole lot of instruction. So, they can learn to read in spite of their instruction. It doesn’t necessarily matter how you teach them. But there’s another bunch of kids. Maybe half. Maybe more. Maybe in some schools it’s like 80 percent of kids who they’re really not going to learn to read well or maybe not really learn to read at all unless you explicitly teach them how to do it.
And even for those kids who take to reading really easily, if you have good instruction that’s teaching them how their written language works, they benefit from that. One way the benefit is they become better spellers. There are so many people that I run into are like, “Well, I’m a fine reader but my spelling is terrible.” But that means that there’s a lot more that they could know about their written language to be better spellers and potentially to be even better readers. Better readers than they are now.
PA: All right. So, what you’re saying is that [a] phonics-based approach, it would be impactful for all kids no matter where they are. Our higher-level kids who can get it in a second. Our students who are average and those who really, really need that direct explicit approach.
EH: Yeah, I think one thing that’s really important for teachers and parents to understand is that what a child with dyslexia needs to learn to become a good reader is not substantially different from what all people need to learn to become good readers. It’s just that kids who have dyslexia may need a more intense dose of a certain kind of instruction, but all kids benefit from the kind of instruction that kids with dyslexia desperately need. And all of us have brains that are much more similar than they are different. So, we’re all learning to read in basically the same way. We all need to go through certain steps to turn our sort of…the nonreading brains we’re born with into brains that can read by the age of 6 or 7 or 8 years old.
We all need to basically go through the same steps. It’s just: How long does each step take you? What kind of help do you need along the way? Do you miss out on any of those steps so you jump ahead with big gaps in your knowledge? And that’s why explicitly teaching kids the code, the way the written language works, benefits all kids. Because, you can’t really know who needs the explicit instruction and who doesn’t unless you teach it to all. And all kids benefit from it. So, why wouldn’t you teach it to everyone?
PA: Exactly. In comparison to maybe a sport. Some of us may be more gifted with a sport and can readily learn how to ski or maybe to play football or maybe music. And some of us just need that extra help and support so we can take a look at that central approach that’s going to help all kids. When I think about another one of your articles, or really a repeat of what we talked about before, Hard to Read: How American Schools Fail Kids with Dyslexia, we’ve used the word dyslexia a number of times and we know that across the country there are some school districts that are really reluctant to use that word, dyslexia. Why do you think that’s happening?
EH: You know, I think the bottom line is that schools don’t understand that much about how reading works and they don’t actually know what to do with kids for dyslexia. So, they may not be recognizing that there’s a problem because their own assessments, or the things they’re doing in the classroom, aren’t actually like making that clear that the kid is really having a problem with reading. So, that’s one thing. And the other thing is if it becomes clear that this kid is really having a problem with reading, they may not know what to do about it. And if a kid has dyslexia, that’s a specific learning disability, there’s a federal law that requires the schools to provide a free and appropriate education.
If schools sort of admit that and write that down and identify it, they have a legal obligation to give proper instruction. And I just think there are a lot of schools across this country that, A: don’t even quite know what proper instruction would be for a kid who is really struggling to read. And, 2: maybe they even sort of know that but they just don’t have the resources. They don’t have the people trained to do it. They don’t have the materials in the school. That’s why this really gets down to a much larger shift that needs to be taking place across all classrooms. This is not just about changing what we are doing for the kids who are struggling the most with reading. We desperately need to do that, but in order to actually, at the end of the day, help those kids who are desperately struggling, we need a much broader understanding of how to help all kids.
We would be able to see so much better the kids who were struggling and the kids who weren’t. And if there was really good knowledge of the science of reading among all the educators in the school, they would know what to do to help a kid with dyslexia so much more. And we wouldn’t have so many kids who “have dyslexia” if we were teaching all kids right from the beginning better how to read. There’s no reason we should have 20 or 30 percent of our kids who have dyslexia…I was talking to someone in the school system the other day that is really getting this whole reading science thing, like they’re trying to own up to the fact that they have a lot of struggling readers. And you know what happened in the interim? They’ve got 27 percent of their kids identified for special ed.
EH: And that is a lot. And that is, you know, as the assistant superintendent said to me, “We hope this is a transitional phase.” Twenty-seven percent of your kids in special ed. is an extensive problem to have. I applaud this district that they’re recognizing those kids but this district realizes that the key here is core reading instruction. If we had good core reading instruction, we wouldn’t have 27 percent of kids in special ed. And we know that when a kid has a learning disability, the most common form of learning disability is struggling with reading. When you look at kids who have learning disabilities, you’re usually talking about a reading disability and maybe other issues too.
