Emily Hanford Sounds the Alarm About Phonics in ‘Sold a Story’ Podcast
by Mary Follin
In her podcast “Sold a Story: How Teaching Kids to Read Went So Wrong,” Emily Hanford, Senior Education Correspondent for American Public Media, educates her audience on the methods many school systems use to teach children to read. I believe Emily Hanford successfully demonstrates that these methods aren’t working—and why.
As the founder and creator of "Teach Your Child to Read," a direct-instruction, phonics-based program for teaching young children to read, I have been closely following the challenges we've been up against, trying to teach our nation’s children to read. I taught both of my (now grown) sons to read before they started school, and it never occurred to me to use anything other than a phonics-based approach. Teaching phonics was easy, and they both learned fast.
When we were done, they could read.
While there may be extenuating circumstances (e.g., vision issues, dyslexia, environment, etc.) that could impede learning regardless of the methodology , it makes sense to me that if you teach children the code of the English language—sound and pattern associations with letters—they can pretty much decode whatever words they need to.
So why has it been so difficult to teach children to read in our nation’s school system? Why are 65% of fourth graders not proficient in reading, as Emily Hanford cites in her podcast?
A Brief History of Reading Instruction or How Phonics Went Wrong
Since the introduction of ‘whole word’ reading instruction (recognizing whole words rather than sounding them out) in the early 1900s, many public-school systems shifted away from direct-instruction phonics. (Remember the McGuffy readers? Dick and Jane? Whole word primers.) That said, phonics was still being taught in the early-to-mid 1900s, and books were often written with words that were easy to decode using phonics.
Many kids simply figured it out!
Fast forward to the 1980s, and along came Whole Language. Moving away from simple readers, Whole Language made reading fun by introducing all manner of vocabulary at an early age, regardless of the complexity of words. Children were encouraged to memorize, guess, and use pictures as clues—an approach called ‘cueing’—techniques that are still being promoted in many of today’s schools.
Works great if a child is good at it, but many children quickly became overwhelmed and confused. I mean, what’s so fun about staring at a hard word and not knowing what to do with it? And what about when kids get older and the pictures go away?
When Whole Language fell off the radar in the ‘90s, Balanced Literacy moved in, and for the most part, never left. Phonics is now back on the scene, but according to Emily Hanford’s reporting, phonics is more like a side dish, a fallback tool to use as yet another cue to guess with.
Phonics isn’t just another tool. It’s the foundation—the code—of the English language, and without building literacy skills by teaching the sounds and patterns associated with letters and letter combinations, too many children get lost—as we’ve already noted, an abysmal 65% of fourth graders. And according to Emily Hanford, the scores on the test that measures this have been “terrible for decades.”
So how did this happen?
In the mid-20th century, influencer Marie Clay, a New Zealand child development and literacy professional, devised a ‘new’ way to teach children to read. Her method was quickly embraced by multiple countries, one of which was the United States. The result? Just look again at the aforementioned statistic, the scary one where 65% of fourth grade readers in the U.S. are not proficient readers. The percentage is even higher in underserved communities.
If you want to take a deep dive into how one woman’s idea could hamstring THREE generations of children, please listen to Emily Hanford’s account in ‘Sold a Story,’ where she artfully weaves a tale about power, money, and ego. Unfortunately, what this sordid history is NOT about is the children, many now grown, who have paid dearly for an experimental approach that has not proven effective for over half a century.
Teach YOUR Child to Read with Phonics
So what do we do about this?
For starters, let’s hope ‘Sold a Story’ creates more than a ripple. Talented educators and journalists have been talking, writing, and warning us about this for years, but the entrenched system has been a tough nut to crack. I think it’s important to note that the people working with your children love them dearly; they’re not the issue. Follow the money. The new methods of teaching reading necessarily require a lot of training, materials, classroom setups, licensing—far more than a systematic phonics approach would require. (I can’t encourage you enough to listen to Sold a Story! The power—and the money—is in surprisingly few hands.)
I don’t mean to oversimplify here. When children learn to read with phonics, they, well, learn to read! So indeed, there is plenty of auxiliary instruction and follow-on materials to accelerate learning and enhance comprehension. But developing a non-reading child into a reader should be a lot simpler than the current curriculum (and outcomes) would imply.
