Sold a Story – Podcast Review

Sold a Story: How Teaching Kids to Read Went So Wrong is a six-part podcast series from American Public Media, hosted by Education Reporter Emily Hanford. It is a fascinating history of the hugely influential and widespread reading theory developed by New Zealander Marie Clay.

You might recognise some of the programs her theory has spawned: Reading Recovery. Guided Reading. Leveled Literacy Intervention. Programs that have made their founders – and the publishing company – millions of dollars.

More than 125 people were interviewed as part of the podcast which is available for download here: Sold a Story: How Teaching Kids to Read Went So Wrong | Podcast (apmreports.org) but Clay was not one of them. Hanford repeats a few times that she was unable to reach or convince the four women on which the series focuses, to be interviewed for the podcast.

The podcast starts during the pandemic in the US, when for the first time, parents were listening in to their children’s school lessons as they did them online. And some parents were shocked by what they heard. Their children were being encouraged to guess words based on strategies such as looking at the picture, looking at the first letter of the word and thinking about words that might make sense in the context.

When the children were confronted with a novel word without those cues and strategies to help, they could not read it. Forums of concerned parents sprang up across the country – why were their children’s schools not teaching them to read?

We are then introduced to Marie Clay, who was undertaking a doctorate at the University of Auckland in the 1960s when she designed a study to try and understand what was happening with children who were struggling to read. Not only did she study poor readers, but she studied strong readers and she was convinced that the one thing these good readers didn’t do was get stuck on letters, or sound the words out. Instead, she thought they used a whole language approach, looking at cues in the text – skimming the word, using the pictures, studying the context and syntax of the sentence, noting the starting letter – before confirming the meaning of the word, and hence ‘reading’ the word.

So in 1976, Marie Clay developed a reading program based on her study, teaching struggling readers the cues that strong readers used. She called it Reading Recovery.

By 1984, Reading Recovery had caught the attention of professors in the United States and before long, teachers across the country – and the globe – were being trained in Clay’s program. By the end of 1990s, it was being used in one in five schools in America, and early results seemed promising; 95% of struggling readers given the Reading Recovery program in Year 1 would get up to the average reading level of their class.

But at the same time, as scientists were using new tools such as brain scans and eye-tracking, other researchers were testing Clay’s theories – in particular, the idea that good readers merely skimmed the letters in a word, and that they were not using them in a meaningful way when reading. And the result of that research? It was becoming very clear that Clay’s theory of reading was wrong.

The podcast talks about Bruce McCandliss’ 2015 study, which looked at how different teaching methods affected the outcome of learning a language. A completely new written language was invented for the project and one group were taught the relationship between the symbols and sounds (phonics) while the other group were taught to read by looking at the whole word and asked to memorise them. They then mapped what was happening in the brains of people using the different methods of reading.

How a person is taught affects what areas of the brain they use to read. And you want to use the parts of your brain that are going to be most efficient and effective at helping you map words into your memory. Because that’s how you become a good reader. You’re not using your brain power to identify the words. You’re using your brain power to understand what you’re reading. And that’s the goal. (Emily Hanford)

What was happening in effect, she claims, was that teachers were being trained to teach children to read using the same strategies that poor readers use. Clay was wrong when she said that it was skilled readers who used cues in the text. She was actually describing the way poor readers try to determine words, and so her Reading Recovery method was training teachers to reinforce these inferior strategies.

But the program was almost universally taught in universities and by 2000, Hanford reports there were still only two phonics programs in the US that were based on scientific research. One of these was Reading First, initially developed during the 1960s. The idea that you had to teach children simple sounds was considered very old-fashioned and unpopular, but there were a handful of powerful supporters of the method, including US President, George W. Bush.

In 2001 the President was filmed when visiting one of the few schools in the US teaching the Reading First program. You’ve probably seen the video without realising it, regardless of whether you’re interested in reading instruction or not. The video shows the President sitting in front of a group of children when one of his advisors leans in and whispers something in his ear. The President looks stunned, shocked – it is clear he is no longer listening to the children read. He’s just been told the World Trade Centre has been hit by an airplane.

The podcast goes on to introduce the enormous funding program that Bush announced, for reading programs backed by science. Dame Clay flew from New Zealand to ask if her Reading Recovery would be eligible for funding and when told not unless she modified her program to include training for decoding, allegedly replied “We will not change a thing in our program. But we will modify our description of Reading Recovery to comply with the law.”

The podcast also introduces Clay’s successors, names that are well known to a generation of teachers – Fountas and Pinnell.

Gay Su Pinnell and Irene Fountas were two Professors who further developed Clay’s theories into a new program. One major difference was that the new program did not limit itself to first-graders as Reading Recovery did, but taught the cueing system for all year levels. It was called Guided Reading and their first book about the new approach, published in 1996, was a bestseller.

The other name which has become synonymous with the whole language approach is Lucy Calkin, a Professor at Columbia and founder of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. Picking up where Clay left off, her approach is used around the world and it is estimated more than 170,000 teachers have attended one of the weeklong programs at the teaching training institutes she has developed.

