There are lots of reasons journalists may shy away from covering how kids learn to read, says public radio reporter Emily Hanford—but in so doing they’re missing an important story.
By Alexander Russo
Earlier this fall, APM Reports senior correspondent Emily Hanford came out with a 52-minute audio documentary about the failure of many American schools to teach reading.
It’s not that schools aren’t trying, according to Hanford, it’s that they aren’t using methods of teaching that line up with scientific evidence on how the brain learns. In so doing, schools doom way too many kids to struggle with a make-or-break academic skill.
For many of those who remember the so-called Reading Wars—a heated debate during the 1980s and 190s over how to teach kids to read—the mere mention of reading instruction can produce groans and eye rolls. However, Hanford takes a fresh look at the situation, avoiding some of the common pitfalls of the genre. Partly as a result, Hanford’s documentary is the most-viewed article on the APM Reports webpage and has generated a slew of responses.
Called HARD WORDS, the documentary is told largely through the stories of people grappling with the challenges of helping more kids learn to read. They include the chief academic officer in Bethlehem, PA who approaches his students’ reading results with a new set of eyes and a former teacher in Mississippi who’s trying to change the way teachers are prepared to teach reading.
In this interview, which has been condensed and edited, Hanford describes some of the reasons that reporting on reading may be challenging for reporters who want to cover it. People have strong opinions about reading. There’s a lot to know. But as Hanford tells us, the effort is worth it. And at least a few reporters seem to be finding ways to tell the story.
Alexander Russo: How did you happen upon this topic?
Emily Hanford: It started with a piece I did last year about dyslexia called Hard to Read. What I found is that kids with dyslexia are not getting the help they need in school. And it was the moms of these dyslexic kids who pointed out to me that a big part of the problem is core reading instruction. Kids with dyslexia suffer the most. But what they need is not some other or totally different kind of instruction. All kids need explicit instruction in how letters represent sounds. Kids with dyslexia often need a much heavier dose of that kind of instruction. The whole time I was doing the documentary on dyslexia I knew I wanted to look at the question of core reading instruction: how do schools teach reading? Do their approaches fit with what scientists have figured out about how reading actually works?
AR: How much in-depth coverage has the topic of how to teach kids to read received in the past?
EH: I was surprised not to find more long-form journalism about this. There was some good reporting years ago when the Reading Wars were in full swing. I’m thinking in particular of former Columbia Journalism School dean Nick Lemann, who wrote a great piece in the Atlantic in 1997. And the topic hasn’t been avoided altogether in recent years. Cognitive scientist Mark Seidenberg’s 2017 book, “Language at the Speed of Sight,” got reviewed in the New York Times and NPR interviewed him. And Louisa Moats (a reading expert, not a journalist) has written a bunch of good stuff for a general audience in the AFT magazine and other publications. And the Fordham Institute has published a lot of stuff, too.
Editor’s note: The Baltimore Sun produced a series of pieces on reading in the late 1990s, under the banner Reading by 9; the banner and concept were picked up by the then-Times Mirror papers.
AR: How’s the reaction been, positive and negative?
EH: The response has been overwhelmingly positive. I’m hearing from researchers and policy people who have known about the wide gap between research and practice for years and are grateful that the issue is finally getting much-needed attention. I’m hearing from lots of teachers who are telling me they learned pretty much nothing about how to teach reading in their teacher prep programs. One teacher tweeted that listening to the documentary “rocked her world” and she would be looking for more information immediately. It seems to be having a big impact, and I hope it can help foster productive conversations. A number of things have been written about it. I know that institutions and organizations whose work is not aligned with the scientific evidence on reading are aware of the story. There have been some critical pieces about the documentary but I was actually expecting more pushback.
This 1997 Atlantic article The Reading Wars is recommended by Hanford.
AR: Why do you think that the reading story has gotten so little attention?
EH: It’s strange. I read the NAEP scores like everyone else. There’s obviously a problem, but we somehow accept that the scores never get much better. It somehow fails to shock us. But it shouldn’t be this way. I think this is a story hiding in plain sight. I also think it’s a story that feels like it’s old and it’s been done. It’s both.
AR: Why would journalists choose not to cover a story of persistent, systemic problem?
EH: One of the responses I’ve gotten from some other reporters is, ‘Oh yeah, we knew that. We knew that reading was a problem.’ There’s sort of a ‘been there, done that’ kind of mentality—especially among reporters who’d been through the Reading Wars. I think because it was such a war, and people got so beaten down with it, between No Child Left Behind and Reading First. I think we kind of moved on to other things. But in the process, I think we’ve kind of lost the forest for the trees. Everything depends on reading. It all goes back to reading.