So what can YOU do about it, if you're a parent of an elementary-school age child?
Learn everything you can about reading instruction, and why it’s so critical children learn to read through a direct-instruction, phonics-based approach. Once you start digging into reading methodology, you might find yourself scratching your head, wondering how anyone thought the current approach was a good idea.
To get you started, take a look at the following excerpt from Emily Hanford’s podcast; a tiny peek at what you may be up against as a parent. I think you’ll be as concerned as I was when you read it. This lesson is a video that a parent watched with his child on Zoom, a teaching video produced by the company that sells the school’s curriculum:
Teacher: I’m gonna read a little bit of this story to you. And if I get stuck on a word, I want you to try to help me figure out what that word could be.
[Emily Hanford]: The teacher reads the story. The kids can see the words on the screen; they’re following along as she reads. And then the teacher comes to a word that she’s covered up with a little yellow sticky note.
Teacher: OK, so we’re gonna stop right here on this covered word.
[Parent interjects]: And the teacher says, “What could this word be? Let’s look at the picture.”
Teacher: We’re gonna see if the picture helps us to figure out what that word would be.
[Emily Hanford]: The kids can’t see the word. It’s covered with the sticky note. So there’s no way they can sound it out. They’re just trying to figure out what the word could be based on what’s going on in the story.
Teacher: If we think about what’s happening so far in the story – we know Zelda and Ivy’s dad made cucumber sandwiches for lunch. And Zelda and Ivy didn’t want to eat the sandwiches, so they ran away. And now they think their mom and dad will...?
[Emily Hanford]: Will...what? Zelda and Ivy ran away and now they think their mom and dad will...scold them? Find them?
Teacher: Do you think that covered word could be the word “miss?”
[Emily Hanford]: Ah. Miss them.
Teacher: Could it be the word “miss”? Because now that they’re gone maybe their parents will miss them?
[Emily Hanford]: The teacher asks the kids to think about whether “miss” could be the word...using the strategies they’ve been taught.
Teacher: Let’s do our triple check and see. Does it make sense? Does it sound right? How about the last part of our triple check? Does it look right? Let’s uncover the word and see if it looks right.
[Emily Hanford]: The teacher lifts up the sticky note and indeed, the word is “miss.”
Teacher: It looks right too. Good job. Very good job. Go ahead and click on the next slide so you can practice this strategy on our next part of our story.
Is it just me, or does this make NO sense? In this lesson, children are specifically taught to guess and use pictures to figure out a word, rather than sound it out. Apparently, phonics is often used to identify the sound of the first letter, so a child won’t accidentally come up with “scold” or “find” in the example above.
If the ‘cueing’ technique in this video excerpt is something you’re unfamiliar with, talk to your child’s teacher about it. And while you're at it, find out if your child’s school is using a direct-instruction, systematic, phonics-based approach. Many school systems have moved away from ‘cueing,’ and your school may be one of them.
If you’re not happy about what you discover, talk to other parents, teachers, and school administrators. Reach out to the school board directly. Emily Hanford’s research revealed that a lot of educators are also frustrated with the current system, so you may meet with less resistance than you think. In fact, many school systems are already revamping their reading programs, bringing phonics back in, front and center.
But if your child is at an age where you can’t afford to wait for the school to make changes, teach your child to read at home using a phonics-based approach. You don’t need a certificate or training to do it; and you certainly don’t need permission! There are plenty of programs you can use to teach your child to read, and if budget is an issue, you can even teach your child to read for free.
Throughout history, preventing people from learning to read has been a way to oppress large segments of the population. With over half our children unable to read proficiently by fourth grade, what does this say about the future of our nation, not to mention the lives of these children? I particularly love the quote Emily Hanford cites in ‘Sold a Story,' a wistful lament by the late First Lady, Barbara Bush: “Everything I worry about would be better if more people could read, write, and comprehend.”
Regardless of anybody’s politics, I think this is something we can all agree on.
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Winner of the Gertrude Warner Book Award and the Moonbeam Children's Book Award,