Hanford has been at American Public Media since 2008 where she produces education documentaries that air on public radio stations nationwide and can also be heard on the Educate podcast.
She has written and produced content for many news outlets, including NPR, The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Washington Monthly, and PBS NewsHour.
Her work has won numerous honors, including a duPont-Columbia Award, a Casey Medal, and awards from EWA and The Associated Press. In 2017, Hanford won the Excellence in Media Reporting on Education Research Award from the American Educational Research Association. Her September 2018 audio documentary and article, Hard Words: Why Aren’t Kids Being Taught to Read? brought mainstream media attention to the importance of teacher knowledge about the science of reading and won a public service award from the Education Writers Association.
You can find all of Hanford’s education reporting here (https://www.apmreports.org/reading).
IMSE: In your “Hard Words” report, you interviewed Mark Seidenberg, a cognitive neuroscientist and author of the book “Language at the Speed of Sight.” He said the reading wars are over and science lost. Can you unpack what he might have meant with that statement?
Emily Hanford: I think what he was referring to is what happened in the wake of the reading wars. The reading wars were in the 80s and 90s when we were having a fight about phonics, and they were really a debate between a meaning emphasis versus a code emphasis approach to reading instruction.
It was also about the role of explicit instruction, whether or not you do need to explicitly teach students how to read.
Do they need to be explicitly taught how sounds and letters work? Or will they pick that up through exposure to good literature and through being motivated to want to read?
What was a central belief – not the only, but a central belief – was that learning is more implicit when it comes to learning to read. And learning to read is very similar to the process of learning spoken language, which is something that happens naturally through osmosis and exposure.
The whole language approach in its purest form was a belief that if we focus most of our attention in the early grades on getting good books in students’ hands and helping them to want to learn to read that they will figure out how the written language works. Maybe a little bit of instruction here and there, but if you put them in the right kind of literacy-rich environment, it will happen for kids.
When the National Reading Panel report came out in 2000, it was clear there was a huge amount of evidence that showed phonics instruction really makes a difference.
That’s specifically important for kids who are struggling, but that kind of instruction can benefit all kids. There was a lot of fear during the reading wars that phonics instruction was rote and boring and that was going to kill students’ desire to learn how to read.
And it’s certainly true that phonics can be taught in a way that is rote, boring, and not connected to learning how to read.
Still, what happened in the wake of the reading wars is a little bit of an agreement to disagree, but also an acknowledgment that phonics is important, and phonology does play an important part in learning how to read.
So, we’re not doing a whole language approach anymore. Most schools are doing balanced literacy, and what balanced literacy tries to be is a balance of the various components of learning to read as identified by the National Reading Panel (phonics, phonemic awareness, vocabulary, fluency, & comprehension).
If you look at people who were doing balanced literacy in the early 2000s, you will see a lot of that grew out of the whole language approach to teaching and started adding in some direct instruction and some stuff on phonology and phonics.
I think that’s led us a little bit astray because the five components of the National Reading Panel were essentially a description of what the research shows about elements that need to be in place for people to become good readers. It wasn’t a prescription for what instruction should look like, but it was taken for that.
This idea came about that if you have all those five components in instruction, you’re good. However, reading research doesn’t lead to that conclusion. For example, fluency is the result of good phonemic awareness, good phonics knowledge, and volume of reading. It’s not so much a thing that needs to be taught on its own.
Vocabulary is another good example where kids come to school with a certain amount of vocabulary that they already have in their spoken language. The thing that they need to start to learn in school is the other side of this thing called the Simple View of Reading.
It’s basically a model that disentangles all these things we were fighting about in reading. It’s a way to try to explain how you get to reading comprehension because that is the obvious goal, right? The question is, how does a child get there?
The Simple View of Reading is really not simple at all, but it helps you understand the complexity of learning how to read because there are two components to it. One component is your ability to decode words and recognize printed words.
The other half of it is, do I know what that word means? If I can say the word research, for example, do I know what research is? So, the other component to the Simple View of Reading is your language comprehension.
Students come in with different levels of language comprehension, but most kids know very little to nothing about decoding and the printed word aspect. They don’t know how to actually read the words that they know how to say. That’s why you want to teach with a code emphasis at first.
Some kids are behind or ahead of others on language comprehension, so you also want to focus on the language comprehension side. That doesn’t mean sending a kindergartner into a corner to read a book on her own if she doesn’t know how to read the words that well yet. It’s about reading aloud to her.
If kids have been taught how to read, the best way that they’re going to increase their language comprehension is through reading. This is why the biggest thing you can do if you want equity in education is to teach kids how to decode early because that’s their best tool for now gaining more knowledge.
But if you don’t teach kids how to read the words, they may not have the ability to continue to develop their language comprehension.
The problem, of course, is that kids from low-income families tend to come to school at a bit of a disadvantage on both sides of that equation. A lot of children from higher-income homes come in with an advantage on the language comprehension side.
This is why children from well-educated, affluent homes can make dyslexia the clearest. They have all the advantages on the language comprehension side, but they can still get to first, second, or third grade and can’t read the words.
The parents have done all the right things to expose them to language and to read aloud to them, but the children can’t figure out what the words say. However, when kids come from lower-income homes, it’s often harder to tell because there can be language comprehension issues that are more the result of the fact that they haven’t had the same opportunities to be exposed to complex language.
You can identify the markers for dyslexia in any kid with good screeners. But if you don’t have those screeners looking at a bunch of kids who are struggling to learn how to read, it can be hard to figure out what’s causing what.
That’s why the Simple View of Reading is so helpful because it helps you disentangle, hat’s the issue here? Is the child having language comprehension issues? Is the child having decoding issues, or are they having both?
