At a Loss for Words

I robbed the title of this post, “At a Loss for Words”, from Emily Hanford, who is journalist and a Senior Producer and Correspondent with American Public Media Group. She gave a presentation by the same title at the ExcelinEd conference I attended this month in Salt Lake City.

(The video of the presentation is at the end of this post. I encourage you to watch it all!)

Emily Hanford presenting at the conference

The title encapsulates the many layers of thoughts and feelings I have about the reporting she has done over the years pertaining to how we teach students to read and how they actually learn.

Let me invite you upfront to check out the SOLD A STORY podcast where Emily takes us through a six part exposition of her digging deep into something that has been called “the civil rights issue of our day.”

Of course, I am referring to the need for every child and adult in this country to be taught and to learn how to read.

The splash page on the SOLD A STORY website.

As I progressed through the six episode podcast, I started to get a sick feeling in my stomach for several reasons, some of which I share here.

It began when I started to hear what I must assume are well-intended people perpetuating a practice that was not what it was billed to be (more on that in a moment). I became a bit judgmental of why and how they could do that.

The feeling in my stomach was worsened as I heard stories of parents and children who put their trust in the educational “system” to teach their children how to read. One mom who was frustrated with the lack of progress of her non-reading child said, “Public school should be like this sacred trust. I’m going to give you my child and you’re gonna teach him how to read. And that shattered for me. That was broken.” 

And yet another jolt to my stomach came with discussion that higher performing schools in wealthier areas were not really as high performing in reading due to the fact that many parents hired private tutors. They did this because their children WERE NOT learning to read in their “high performing” school. This undoubtedly resulted in the schools appearing to perform better than they were actually being taught at school. In other words, the school results were inflated due to the work of the private tutors.

The last, and most powerful punch to my stomach came when I stopped judging and began reflecting on my 30-year career as a teacher, administrator and superintendent of schools. As Emily was discussing all the different reading programs that were in question, I about shrunk in my chair as I realized that I had participated either as a teacher or a district superintendent in the implementation of all the troubled reading programs.

I cannot tell you how many times I spoke at a board meeting, at a community event, to a group of educators, and stressed to them that our #1 job in education is to ensure that each and every child becomes a proficient reader.

I ask myself, should I have known?

The answer is I may not have been able to know everything, but I sure should have known more than I did.

Holy crap. I was part of the problem.

I must briefly describe the problem. A theory was developed intending to help children learn to read. It is sometimes referred to as “Three Cueing.” The basic premise is that students do NOT need to sound out words. Instead, they try other ways rather han looking at the word to figure it out. Below are the three key ideas.

  1. Look at the first letter
  2. Look at the picture
  3. Think of a word that makes sense

The problem with the system that was widely and wildly adopted across the country, is that it was not really teaching students to read.

In the podcast Emily recounts a story of a group of people who attended a reading conference that she also attended to observe. Her conclusion of the group activity at the conference says it all.

“They’ve bought into the cueing idea. The idea that a child can read a book without being able to read the words.”

– Emily Hanford

The idea of learning to read without reading the words, seems so very wrong…in hindsight.

Many, many people fell prey to the faulty and unproven system. And of course, the podcast discusses the “dark side” of education where companies benefit from selling their programs and curriculum regardless of whether it is doing what it should be doing and/or whether real research shows its impact. Companies like Heinemann Publishing, and other key players had a huge financial stake in having these programs implemented widely. It drove dollars to their bottom lines.

I am not against companies making money in education. Heck, there are thousands of companies that make money in education. I am against money being used when it does not deliver the key results. There is nowhere in education where this is more important than in the teaching and learning of reading.

I advise that if you are interested in the more technical details of the problems with cueing and what can happen in its place, to listen to the podcast AND do some of your own research. I am not a reading expert (stating the obvious) and I am barely scratching the surface here with the hope that you will do just that.

One final note, be sure to listen to the end credits of the 6th episode. I can almost guarantee that it will bring a smile to your face. It also brought a tear to my eyes.

The video of Emily’s presentation.


How legislation on reading instruction is changing across the country

November 17, 2022

More states are now requiring districts to adopt curriculum that adheres to the science of reading.  

November 10, 2022

Heinemann’s billion-dollar sales have nationwide reach

APM Reports found that 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. 

October 20, 2022

Want to know more about the science of reading?

Here’s a reading list put together by Emily Hanford, host and lead producer of our podcast Sold a Story: How Teaching Kids to Read Went So Wrong.

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