The other thing that I think I want people need to understand is that struggling to learn how to read is not uncommon. It is not rare. Like it’s actually kind of a hard thing for little kids to learn how to do. Some kids just whip up the skills really quick and easy but for most kids it’s a real struggle. And you can learn to do it. I mean the amazing thing is that we were born with these brains that aren’t wired to read but we can become really good at it. Like we can become really good readers. Some people sort of have a set of abilities and phonological awareness that are probably going to make them much better readers than others. You know, like these skills and abilities are distributed across a spectrum, right? And as we know from the research, at root, the core issue for people who have dyslexia is a phonological deficit.
They have a difficultly understanding the ways that the sounds and language work and connecting the sounds to the letters. So, there’s definitely a distribution of ability along that way but if all kids were taught really well in kindergarten, first grade, there’s no reason we should have the number of struggling readers that we have today.
PA: Definitely, because it is a learned skill. I know you are familiar with Dr. Louisa Moats and I know you’ve interviewed her for [the] Hard Words article that you have. For that particular story, you were talking about the failure of a school in Ohio, right? And how they use teaching methods appropriate for remediating these kids with dyslexia, or characteristics of dyslexia, those who struggle and the changes in that instruction that resulted from parent advocacy groups. Of course, you talked about how the moms got out there and said, “Hey, something’s wrong with the kids. What can we do?” And they researched and found out.
Have you been able to follow this story of the Arlington School District now? How many years has it been? Four or more?
EH: Well, let’s see. I’ve got to do some math. It’s about three years ago that I visited. It’s Upper Arlington, Ohio. It’s just outside of Columbus and the story there is that the parents actually eventually…You know, when you have a struggling reader, I’ve heard this from so many people across the country, you feel like you’re alone. Like you feel like, “Oh, my kid’s struggling but everyone else must be doing fine.” Like you think this is like a rare thing, right? And you don’t even know that there are others. It’s a very hidden problem. That’s one of the powers, I think, of the dyslexia advocacy movement [it] is kind of bringing people out of the shadows in terms of, “Oh, yeah, I was a struggling reader. Oh, yeah, my daughter is a struggling reader.”
So, what happened in Upper Arlington is these parents of kids who were struggling to read found each other and they started kind of organizing together and they eventually had to…they filed a group complaint. So, it’s not exactly a class action lawsuit but it’s like a state complaint that they did it as a group, as a class. And they won and they were able to… So, they had to sort of force the hand of their district to make changes. But what I think is really important about their story is that it was very antagonistic for years when there was this sort of litigation kind of going on between the school district and the parents but when the parents finally won that suit, a bunch of people who had been upper-level administration in that district left or were pushed out and new people came in. And they got a new director of special ed. who really got it and really wanted to work with the parents and do something about it. And that’s what he did.
And now it’s really, I think, a good story of the parents and the school district really working together to try to not only meet the needs of the kids who are struggling to read in that district, the kids who have dyslexia, but the parents have really forced the hand of the district to say, “You’ve got to change the way all kids are being taught to read.” So, I haven’t been back there to visit but I have stayed in touch with some of the people who I interviewed for that story and one of the moms whose kids are completely out of the school district now. They’re all in college. I think even her youngest is in college, at this point, but she’s still completely dedicated to this issue and she works with the school district. So, she gave me a little bit of an update in terms of what’s going on there.
So, they’re continuing to screen all of their kindergartners and I believe all of the students who enter the district for the first time. They all get screened for markers of dyslexia. They have explicit and systematic phonics and phonemic awareness instruction for all the students in grade K through 3. So, when I was there, they were doing that in K–1 and I think they were starting to do it in two. And now they’ve just recently added it to third grade. And I don’t know if they’re going to go even further because if kids don’t get good phonics instruction, they need to keep getting it and there are some good arguments why you would still want to do phonics and particularly other kinds of work with helping kids understand their written language like morphology and etymology up in the upper grades…
PA: All the way.
EH: … third, fourth, fifth grade and beyond. Yeah.
PA: All the way through 12th grade. I agree with you, 100 percent on that. Yes and sometimes kids fall through the cracks.
EH: Exactly. I mean, so the goal of this district is to not let anyone fall through the cracks and to continue that kind of like structured approach to teaching kids their written language all the way up through the upper grades. One of the things that they’ve done in this district is they used to use reading recovery for intervention for struggling first graders. And reading recovery is a program that does do some phonics instruction. It also is sort of foundationally based in some ideas about reading that kind of originate with the whole language movement, and we can talk about that in a moment, but they have no more reading recovery in the district, according to this mom.
And they have this Dyslexia Task Force, where the parents and school district administrators meet all the time to focus on making sure they improve conditions for dyslexic students, in particular, but also really keeping up with what else do they need to do to finetune the core instruction. And she also told me that they just did this thing, I’d never heard of this before, but it’s an organization I guess called Eye to Eye. It’s their only chapter in Ohio and it’s high school students who have dyslexia and ADHD actually mentor junior high school students and I don’t think that was going on when I was there.
Now, the mom did say to me, and this was a big concern when I was there and it’s a concern in all the schools that I visited who are trying to do something about early reading instruction, is the question of: What do you still do at high school and middle school? Because, the kids who are in high school now, even the kids who are late in middle school, they didn’t benefit from any of these changes in early reading instruction. So, in her mind, there’s still a lot of work for the district to do to figure out how do you really continue to identify who’s struggling in middle school and high school and what do you do about it? And this I hear from middle school and high school teachers all the time asking me, “OK, you’re spending all this time focusing on early reading instruction: What do I do with the 15 year old sitting in front of me and I discovered he really can’t read the words very well?” So, that’s a really important part of the puzzle and I think the parents are continuing to push the district to deal with that one.
PA: That is great. That ongoing advocacy is wonderful to hear, that ongoing focus. And when we think about our kids in middle and high school, they still do need that support. And I mentioned before, some kids do fall through the cracks and we want to make sure that we catch them all so they have that support. Earlier when we began talking, you talked about your journey here and how you were focused on secondary students and where they are, and how they’ve learned, and what that means for their income, right? You’re changing the lives of students when we focus on getting them to read and read well so that they’ve got a future, right? That’s awesome.
EH: Yeah, and I have to say, I think one of the other reasons that this topic has been/felt so urgent to me as I’ve discovered it, because again, I knew nothing about this a few years ago. I knew nothing about the science. I knew nothing about the problems with early reading instruction but as I said at the beginning, I’ve been really interested for a long time in educational equity and how family income affects opportunities and outcomes. And one of the things that’s so clear when you talk to the parents of kids with dyslexia is it takes so much time and resources to sort of fight to get your kid what they need in public school.
When you have a struggling reader, oftentimes, it can cost you thousands of dollars to get the right kind of testing. To hire private tutors. To even take your kid out of public school altogether and put them in a specialized private school. And after all that time and all those thousands of dollars and a lot of pain and suffering that the parents and families and kids shouldn’t have to go through, the kids will finally learn how to read when the parents take all this time. But the fact that it takes all those thousands of dollars and all that time, what you find is the…You know, the parents I’m talking to are most all sort of pretty affluent and in some of the “best schools in America,” right?
So, at the end of the day, they can figure out a way to get their kids help. Sometimes, they have to take out a second mortgage on their house and borrow from the grandparents and take a second job but, somehow, they do it. But what about all the kids from poor families? What about all the kids from moderate-income families, whose families don’t have thousands of extra dollars to spend on tutoring? So, at the end of the day, this dyslexia issue and this early reading instruction issue is a key equity issue. And I think there are no silver bullets in education. I have said this before but the closest thing we’ve got is early reading instruction because if we can actually do a good job teaching all kids to learn how to read, it’s the best way that we’ve got sort of evening the playing field.
Because when a kid does not learn how to read words at the beginning of their school career, they fall behind in everything and they miss out on the opportunity, the most powerful way that people learn new things, gain new knowledge, learn new vocabulary through reading. But many kids are turned off to reading by first grade because they’re not getting it and no one’s teaching them how to do it. And they don’t want to do it. And, then, this thing kicks in called the Matthew effect which comes from the biblical reference, right? The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. It happens with reading right away and it’s happening in this country literally with the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer because if you’re rich and your kid is struggling to read you can fix the problem. But if you’re poor and your kid is struggling to read, you can’t fix the problem and you might not even know there is a problem.
PA: Right, and every child deserves that opportunity to learn to read. You know, I have always said that that first feeling of success, where does it happen? It happens in school when you walk into that door and you are so excited about learning. And what can we do for our kids? We can take a look at what truly works. The science of reading is what you talked about. What’s good for all of our students? It’s very, very insightful, everything that you shared with me so far. What I’d like to do is shift a little bit and talk about your recent podcast. So, we’re on a podcast talking about your podcast.
EH: It’s very meta.
PA: At a Loss For Words, I have to tell you, I listened to it twice. It is really making an impact on educators. So, there is a portion of this podcast that talks about the three-cueing system, and for those of who might not be familiar with it, it is a strategy coming from the world of whole language where you have students identify a word for reading by using meaning clues or language cues, not focusing on that skill of looking at whole word, but instead maybe that initial sound and, essentially, guessing what that word might be.
Now, some of you are gasping in horror and thinking, “Do we really have a strategy out there like that?” It truly is there and it’s truly being used across the country. Why do you think this particular system, in light of the fact that we’ve got all of the science that focuses on teaching phonics, using that phonics-based approach, why is this particular strategy for decoding words so popular? And why are we holding onto it in a world of education?
EH: Oh, well, you ask a very big question and I think it’s because, in some ways, it seems to make a lot of sense, right? Like if teachers aren’t taught very much about, in like their own preparation program, about how the written language works and how to teach phonics well, and if they don’t understand why phonics is important, if they’re not given a basic introduction to what cognitive scientists have discovered about how reading works and, instead, they learned the cueing system. The cueing system I think makes sense and they can do it, right? You can implement that. You can teach kids these various word-reading strategies and it’s just doable. And teachers are up against a lot and if they’re not trained well, they’re going to be sort of susceptible to things that they can do. And I think teaching phonics really well is something that does not feel like they can do if they themselves don’t have good materials, don’t have good training to do it.
I think the other thing is that the cueing system sort of makes intuitive sense. I think that’s…It seems like when we’re reading words, we’re sort of…We’re not necessarily like looking at the whole word. We’re kind of going along word to word. We’re using meaning to figure out what we’re reading. It seems like when you have a little kid who’s 5 or 6 years old and they come to a word they don’t know, you think like: “Let’s give them a lot of different strategies. Like that just seems like a good idea. Let’s give them a lot of different ways to figure out what the word is.” But what the research shows really clearly, and this research started being done in the 1970s, is that there’s one reliable efficient way to know what a word is and there’s a way that people who become skilled readers read words and it depends initially on being able to sound out a word to understand the way that the sounds in the word represent letters.
And that through sounding out words and identifying them connecting the sounding out of words to their meaning and their pronunciation and their letter patterns, that you eventually…What’s called orthographic mapping. You like map these words to your memory so that it seems like you read them as wholes. It seems like they’re like pictures in your mind. You know them instantly when you see them. But what scientists have discovered is that the root, the way that you’ve remembered those words, is through understanding the spelling patterns and their pronunciation. So, we need to focus, like literally, if we focus kids’ attention on the sound patterns of our language from an early age, it actually activates the parts of their brain that are best wired for reading.
If we teach kids to use all these different strategies. If we take their eyes away from the word. If we don’t teach them how to sound out words and don’t have them sound out words, they…Some of them can kind of get the gist of what they’re reading but they end up sort of struggling for the rest of their lives. They’re slow readers. They don’t orthographically map a lot of those words into their memory. So, the cueing system, a scientist has discovered, is actually the way that poor readers read. It’s the strategies the people who are struggling with reading use to get by. And what skilled readers rely on is their understanding of the way the written language works, their understanding of the sound patterns in the words and that’s how they get so good. That’s how we turn our brains that were not meant to read into these reading machines.
I mean, it’s kind of amazing. We actually read words and process words faster than we process pictures of those same words. Like we get so good at reading words but it’s through understanding the phonology and understanding the writing system. So, it’s really through phonic skills, like good readers have good phonic skills.
EH: Some kids pick that up relatively easily and don’t need a lot of instruction but with some kids you got to really teach it to them over and over again. And some kids need to sound out words dozens of times before they know what they are.
PA: Repetition, repetition, repetition for our kids, particularly our students with dyslexia who have those processing issues. We talked about making that reading brain, right? And that’s what we’re doing. You used the word intuitive and that’s why some teachers use that three-cueing system and it made me stop and think, “Oh, yeah. I want to help the student out. I want them to find success. I want them to be able to read the word.” But quite often when we’re looking at that phonics-based approach, we have to slow students down in order to recognize those patterns and decode and read those words so that they can speed up later on, right?
EH: Yeah. I think another reason why the cueing system is hard to… It’s all over the place. It’s like deeply ingrained. It’s foundational to a lot of the materials that schools are using. Teachers learn about it often in their teacher-prep programs. I’ve collected text books and I see it all over teacher preparation text books. It is what teachers have been taught about how reading works and they may not even realize how foundational that is to their kind of understanding but it’s kind of everywhere. Someone made an analogy to a virus. It’s just kind of all over the place and a lot of teachers don’t even know it as cueing or three-cueing. They’re more familiar with it as this thing called MSV, Meaning, Structure, Visual, which is in a lot of curriculum materials and teachers even do assessments where they try to figure out when kids make an error as they’re reading whether it was a meaning, a structural, or a visual error.
And I think that’s just sending teachers down a path that isn’t supported by the cognitive science. So, it’s a much deeper thing where we need teachers to really understand the basics of: How do kids learn to read? How does skilled reading work? And, so, what do you need to teach kids to get them to skilled reading? You don’t want to teach them strategies of poor readers. You want to teach them the strategies of good readers so they can become a good reader.
PA: Exactly. Exactly. You talked about how the three-cueing system is a virus all over the place. Recently, on Twitter, you had a post from a literacy leader who was really impacted by your podcast, probably loved it as much as me. And he talked about the three-cueing system and how it was widely used in districts across the board, right? But people like to keep it hush hush. Now, I can remember a time when we shifted to the whole language and phonics was suddenly hush hush. So, when we think about that hush-hush attitude, why do you think these literacy leaders are so leery about speaking up either for or against it?
EH: Well, again, I think it’s just because it’s so ingrained. I mean, I think one of the things that is…One of the reasons why I did this most recent piece, At a Loss for Words, which focused on this cueing idea, I try to explain kind of the history of different ideas about how we learn to read and that this cueing idea was actually…A lot of cognitive scientists thought it seemed like a good idea. Like I said, it seems like…It sort of intuitively seems like the way to read. Then, they went into their labs and they did all kinds of experiments to try to figure out how we read and they figured out, “Oh, no. It’s actually quite different than what we thought.”
But I think what’s happening around the country right now and why I did this most recent piece and felt like it was important to explain the cueing system to people and to kind of call it out and to show that there’s no cognitive science to back it up, that the cognitive science says something quite opposite, is because I think a lot of people are accepting that they need to put phonics instruction into place. Like 20 years ago, there was a fight about phonics, whether to teach phonics or not. I think we’ve moved on from that debate. There certainly are people out there who are very anti-phonics still, but for the most part, I think in most schools and most publishers and curriculum developers know that there is a mountain of evidence that says phonics instruction is really important.
So, even people who were very dismissive of phonics years ago have created phonics programs and they’re selling them. So, you can go buy a phonics program and I have come to think of it a little bit as the “Phonics Patch.” So, you can take what is your balanced literacy curriculum, which like I said is rooted in whole language theories and ideas about reading, you can take your balanced literacy curriculum and you can put a “Phonics Patch’ on top of it. You can do 20 or 30 minutes of phonics instruction and that’s a step in the right direction for sure if it’s good phonics instruction.
But if you’re then sending kids off in the rest of your literacy block and telling them that when they come to a word they don’t know they can use their phonics skills, but they also have all these other strategies to figure out words, you’re drawing kids’ attention away from the words, the actual things that they need to closely attend to and grunt and groan through sounding out in order to store those words eventually into their memory and free up a lot of space to focus on the meaning of what they’re reading rather than trying to figure out what all words say.
It’s been so fascinating to me. I’ve interviewed several adults who are struggling readers and they’ve just described…It’s actually in some ways how I came to this cueing thing. Like they described reading and it’s using the cueing system. They just keep coming across words and a lot of them are just kind of mysteries to them. They just don’t know what to do when they come to a word they don’t know and so it’s a lot of just guessing and skipping.
PA: Right. And kids will do what comes easier.
PA: Am I going to go through that effort to sound out that word or is it just easier to guess and then I’ll look smart if I guess correct?
EH: Exactly. And, I mean, and so yeah, I think the cueing system is easier at first for kids and for teachers but it catches up with kids. It really bites them in the butt by about third or fourth grade.
EH: Because then they’re coming across more and more words they’ve never seen before, right? So, they can’t like memorize those words as pictures. There are fewer pictures in their books. There might not be any pictures in their books. They haven’t stored a lot of words in their memory so they’re kind of slow readers and then they’re really stuck. And the kids who were taught the cueing strategies early, a lot of those kids who have good phonological awareness who do get some phonics instruction and understand pretty quickly that sounding out a word once they get the gist of it is actually the most efficient and accurate way to figure out what it is, those kids will ditch the cueing strategies, right? They’ll sound out words and they’ll be on the path to being a good reader.
But some kids get really stuck and they cling to those cueing strategies. I’ve talked to parents, too, who say their kid will come home with a book, you know, one of those pattern books or whatever and they’ll be guessing and using the pictures or whatever and the parent knows, “No. Wait a minute. We need to focus on the words. We need to sound them out.” And the kid will say, “No. I don’t want to sound it out. My teacher says I don’t have to. My teacher says I can look at the picture.” And it becomes a battle between the parent and the kid because the kid wants to do what her teacher told her to do, every kid, you know.
So, it’s a real pickle and I think this is the…It’s a difficult thing because it is so pervasive. It’s a difficult thing to hear that not only are these cueing strategies not helping kids learn to read, they’re actually hurting a lot of kids and some kids can’t overcome it and they get stuck on these cueing strategies and they’re still doing it in high school. But, by then, they’ve kind of given up on reading because it’s really unpleasant and they don’t like to do it and a lot of the words don’t make sense to them. So, they’re only reading when people force them to. And their reading comprehension, of course, is terrible and then we get to the point and say, “Well, that kid got phonics instruction but his reading comprehension is still terrible.”
Well, there can be a variety of reasons for that. The kid might not have like just good oral vocabulary and background knowledge and all that kind of stuff but it also may be that the kid got phonics instruction but stuck with the cueing. So, never really like figured out how to decode words and never got going on that whole orthographic mapping process, which if you’re taught basic phonics, then you don’t have a major phonological deficit, by the time you’re in about second grade, the research shows you see a word just a few times and it is stored in your memory forever. You cannot suppress a person’s ability to read it. You flash a flashcard in front of their face so quickly that they’re not even conscience they saw that word but they read it. We can see in our brain that your brain actually processed the word and read the word. It’s fascinating. But if you ask someone like, “What did that just say? What was the word there?” I sat in a reading lab and did this and I was like, “What word? I didn’t see anything.” But you did.
PA: Right. Exactly.
EH: It was actually the word chair and you read it. It’s amazing your brain gets so good at it. We need to be teaching kids so that their brains get really, really good at this really important skill that they need to have to be successful in life and they also need to have to enjoy great books.
PA: Right. It’s a life-changer. And what we have to do is make sure our teachers understand the science behind teaching reading, right? We may have won a few battles. We talk about the “Phonics Patch.” Hopefully, we can continue to change the way teachers teach reading. Emily, I have to tell you thank you so much for joining us today. You know, it has been an honor to talk to you.
EH: You’re welcome.
PA: Before we end our time together, I want you to please share how our followers can find you online and on social media.
EH: Yeah, I like Twitter. Sometimes, I feel like it fractures my brain and it’s too addictive but I’m on Twitter and it’s just @ehanford. So, you can find me there. And our website is apmreports.org and we have a page where you can find all of the documentaries we’ve done about reading and the podcast episodes. It’s apmreports.org/reading and you can also find a little bio for me there and my email dress is there. So, you can certainly email me if you have thoughts or questions or story ideas. I’m hoping to continue reporting on reading so I’d love to hear from you if you think there’s something that needs to be reported.
PA: Oh, excellent and I do recommend visiting Emily on Twitter. Also, that At a Loss for Words is a wonderful podcast. It’ll start arousing conversation in your buildings. And don’t forget the other articles, what a way to connect with your other teachers. Join us next month for the “Why” behind implementing SEL in your school with Level Up founder and brain-based education expert Andrea Samadi.
Narrator: This has been an EDVIEW360 podcast produced by Voyager Sopris Learning. For additional thought-provoking podcasts and articles, sign up for our blog, webinar, and podcast series at voyagersopris.com/podcast. Thank you for joining us.