The podcast introduces us to the publishing company that all four women have used over the years to publish papers and books about their approaches to reading: Heinemann. By the early 2000s, Heinemann didn’t want to be limited to professional texts, it wanted to move into more traditional products – reading texts for struggling readers – one of which was called LLI, Leveled Literacy Intervention.

In the US, an LLI kit costs almost $4,000 and arrives in ten boxes. Podcast host Emily Hanford ordered one for her research, and it took her more than three hours to unpack.

She began calling school districts in the US to find out how much money they had spent on these levelled readers. She says: “from the 83 school districts that we have records for, we calculated that Heinemann received at least $215 million over the last 10 years.”

There are more than 13,000 school districts in the USA.

But despite its popularity, as Hanford reports, the overwhelming evidence being produced by research was that Reading Recovery, Guided Reading and LLI were not working.

She explains: “Teachers in the US were learning the ‘Balanced Literacy’ approach, which was another name for what Calkins, Fountas and Pinnell were selling. The basic idea with leveled books is that if kids are moving up levels, they’re learning how to read. [But] a child’s ability to read a particular book has a lot to do with their background knowledge. Take for example, a struggling reader who loves baseball. Maybe her dad reads her a lot of books about baseball. So she’s seen certain words a lot – words like “ball” and “bat,” and maybe even “field” and “diamond.” Give her a level C book about baseball. She recognizes most of the words. And she understands what the story is about, no problem. But give her a Level C book about something else, like farming, and she’s lost.”

The podcast reports one study found that the Fountas and Pinnell Benchmark Assessment System, used for identifying whether a child was good or struggling, had a success rate of 54% – about as accurate as flipping a coin. When the system was used for 100 poor readers who definitely needed assistance, the assessment tool only picked 31 of the kids – which is worse than flipping a coin.

Sold a Story: How Teaching Kids to Read Went So Wrong is an enlightening look at the history and people behind the powerful whole language reading theory, the early (albeit flawed) research on which it was based, and the good intentions that started it all.

But by focussing only on the history, Sold a Story admittedly didn’t take into account any changes made to the programs more recently. After listening to the first five available episodes, I was chatting with a friend who is doing a doctorate in Education, and far wiser in these matters than me. She pointed out that some of these programs had evolved over the years, something the podcast hadn’t really touched on.

And then the final episode of Sold a Story dropped.

Hartman includes an interview she had with Lucy Calkin in 2021, who finally admitted she realised there were errors in her cueing approach. It’s awkward to listen to. She has since released a new edition of Units of Study for Teaching Reading – one that recommends access to decodable books.

Hartman also spoke with one of the senior execs from Heinemann and asked about the publisher’s position on the fact that one of their star authors was pulling away from the cueing theory while the others – Fountas and Pinnell – were sticking with it. “Both of those things can’t be right,’ Emily points out. The executive left the publishing house a few months later.

I have heard of ‘Reading Wars’ before in many contexts but never understood the genesis of the term, nor the history of the whole language theory. It’s staggering to think that some people believe that reading is simply making meaning from a story regardless of the actual words.

As a writer, I think the actual words we use are rather important. As the mother of a dyslexic child, I believe learning how to decode words is essential. Picture books and graphic novels might have illustrations that help a child understand the story, but out in the real world that scaffolding disappears.

The six episodes are currently available online, each between 30-50 minutes long (transcripts are also available). Sold a Story: How Teaching Kids to Read Went So Wrong | Podcast (apmreports.org)   

Published by Shannon Meyerkort

Shannon Meyerkort is a Perth-based writer and storyteller

2 thoughts on “Sold a Story – Podcast Review

  1. Thank you Shannon for your superb review of ‘ Sold a Story’. It is ‘crucial as many people as possible listen to this expose . How could such wrongness continue for so long doing do so much damage to so many.
    Maybe there have been some improvements with the introduction of phonic readers and a bit more explicit instruction but as long as the whole language readers, specifically designed for guessing and reading from context with an extravagant vocabulary persist there will still be a substantial number of confused readers who cannot contend with trying to accommodate the two mutually exclusive methods .
    My daughter who started off at home with a thorough grounding in phonics when she was five years old was forced at school to conform to those reading books and ended up a non reader . She was extremely difficult to remediate . I am still angry decades later but have channeled this into taking the unpopular stand of condemning leveled \patterned\predictable readers ,
    I have been involved in the reading wars for 40 years in NZ .My mother taught thousands of reading students who were failures of local schools .

    1. Thank you Gaynor, it’s a great podcast for so many people to listen to, especially parents whose children are young and about to start school. It’s good to go in with an idea of what type of reading instruction your child might get. I certainly had never considered it with my older girls, who seemed to just ‘get’ reading… but for others, like my youngest daughter with dyslexia, suddenly it became very important and it’s a question all parents should be asking.

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