IMSE: Speaking of the whole language approach, what are the benefits and maybe the reasons why it has stayed so prevalent in curriculums? What are the dangers of maybe leaning on it too heavily?
EH: I think a lot of people need to acknowledge some of the really good things that the whole language approach has brought to the table. Attention to getting kids to read real books, trying to get kids motivated and understanding that motivation is absolutely important.
The question is a chicken or egg question when it comes to motivation, right? The best way to kill a child’s motivation for reading is to not teach them how to read the words. They don’t want to read when it’s really hard for them.
That is why you want to emphasize the code in reading instruction early and not necessarily expect kids to get all kinds of meaning from what they’re reading when they’re in kindergarten and first grade. That’s because all their mental energy is being taken up with figuring out how spelling works and how sounds are represented by letters.
You can see a lot of kids who will grunt and groan their way through words, sounding out a sentence when they’re six years old and they don’t have any idea what they just read.
That’s a part of the process. You want to focus kids on then attaching that to meaning, but you don’t start with meaning because that’s not how reading skill develops. They’ve already got the meaning in their language comprehension.
You have to work on the mechanics and the skills of reading the words and you want to attach that as soon as you can to the student’s comprehension. That was, I think, a legitimate flaw in some of the ways that phonics was maybe being taught in the 80s and 90s – you teach the kids phonics, but you don’t connect it to real text quickly enough.
At the same time, the whole language and balanced literacy movement too quickly try to get kids reading what they call “real” books that include a whole bunch of words that they don’t know how to read yet.
Why would they be expected to read a word like ‘caterpillar’? That is a word you will find in a lot of leveled readers that students are given to read in first grade.
If you give a book to a child with that word in it, the question is, what’s the theory of how kids learn to read?
I think the theory of how kids learn to read when you give them a book like that is either that they associate the look of that word with the meaning or to a picture that’s right there.
That’s an old idea about reading, which is when you see the word, say the word, look at the picture and you associate it all, you memorize words and eventually, you memorize enough of them and you become a reader.
And all the science shows that’s not the way that skilled readers are reading words. They’re not memorizing words through the look of them. If you’re starting children off with things that are trying to get them to just read and memorize full words, you are not teaching them things that are going to be the most effective, most efficient way to get them to skilled reading.
One of the things you have to ask about balanced literacy is what are you emphasizing when and why?
The whole word and cueing system are strategies that people who struggle with reading use to get by. It’s not what someone who’s a good accomplished reader is doing when they’re reading, and the science is so clear on it.
I also don’t think a lot of kindergarten and first-grade teachers went into teaching because they thought they needed to understand this thing called the “science of reading.” They didn’t necessarily think they had to understand the complexities of English orthography, but they actually do.
That is why we need to invest in kindergarten, first, and second-grade teachers. We need to attract people who are interested in this.
The amount of stuff that you need to know to actually teach first grade really well is pretty immense. I think they should probably be making well over $100,000 per year because they probably should be going to school for five or six years like doctors do.
They should be getting internships and residencies, and there should be this gradual release where they are learning from teachers who know how to teach and know the English language.
The way we’re handling teacher preparation is so far away from that model that I just explained, and that’s actually the model I think we need to fix this problem. That’s why this is so complicated and that’s why there are so many ways that this can fail.
IMSE: People often say the type of explicit instruction you’re talking about only belongs in intervention programs or special education classrooms. Why do you believe all students should be receiving this?
EH: We all have brains that are much more similar than different. That is a very hard thing for a lot of people to hear because it’s very popular to say all kids learn differently. There are definitely kids with different needs.
But if you look at the big picture, there’s this process to learning how to read, and we’re all born with brains that are not meant to do it. Our brains all have to go through a set of changes to go from being a non-reading brain to a reading brain. And it’s not that significantly different from human being to human being.
For some people, it just takes them longer and it’s harder for them. They go through the same steps to understand how to be a skilled reader. You have to understand the ways that sounds work in words.
Another part of the problem we have in this country is that some kids look like they’re off and running in kindergarten, first, and second grade, but it turns out they’re not. They were actually just memorizing a whole lot of words. They were taught to read ‘Caterpillar’ by looking at the picture and they were taught to use context.
You can get by without being that accurate in the early grades and then it falls apart for you. And then what happens is the kindergarten, first, and second-grade teachers don’t know. They don’t realize that the students who look like they’re good readers in second grade are not good readers by the time they get to fourth grade.
That’s the profound problem. It looks like what we’re doing is working for more kids than it is working for. It’s hard to convince people that there’s a problem. I challenge people to look at the third-grade reading scores of all the schools that they think of as their best schools.
You might be shocked to realize that 20 or 25 percent of the kids are not actually reading that well. We’ve come to accept some reading scores that just aren’t very good.
But then you go into some schools and it’s like, well, only 10 percent of the kids are reading. Why isn’t that a major national crisis? I guess sometimes when the NAEP scores come out, we have this moment of thinking it’s a national crisis.
It’s easy to think that the affluent schools are doing it right and to look at what they’re using to teach reading. A lot of times it is balanced literacy and some things that are popular. If you want lower-income kids to get the best of the best, you want them to have what they’re doing in most affluent schools.
So, you bring that in, and I think the trick here is that a lot of that stuff that’s happening in the affluent schools is working for fewer kids than you would think. A lot of those kids are getting private tutoring, and for the kids where it does seem to be working well, the science would have us understand that a lot of it’s working in spite of the instruction, not because of it.
I think we need to have a big conversation about what’s happening in some of our highest performing schools. There’s a crisis in the lower-income schools, but many of them are using what the fancy schools use and it’s not working out so well for them. It’s time to take a close look at what we’re using to teach reading and see if it really lines up with the scientific evidence.
In so many cases, it doesn’t line up so well.
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