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: When it comes to the science of reading and finding a solution to the reading epidemic, where is the disconnect between all those in the educational landscape?
Emily Hanford: That’s a great question. There’s this gigantic body of research about how skilled reading works and what children need to learn to become skilled readers and what’s going on when they struggle with reading. And this evidence has been accumulating for decades now, and it comes from many fields of study – psychology and cognitive science and neuroscience and linguistics and speech pathology.
I think a big part of the problem is that there’s a divide between those fields I just mentioned and the literacy research that goes on in schools of education. Professors and researchers who are affiliated with schools of education go to their own conferences and they write for different journals than cognitive scientists or psychologists do.
Even though a school of education at a university might be right across the quad from a neuroscience department with a reading lab, the education professors may not know what’s going on in that reading lab. They might not even know that the reading lab exists over there.
You can also argue that the neuroscientists don’t really know what’s going on in the schools of education. I think part of the reason we’re in the pickle that we’re in with early reading instruction is that there hasn’t been good communication across the quads, as it were.
I think the larger problem is that reading has sort of been treated a little bit like a “he said, she said” situation. Some research comes out of the schools of education that says one thing and focuses on certain kinds of questions. Then this research comes out from these other fields and it says something else. There are some big differences here and we all just agree to disagree.
Starting in the 1970s, cognitive scientists got interested in some of these ideas about reading and how it works that were coming out of schools of education. They knew these ideas were informing the way students are taught to read, and they thought some of those ideas were interesting and probably true.
They started testing them in labs and in classrooms, and they were actually discovering things about reading that were at odds with a lot of the established notions in schools of education. I think the scientific evidence was sort of ignored or dismissed, or maybe like I said, the scientists didn’t do a good enough job getting their message out. For various reasons, the scientific evidence on reading just has not made its way very well into schools and schools of education. I think what we have right now today is actually a very big divide.
I actually think there are a lot of people right now that are invested in making it seem like the divide is not that big, but the divide between research and practice is pretty wide. Right now, I would say that teachers are being misled about how skilled reading works by their teacher preparation, professional development they get in schools, and the curriculum materials that their school districts buy.
IMSE: In your personal experience dealing with so many of the people in education, does it seem the issue might be a fear of being wrong or a fear of change? Or is it that the whole language approach and the three-cueing system were just so prevalent from the fifties into the 90s and 2000s that everyone who is in a position of power right now, that’s just all they know?
EH: Largely, I think it’s really important to recognize that this is not the fault of teachers. Teachers have been taught some things about reading or in some cases they haven’t really been taught much of anything at all.
That’s actually what’s really shocking is that I think a lot of teachers just don’t learn that much about how reading works, and what’s going on when students are struggling. I mean, many teachers don’t even learn about dyslexia.
A lot of teachers go into teaching kindergarten, first, and second grade and they just don’t know that much about how reading works.
And then they think, oh, my God, there’s all this stuff that’s relevant to what I’m doing that no one told me. So, I think a big part of the problem is exactly that. I have not run into a teacher who doesn’t want to teach their students how to read. I have not run into a teacher who doesn’t want the most recent knowledge and evidence to be able to teach reading.
I have now interviewed hundreds of teachers. I think sometimes there’s an initial hurdle for some of them because when they start to learn about the science of reading, it is so new and so different from some other conceptions they have picked up about reading that it’s shocking to them.
Often, the teachers tell me that one of their first reactions is to push it away a little bit because it’s scary and it’s a lot of stuff they don’t know. They also immediately feel a certain amount of guilt and shame. As one teacher put it to me, when she learned about the science of reading, she immediately thought why did you let me teach students to read without knowing this?
Most teachers will immediately think of all of the struggling readers they’ve had in their classes and every teacher has had them. And depending on where you’re teaching, some teachers have had a whole heck of a lot of them. I mean, some teachers are staring at half their class who aren’t really getting it or more.
Once they get over that guilt, I think as long as they’re given good support and they’re in a place where someone wants to learn this and is supporting them with coaching and ongoing professional development and good, better curriculum materials that support what they’re learning about the science, those teachers are soon psyched. I mean, they’re pumped. They want to know this stuff because when they start to do it, what they see is that a lot of their students who are struggling are starting to learn how to read.
And even the students who were learning before are learning to become better spellers and they’re just all so much more clued in to how the written language works.
So, I do think we’re facing a big knowledge gap issue, we need to understand that there’s a status quo with the way that things are done. And the status quo is supported by a lot of people.
I think some of it is admitting being wrong because people have built their reputations on some things that are not quite right about how reading works. So, whether it’s because you’ve published papers or you’ve written books or you’ve sold yourself as a literacy expert telling people one thing about reading, it’s hard to then recognize that a lot of that might need to be adjusted. It doesn’t line up with the science.
There are a lot of reasons that people aren’t going to do that. It’s human nature. We all don’t know what we don’t know, so that’s a hard shift. Then I think the other thing that we can’t be naive about is that there’s a lot of money invested in the status quo.
There are people who have things to lose as teachers, schools, and school districts better understand the science of reading. And that’s real.
But the important thing for the teachers on the ground to remember is that most of the people in education don’t have skin in the game. Most of the people in education just want to teach children to read.
There’s strong emotion on this topic in particular, which is something else I’ve been trying to figure out. Why is there so much strong emotion around reading instruction? I think it’s because reading is the core of it all. It’s where it all starts.
Once we become good readers, we’re all “experts at reading,” but we’re actually not. People can have their own strong feelings about how they think they learned to read, how it seemed like their children learned to read, or what seems to be working for the students in their classes.
If you really take apart the elements of reading and try to figure out what is going on in our brain when we’re reading words, what it seems like we’re doing is not always what we’re doing.
It’s very easy to be led astray by common sense when it comes to reading. That’s one of the reasons why I’ve become so obsessed with this topic because it’s truly fascinating, the research is so interesting.
From that end, I think you can really appeal to teachers’ intellectual curiosity. The problem, of course, is that there’s a big difference between reading a really awesome book about reading science or reading some great articles on Sunday afternoon and finding it interesting. But if you teach first grade, you read that article and the next day, you have to go teach children to read. That’s totally different.
Then teachers are left to think now what do I do? This is happening to teachers all over the country, especially teachers who are in places where their colleagues are not asking the same questions. They’re not getting support from the principals or their chief academic officers or their superintendents or their school boards. People above them are not asking questions. Now suddenly you’re the first-grade teacher who’s had all these a-ha’s about it, but you don’t really know what to do and no one is supporting you.
In fact, it’s often the opposite. You raise your hand and say the things we’re doing in first grade don’t seem quite right, and people will become ostracized for that. I receive emails from people every day who asked questions about what they were doing and got shamed for it.
“I get told to shut up.”
“I get moved out of my job.”
And people have written this to me, and they don’t want to talk about it publicly. They’re scared. There’s a lot of resistance to this stuff all over the place for the various reasons I’ve just named.
In part two of our Q&A with Hanford, she goes into more detail about why the science of reading is so important and the impact that balanced literacy has had in the classroom.
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