AR: Do you think ideology plays a part in why the story hasn’t gotten told as much as it should have?
EH: I don’t know how to weigh in on that one. I don’t have enough information. I do concur with the Fordham Institute’s Mike Petrilli that this is a very political issue. There’s just no doubt about it. Phonics has come to be associated for some reason with conservatives. It drives me crazy that so many people who support whole-language approaches and balanced literacy say they also want equality and social justice. What’s more important than helping kids learn to read?
AR: There have also been several well-known research studies that have been reconsidered in recent years. Do you think journalists may feel hesitant to write about reading because they’ve been burned about research they’ve covered in the past, like the 30-million word gap or the Marshmallow Test?
EH: The research on reading is hundreds of studies and scientific consensus reports from many researchers and many fields over decades. That’s not analogous to the Marshmallow Test or 30 million words at all. Those were high profile findings based on basically one set of studies, one set of scientists. The reading research is much deeper. It’s from hundreds of researchers all over the world in different fields. It’s possible reporters think they are analogous. But please point out —not at all. This is settled science. So there’s no excuse to stay away from it for fear it’s not.
AR: One last question about the coverage: Journalists often struggle trying to be fair to both sides of a debate. Did these challenges get in the way here?
EH: When I dug into this, it was stunning how much science there is. You just can’t treat this as something where there are two sides. I mean, it’s not the Ten Commandments. There are still some things researchers don’t know. But we know a whole, whole heckuva a lot about reading. So I didn’t feel like I was crawling out to the end of a limb as a journalist. I don’t think it would have been responsible to give the other side equal weight. Why would I do that? I feel like I did a pretty good job being fair without being equal.
Hanford’s New York Times oped urges teacher preparation programs to rethink their reading instruction.
AR: How would you describe your approach to education journalism?
EH: I’m interested in big ideas, in how research connects to policy – or not. I’m fascinated by how people learn. That’s the kind of reporting that I do and want to do. I don’t know that I see my approach as fitting into a particular style, really. Someone told me that the common category is “explanatory journalism.” OK, I guess that’s what I do.
AR: How did you try to make your piece fresh and different, given that the topic is so familiar?
EH: People have written about the phonics versus whole language debate, but I was trying not to fall into that old trap. The basic story I tell in the documentary is that we didn’t really know how kids learn to read back in the 1980s and 1990s when we were arguing about how to teach reading. We now know a lot. And it so happens that one side was more right than the other. The reading wars should have ended. But as one cognitive scientist told me: the reading wars did end, but science lost.
AR: One of the things that makes your piece stand out is that it’s about what happens in the classroom – about what kids actually learn. What keeps education journalists from taking things we hear parents and teachers talk about and turning them into stories? How can reporters do more meaty stories about real-life education issues like curriculum, teacher preparation, professional development, and instruction?
EH: I think, just do it! The best stories are in schools with real people grappling with the challenges of teaching, the consequences of policy decisions. The best stories include kids. The best stories are always complicated. I’m really fortunate because I do all long-term, longform reporting, so I have space and the time to get into the weeds in my reporting and then come out the other side with a story that tries to explain and distill things.
AR: Where should reporters look for examples? Are there any places – teacher prep programs, school districts – that have bucked the trend and made headway with a more research-based approach?
EH: I’d really like to see that reporting. When people do it, please send it my way. I think reporters should start asking questions in their communities, in their schools. How are teachers teaching reading? What’s happening to the struggling readers in your communities? How are educators and policymakers responding to parent advocates who are pointing out problems with reading instruction? And read the research. It’s incredibly compelling – and voluminous. The sources page on our website provides some good places to start.
AR: Do you think that the work you’ve done will lead to substantial changes in the real world?
EH: I find it slightly disturbing that a lot of people—researchers, educators, and parents—already knew that this was a problem. A whole lot of people knew this, and they’ve known it for a long time. That’s kind of sad, because it hasn’t changed things. But maybe putting the pieces together in a way will help more people see it. That’s what reporters should be doing. I think our job is to go out there and find things that are hiding in plain sight. And that’s what reading is. A problem hiding in plain sight.
Recent coverage of reading instruction:
Colorado Public Radio: Colorado’s Dyslexic Students Face Systemic Challenges—If They Can Even Get A Diagnosis
Related journalist interviews and profiles: