Corinne Adams’ son Charlie came home from school with notes from his teacher saying he was doing great in reading. But during the pandemic, Adams had to give him a reading test at home, and she realized her son couldn’t read. He’d been memorizing books that were read to him, but he didn’t know how to read new words he’d never seen before. So Adams decided to teach him herself.

It’s a surprisingly common story. And kids who aren’t on track by the end of first grade are in danger of never becoming good readers. Two-thirds of fourth graders in the United States are not proficient readers. The problem is even worse when you look beyond the average and focus on specific groups of children: 83% of Black fourth graders don’t read proficiently.   

American Public Media reporter Emily Hanford digs into a flawed theory that has shaped reading instruction for decades. The theory is that children can learn to read without learning how to sound out words, because there are other strategies they can use to figure out what the words say – strategies like “look at the picture” or “think of a word that makes sense.”

But research by cognitive scientists has demonstrated that readers need to know how to sound out words. And some teacher training programs still emphasize the debunked theory, including books and classroom materials that are popular around the world. Scientists say these strategies are teaching children the habits of struggling readers. Kids learn to skip letters and words and struggle to understand what they’re reading.

Hanford looks at the work of several authors who are all published by the same educational publishing company. One, Lucy Calkins, is a rock star among teachers. Her books and training programs are wildly popular. Calkins has now decided to rewrite her curriculum in response to “the science of reading.” But other authors are sticking to the idea that children can use other strategies to figure out words. Their teaching materials are in classrooms all over the country.

Dig Deeper

Read: Check out Hanford’s collected reporting on reading

Listen: The entire APM series, Sold a Story  

Explore: Hanford’s reading list and podcast discussion guide to accompany the Sold a Story series. 


Correspondent and producer: Emily Hanford | Reporter: Christopher Peak | Editor: Catherine Winter | Original score: Wonderly | Production manager: Steven Rascón | Sound design: Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda | Music: Chris Julin | Post-production team: Kathryn Styer Martinez | Digital producer: Sarah Mirk | Episode art: Molly Mendoza | Executive producers: Brett Myers and Taki Telonidis | Host: Al Letson

Support for Sold a Story was provided by the Hollyhock Foundation, the Oak Foundation, and Wendy and Stephen Gaal. Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the Hellman Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Park Foundation.


Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal’s radio stories is the audio.

Al Letson:From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson
Speaker 2:Guide dogs lead very interesting lives. For 10 or 12 years, they’re in charge of guiding a blind person.
Al Letson:This is a recording from the US Department of Education. They give a reading test every two years to a sample of kids.
Speaker 2:Most guide dogs are born at a kennel.
Al Letson:This is a fourth grader who did well on the test, reading a passage about guide dogs.
Speaker 2:The dogs train in large groups for about three months.
Al Letson:But most kids don’t do well on this test.
Speaker 2:Dogs are…
Al Letson:A third of fourth graders sound more like this.
Speaker 2:Jug dogs lead very interesting livs…
Al Letson:This child struggles with words that are key to understanding what’s going on. Words like guide and blind.
Speaker 2:[inaudible] percent to do this job.
Al Letson:In the US, one out of every three kids in the fourth grade reads like this. How did that happen? This week we’re teaming up again with the investigative reporting group at American Public Media. APM reporter Emily Hanford has spent years digging into why so many kids can’t read. In the new podcast, Sold a Story, she offers an answer. Cognitive scientists have figured out how children learn to read, but that science has struggled to get traction in schools because many teachers believe in something else. They’ve been sold an idea about how kids learn to read and that idea is wrong. Here’s Emily.
Emily Hanford:In the years I’ve been reporting on reading, I’ve heard the same story from lots of parents. Okay, so we’re recording.
Corrine Adams:Okay. I’m Corrine Adams. I live in South Kingstown, Rhode Island. I have two kids, six and two, a boy and a girl.
Emily Hanford:Her son is the older one. His name is Charlie. When she sent him off to kindergarten in the fall of 2019, Corrine had no concerns. One of the reasons she and her husband had moved to South Kingstown is everyone told them the schools were great. She had no idea how her son’s school was teaching reading.
Corrine Adams:Who thinks about that? I don’t know how to teach a child how to read, so I just assumed that the children I sent to school would come back to me literate because that’s what school does, right?
Emily Hanford:At first, everything seemed fine. Charlie would come home with these little books, the same book every day for a week.
Corrine Adams:And he’d practice that book and send it back and that’s what we did.
Emily Hanford:There were directions for the parents about how to read these books with their children.
Corrine Adams:It was like read the book to the child first and then eventually the child will have practiced it enough that they’ll read it and it’ll be great. And he would listen to me, read it, pay very close attention to what I was saying, repeat that and if it was a new book, “Mommy, you read it to me first.”
Emily Hanford:Charlie wasn’t interested in trying to read books she hadn’t already read to him.
Corrine Adams:New books freaked him out. He didn’t want to do that.
Emily Hanford:She was a little concerned maybe he was just memorizing the books. They were pretty simple stories with predictable patterns. Sentences like “I like to play with a train. I like to play with my dog.” Charlie was able to read these books, but was he really reading? She wasn’t sure, but the school said he was doing great.
Corrine Adams:They were telling me he was doing fine. They were telling me he was on level.
Emily Hanford:When Charlie did well on something in school, the teacher would send home a little note.
Corrine Adams:And he would get them all the time for “Great reading.” He would get them in his little backpack and I’d be like, “Oh, you’re doing so great.”
Emily Hanford:And then March of 2020, the pandemic. Suddenly, Corrine was in kindergarten, too, watching as Charlie and his classmates were being taught over Zoom.
Corrine Adams:So we sit together and I participate. I help him make sure he can unmute himself and all that stuff.
Emily Hanford:Corrine’s a stay-at-home mom, she wasn’t juggling online school with another job, so she was watching pretty closely, and the reading instructions seemed kind of odd to her.
Corrine Adams:They gave us these strategies to follow.
Emily Hanford:These were things kids were supposed to do when they came to a word they didn’t know, strategies to figure out the word. They were things like, “Look at the picture. Look at the first letter of the word. Think of a word that makes sense.” Corrine wanted to tell Charlie to sound out the word, but handouts coming from school, were telling her that wasn’t a good idea, that sounding out words should be a last resort.
Corrine Adams:So I was like, okay, well this is a new different way and I’m sure they understand what they’re doing, because I do remember sounding out. I do remember that activity.
Emily Hanford:But Charlie and his classmates were being taught to use these other strategies.
Speaker 5:We’re going to look at our book, Zelda and Ivy, the Runaways.
Emily Hanford:This is a video Charlie’s teacher had her students watch during Zoom school in first grade. It’s not Charlie’s teacher in the video, but it’s a lesson from the curriculum the school district was using.
Speaker 5:I’m going to read a little bit of this story to you and if I get stuck on a word, I want you to try to help me figure out what that word could be.
Emily Hanford:The teacher reads the story. The kids can see the words on the screen. They’re following along as she reads. And then the teacher comes to a word that she’s covered up with a little yellow sticky note.
Speaker 5:Okay, so we’re going to stop right here on this covered word.
Corrine Adams:And the teacher says, “What could this word be? Let’s look at the picture.”
Speaker 5:We’re going to see if the picture helps us to figure out what that word would be.
Emily Hanford:The kids can’t see the word. It’s covered with the sticky note, so there’s no way they can sound it out. They’re just trying to figure out what the word could be based on what’s going on in the story.
Speaker 5:If we think about what’s happening so far in the story, we know Zelda and Ivy’s dad made cucumber sandwiches for lunch and Zelda and Ivy didn’t want to eat the sandwiches, so they ran away and now they think their mom and dad will…
Emily Hanford:Will what?
Speaker 5:… triple check and see-
Emily Hanford:Zelda and Ivy ran away and now they think their mom and dad will scold them? Find them?
Speaker 5:Do you think that covered word could be the word miss?
Emily Hanford:Ah, miss them.
Speaker 5:Could it be the word miss? Because now that they’re gone, maybe their parents will miss them.
Emily Hanford:The teacher asks the kids to think about whether miss could be the word, using the strategies they’ve been taught.
Speaker 5:Let’s do our triple check and see. Does it make sense? Does it sound right? How about the last part of our triple check? Does it look right? Let’s uncover the word and see if it looks right.
Emily Hanford:The teacher lifts up the sticky note and indeed the word is miss.
Speaker 5:It looks right too. Good job. Very good job. Go ahead and click on the next slide so you can practice this strategy on our next part of our story.
Emily Hanford:This seemed weird to Corrine. Why have kids guess the word? Why not have them look at the word and try to actually read it?
Corrine Adams:And I said to my son’s teacher, I was like, “This isn’t how we learned how to read,” meaning me and her. And it just kept nagging at me in the back of my mind, this isn’t how we did it right. This can’t be right, right?
Emily Hanford:What made it all weirder is that the kids were actually being taught some things about how to sound out words. The teacher did some phonics lessons, but when it came to reading books, all that instruction seemed to go out the window. The books the kids were supposed to read had all kinds of words with spelling patterns they hadn’t been taught.
Corrine Adams:For example, they were giving him… Oh wait, it was at Christmastime, and it was from the book Chicken Soup with Rice, and it’s like, “In December I will be a bobbled bangled Christmas tree.” And they wanted him to read that. I just was like, “How?”
Emily Hanford:It’s possible Corrine would’ve just brushed all this off. “Whatever. He’ll figure it out. The school says he’s doing fine.” But she also had to give Charlie a reading assessment at home. Not something a parent would normally be asked to do, but this was COVID.
Corrine Adams:I wasn’t allowed to read it to him first and I couldn’t help him in any way. I could point to the words for him and that was it. He had to read it.
Emily Hanford:She gave him the test. They’re sitting in their kitchen. Charlie’s two-year-old sister is playing in the background and Charlie has to read a book called How Things Move.
Charlie:How Things Move.
Emily Hanford:This is that reading assessment. Corrine recorded it.
Charlie:You is my…
Emily Hanford:Here’s the sentence Charlie is trying to read. “This toy moves when you push it.” There’s a picture in the book of a girl pushing a truck.
Charlie:You it you…
Emily Hanford:Charlie is grasping for straws. He has no idea how to read most of the words in this book. Some of the words he is saying are not even on the page.
Charlie:A box.
Corrine Adams:It was just eye-popping and I went into my bedroom and cried.
Emily Hanford:And then she went to her computer and she started Googling what was this way that her kid was being taught how to read, and she found some of the articles and documentaries I had written.
Corrine Adams:That’s when it was a realization that, what is happening? Oh my God, what’s happening?
Emily Hanford:She tried talking to some other parents.
Corrine Adams:And they kind of looked at me like I was insane.
Emily Hanford:Their kids were doing fine, or so they thought, because that’s what Corrine had thought too. Then she started posting about her experience on Twitter.
Corrine Adams:There were parents who were like, “Oh my God, this is my kid. This is happening to me. This is happening to me and I’m in Chicago,” or “I’m in California” or “I’m in wherever else.”
Lee Gall:It didn’t seem like they were really teaching them to read.
Emily Hanford:This is one of those parents.
Lee Gall:It seemed like they were teaching them to sound like they could read.
Emily Hanford:I contacted this parent after I saw his posts on Twitter. His name is Lee Gall. He lives on the Upper East Sid of Manhattan.
Speaker 8:See you tomorrow. Bye Elisa.
Lee Gall:Bye. See you.
Emily Hanford:We’re picking Lee’s daughter up from school. Her name is Zoe and she’s just about to finish first grade. She goes to the public school that’s a few blocks from their apartment.
Zoe:All right. I’m supposed to meet Catherine in the middle circle in Grande Park.
Lee Gall:Oh, so you already got plans. That’s good.
Emily Hanford:It’s a gorgeous spring day and we’re on our way to the park around the corner from Zoe’s school. The park is full of kids and parents and nannies. The sprinklers are on, the children are running around. We’re in one of the richest zip codes in the United States. Zoe goes to a school with a great reputation, but she wasn’t learning to read. Lee says if he hadn’t seen for himself how reading was being taught at her school, he might have thought Zoe had a disability.
Lee Gall:We probably would be like, “Okay, let’s get her some help. Let’s take her to counselors and psychologists and hearing experts and seeing experts and figure all this stuff out.”
Emily Hanford:But when Zoe was doing remote learning, he saw how the school was teaching reading. They were using the same curriculum as Charlie’s school. Lee decided to teach Zoe himself.
Lee Gall:Zoe, why don’t you come over here for a second. Let’s look at the sion and stuff that we did before.
Emily Hanford:We’re in their apartment. It’s a tiny one-bedroom. Lee is showing me some of the materials he used to teach Zoe how to read.
Lee Gall:So this is sion and we did tion before. So, look at this word. What is this word?
Lee Gall:Yeah, that’s right. What is this word?
Emily Hanford:When Lee decided he was going to teach Zoe to read, he scoured the internet for resources, taught her some things about how to sound out words and got what are known as decodable books.
Lee Gall:Do you remember what it felt like the first time we read a decodable book?
Zoe:Yeah, it was kind of hard.
Emily Hanford:A decodable is a book with words that have spelling patterns a child has been taught so she can try to read the words. She doesn’t have to guess them.
Lee Gall:And we started reading that book. I said, “Hey, I have a decodable book. I want you to read it and let’s try and reading it. And you’re like, “Okay, okay.” And we started reading it and I had to stop you after 54 pages because you read 54 pages of it. Do you remember that?
Lee Gall:Yeah. I think both of us were kind of blown away, right?
Zoe:That was like the best thing ever.
Lee Gall:Yeah, it was so fun to read it, wasn’t it?
Emily Hanford:Do you have any books you can read to me now? What are you reading?
Zoe:I’m reading the Zombie Diaries. They’re really fun.
Emily Hanford:Will you read a little bit to me? How do you feel about that?
Lee Gall:Do you want to go grab it really quick?
Lee Gall:Okay.
Lee Gall:I’ll stay here. I’m just getting up so you can get by.
Emily Hanford:Zoe scooches past her dad across their apartment to her bedroom and then she’s back with her book.
Zoe:This is book one and book two.
Emily Hanford:And she starts reading.
Zoe:I decided to walk Skelly to school today. One thing about Skelly is that she really… Wait, Skelly, whatever. Okay, okay, really likes to talk.
Emily Hanford:Zoe is still learning, but at the end of first grade, she’s clearly on her way to becoming a good reader. Kids who are not on this path by the end of first grade rarely catch up. Zoe didn’t get off to a good start with reading and then her dad swooped in and changed that.
Lee Gall:I shudder to think what would be if I hadn’t been home all this time and seeing it.
Zoe:Squide. Squid? Squid.
Emily Hanford:Zoe was lucky and Charlie was, too, because his mom, Corrine, did exactly what Lee did. After that disastrous reading assessment when she realized Charlie had no idea how to read the words, she decided to teach him herself. She went to the internet, she bought books and he learned pretty easily, which tells you that Charlie wasn’t struggling because he has a reading disability. He was struggling because he wasn’t being taught.
Corrine Adams:That’s such a messed up way to have a public school system in this country. Public school should be like this sacred trust. I’m going to give you my child and you’re going to teach him how to read. And that shattered for me, that was broken.
Al Letson:Two-thirds of fourth graders in the US are not proficient readers. In fact, scores on reading tests have been terrible for decades. The problem is even worse when you look beyond the average and focus on specific groups of children. The most alarming statistic, 83% of Black fourth graders don’t read proficiently. Coming up, the story of where some of these ideas about how kids learned to read came from.
Speaker 10:You could tell them to look at the first letter and it’ll pop out of your head. If you’re looking at the picture as well, look at the first letter and it’ll pop out.
Al Letson:That’s next on Reveal. From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. There’s an idea about how children learn to read that is everywhere in schools. Teachers learn about it in training programs, it’s in their curriculum materials. The idea is this, beginning readers don’t need to sound out words. They can but they don’t have to because there are other ways of figuring out what words say. Reporter Emily Hanford and her colleagues from the American Public Media podcast, Sold a Story, have been digging into where that idea comes from and what’s wrong with it.
Emily Hanford:Before the 1960s, in a lot of English-speaking countries, there were basically two different approaches to teaching children to read.
Speaker 11:Let’s read about Pat the Fat Cat. This is Pat.
Emily Hanford:There was the phonics approach where beginning readers were taught how to sound out words and then practice in books like this.
Speaker 11:Pat is a cat.
Emily Hanford:The other approach to teaching reading was known as the whole word method.
Speaker 12:Come here Dick. Come and see Puff.
Emily Hanford:Dick and Jane books were the whole word method.
Speaker 12:See puff Play, see puff jump, see puff jump and play.
Emily Hanford:In a Dick and Jane book, the idea was not for children to sound out the words. The idea was for them to see the same words over and over again and memorize them. Store words kind of like pictures in their mind. In New Zealand, Dick and Jane were known as Janet and John. Same kind of books, same idea about how kids learned to read. But by the early 1960s, New Zealand had done away with the Janet and John books.

New Zealand had gotten rid of phonics instruction, too, because there was a new idea. The new idea was that beginning readers shouldn’t be focusing on learning to read words. They should be focusing on getting meaning from what they were reading. So the New Zealand government started distributing a new kind of beginning reading book to schools. They were known as the Little Books.
Speaker 13:The pet show.
Emily Hanford:This is a boy reading one of those little books. It’s called The Pet Show.
Speaker 13:This is the day the pets come to school. A lamb comes to school, a cat comes to school.
Emily Hanford:These books sound a lot like Dick and Jane, but there’s a key difference. The vocabulary in these books isn’t limited to simple words like puff and play. There are words with difficult spelling patterns, words like lamb and calf, and William.
Speaker 13:Mary comes with the calf. Penny comes with the pig. William the goat will not come.
Emily Hanford:There are pictures in the books to help kids figure out the words, but the basic idea is that getting meaning from the story is more important than getting the words right and that if kids focus on understanding what they’re reading, they’ll figure out what the words say.
Speaker 13:“Come here, William,” they shouted.
Emily Hanford:This new approach to teaching reading was called the Book Experience Approach in New Zealand. In the United States it came to be known as whole language, not to be confused with the whole word method. Whole language was basically the idea that learning to read is easier for kids and more interesting if they start with whole stories, whole sentences, not individual words.
Mark Seidenberg…:Whole language essentially said if we create a literacy rich environment that is highly motivating and provides the right sort of materials, the children will figure out how reading works.
Emily Hanford:This is Mark Seidenberg. He’s a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin who studies reading. He says the core belief in whole language is that learning to read is like learning to talk, that it happens naturally through exposure to books.
Mark Seidenberg…:The essential idea is basically you learn by doing, so children are supposed to learn by doing, not be told what to do. There’ll be a minimum of instruction because kids will just figure it out as long as the environment is supportive.
Emily Hanford:But some kids were not figuring it out. A researcher named Marie Clay wanted to figure out why. Marie Clay died in 2007. Back in 1999, she told a radio interviewer that she wanted to help children who were struggling.
Marie Clay:And my idea when I started my special research here in New Zealand was could you see the process of learning to read going wrong?
Emily Hanford:It was 1963. The same year schools in New Zealand started using those new Little books. Clay identified 100 children in Auckland in their first year of school and she observed them for an entire year.
Marie Clay:I went into classrooms, I recorded exactly what children were saying and doing and this gave me new insights for building almost a new theory of how our children were learning to read.
Emily Hanford:Her basic idea was that good readers are good problem solvers. According to Clay’s theory, when good readers come to a word they don’t know, they ask themselves good questions like what word would make sense here? For example, if a girl in a story is getting ready to ride a horse and she puts something on her horse that starts with an S, the word must be saddle. Clay also noticed there are things good readers don’t do. They don’t laboriously sound out words.

She concluded that good readers use the letters and words in an incidental way. She thought they just skimmed the letters to confirm they’re getting the meaning of what they’re reading and their last resort when figuring out a word is to sound it out. This was Clay’s theory of how good readers read. The theory she came up with while observing children trying to read those Little Books. She didn’t think there was anything wrong with those books or with the way schools were teaching reading.

But it was clear to her that some kids needed extra help and she wanted to come up with a way to help those kids. So in 1976, she created a program to teach poor readers the strategies that she thought good readers use. She called her program Reading Recovery. Sandra Iverson was trained as a reading recovery teacher in New Zealand in the 1980s.
Sandra Iverson:Marie was the goddess and I followed it faithfully. I loved her, yeah.
Emily Hanford:Marie Clay did not believe in phonics instruction. In one of her books she described phonics as nonsense and “Reading Recovery teachers were not supposed to tell kids to sound out words,” says Sandra Iverson.
Sandra Iverson:No. You could tell them to look at the first letter and it’ll pop out of your head if you’re looking at the picture as well. Look at the first letter and it’ll pop out.
Emily Hanford:Sandra says, A child with a good oral vocabulary could usually come up with a word by looking at the picture in the book. Then the Reading Recovery teacher would ask the child to check the word to make sure it was right.
Sandra Iverson:You would say, “Does that make sense?” And then you would say, “Well, does it sound right?” And the last thing you might say was, “Well, would those letters fit?”
Emily Hanford:Teaching kids to read this way has become known as three-cueing. It’s not a term Marie Clay used as far as I know, but three-cueing is based on her theory of how people read. And her Reading Recovery program caught the attention of people around the world. President Bill Clinton visited an elementary school in Virginia in 1998 and raved about Clay’s program.
Bill Clinton:I’m a big fan of the Reading Recovery program and if you look at the research it has about the best long-term results of any strategy.
Emily Hanford:By the end of the 1990s, Reading Recovery was in more than one in five American schools in 49 states, and it was all over the English-speaking world. Australia, Canada, Britain. The Queen of England made Marie Clay a dame, the female equivalent of a knight. It’s hard to overstate the influence Clay had. She had come up with a theory to explain one of the mysteries of the human mind, how people read. But Marie Clay’s theory about how people read was just that, a theory. Even Marie Clay wasn’t sure it was right. And even as her work was gaining influence, scientists around the world were starting to use new tools to peer into people’s brains and figure out what we’re doing when we’re reading.
James Kim:There was a scholar named Keith Rayner who developed eye tracking technology.
Emily Hanford:This is James Kim, a professor at Harvard who has written about the history of reading research.
James Kim:And what eye tracking technology allows us to do is it allows us to see what the human eye does when it reads text.
Emily Hanford:And what Keith Rayner’s studies showed is that good readers process virtually every letter in every word as they read.
James Kim:They didn’t skip, they didn’t look at whole words, and that finding was replicated over and over again.
Emily Hanford:Eye tracking studies showed that good readers rely on the letters to know what the words say. Another part of the cueing theory scientists started testing out is whether readers can use meaning and context to accurately identify words. If you cover the word with a sticky note, can you guess what it is? The answer is you can try, but you’ll be wrong a lot of the time.

Experiments showed that even a well-educated, skilled reader could predict only about one in four words using contextual clues. By the 1990s it was clear from the research that Marie Clay’s theory of how good reading works wasn’t right, but lots of people didn’t know about that research and continued to believe deeply in Clay and her Reading Recovery program.
Sandra Iverson:Because I was convinced that Reading Recovery, in the pure form, was perfect, absolutely convinced.
Emily Hanford:This is Sandra Iverson again, the Reading Recovery teacher in New Zealand. By the early 1990s, she was working on a master’s degree and her thesis advisor suggested she study whether the Reading Recovery program could be more effective if it also included teaching children how to sound out written words. Sandra was skeptical.
Sandra Iverson:I didn’t for one minute think it would make the slightest bit of difference.
Emily Hanford:But she did the study. One group of kids got Reading Recovery in its original form and another group got Reading Recovery but with an added element, explicit instruction in how to sound out words. And the students who got the explicit instruction needed far fewer lessons to be successful.
Sandra Iverson:And that to me was significant because it meant that you could recover more children in it than you would’ve otherwise.
Emily Hanford:Sandra began to notice that kids could complete the Reading Recovery program without really learning how to read. They could look like they were reading by using the strategies they’d been taught, but as the books got harder, as the words got longer, as the pictures went away, some of those kids struggled because they didn’t know how to actually read the words.
Sandra Iverson:Those students who come out of Reading Recovery, many of them just do not make progress in the classroom. They either stand still or they move back.
Al Letson:Just last year a big study was released showing that, on average, kids who went through Reading Recovery actually did worse in third and fourth grade than similar kids who had not been through the program. But Reading Recovery has not gone away. In spite of all the evidence showing that Marie Clay was wrong about how people read, her influence has expanded. In many schools, the strategies she advocated for are now a part of the reading curriculum for all children. There’s an entire industry behind it and some of those teaching materials and books have made their authors and their publisher a lot of money. It
Lisa Luedeke:It was a huge hit, just a crazy hit.
Al Letson:That’s next on Reveal. From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. In the late 1990s, after two years as a first grade teacher, Lacy Robinson started a master’s degree in New York City at Columbia University’s prestigious Teacher’s College, and to help pay tuition, she got a job on campus working at a teacher training institute. It was exciting. She was learning from people who were at the top of their field, famous people, none more famous, it seemed, than her boss, a professor named Lucy Calkins.
Lacy Robinson:I got invited one day to go out with Lucy and the team to some schools in the Bronx and to witness her professionally developing a group of teachers, and it was like theater. I mean, she was like a rockstar walking into that building. And I just remember sitting there in awe.
Al Letson:Lucy Calkins is even more famous today. Her approach to teaching reading and writing is used in schools all over the world. It’s estimated that as many as a quarter of elementary schools in the US use her curriculum, but now Lucy Calkins says some of what she taught was wrong. Emily Hanford, host of the podcast, Sold a Story, takes it from here.
Emily Hanford:Lucy Calkins’ teacher training institutes in New York often begin with opening ceremonies in a church.
Lisa Karim:This where we’re going to see Lucy.
Emily Hanford:This is a teacher recording herself as she walks into the church. It’s Riverside Church in Manhattan.
Lisa Karim:Oh, boy. Oh, boy. This is so beautiful. Oh, my gosh. It was like being at a rock concert, right?
Emily Hanford:This is Lisa Karim, another teacher who came to one of Calkins -institutes in New York.
Lisa Karim:One of the sessions was going into this big college auditorium. Everybody was whisper-quiet and there was Lucy down at the front with a student, teaching a writing lesson, and it felt like you were watching something magical.
Emily Hanford:Lisa Karim wanted to make the same kind of magic for her students. That’s why she was there.
Lisa Karim:It was, here’s a person who knows how children learn to read and write, and I want to be able to teach children to read and write.
Emily Hanford:Lucy Calkins tapped into a need among the nation’s teachers, a need to know more about how to teach reading and writing. More than 170,000 teachers have made the pilgrimage to her teacher training institutes in New York. This is Carrie Chi, who was a teacher in Washington state.
Carrie Chi:It was like this sense of the Ivy League and you always want to go there.
Krista Velazque…:We would all apply.
Emily Hanford:This is Krista Velazquez. She’s a teacher in Palo Alto, California.
Krista Velazque…:Certain people would get picked to go and then certain people wouldn’t get picked to go.
Emily Hanford:A school district can’t afford to send everyone. The institute’s cost up to $850 per person plus expenses. Krista says everyone was envious of the teachers who got to go.
Krista Velazque…:There is this desire, you’re going to go with your best friends. You guys go together, you stay in a hotel together. The people who went, they kind of got wined and dined and they would go to shows when they were out there. They got a free trip to New York.
Emily Hanford:But a school district doesn’t have to send their teachers to New York to learn from Lucy and her team. They can come to you for a few days of training or for ongoing coaching and support. The Palo Alto schools contracted with Calkins for years to have her trainers in their schools. Records show the district paid an LLC that belongs to Calkins more than $1 million between 2013 and 2021. That’s how Krista Velazquez learned to do the Calkins Reading and Writing Workshop.
Krista Velazque…:The Lucy trainers are phenomenal, and when you’re sitting with them in a room and they’re teaching you, you feel like you can do anything. They become a sunlight in a room, and when you’re in these trainings with them, you see that there’s a possibility to become that sun.
Emily Hanford:Lucy Calkins has visited Palo Alto, too.
Todd Collins:If Beyonce came and gave a private concert in my district, it would not have been a bigger deal for many of my teachers.
Emily Hanford:This is Todd Collins, a school board member in Palo Alto, remembering a Calkins visit to the district a few years ago.
Todd Collins:And I’ve been stunned. I mean, I’ve sat in meeting with educational leaders in my district and have them talk about the curriculum as Lucy. “Lucy says this, Lucy does this.” She personifies this curriculum.
Emily Hanford:Here’s how a lesson from Calkins curriculum works. The teacher starts with something called a mini lesson. An example of a mini lesson for kindergarten is, “What is an avid reader?” The teacher shows the class photographs of avid readers and asks the children to discuss what they notice. Then the children are sent off to find comfortable spots so they can practice avid reading. These are kindergartners. Most of them don’t know how to read yet, but they’re supposed to spend 35 to 45 minutes reading independently and with partners and in small groups.

The teacher circulates and observes and confers with the children. At some point, the teacher gets the attention of the whole class for what’s called a mid-workshop teaching point. She might share something she’s noticed. The example in the teacher guide is to say something like this, “Everywhere I look, you are reading avidly. I don’t need those photographs of strangers to see avid reading. No way. It’s right here in front of me.”

The kids then go back to their books. Eventually, the teacher brings the children back together so they can share what they have learned about avid reading. Many American teachers don’t learn much about how kids learn to read in their teacher preparation programs. Calkins provided them with tools and inspiration.
Speaker 25:(singing)
Emily Hanford:Songs have been written about Lucy Calkins, like this song, a teacher posted to Twitter
Speaker 25:(singing)
Emily Hanford:And this song about the reading strategies Lucy Calkins recommended.
Speaker 25:(singing)
Emily Hanford:Teachers are being taught this song at one of Calkins’ institutes. We found the video on Facebook.
Speaker 25:(singing)
Emily Hanford:Those strategies, check the picture, look at the first letter, Lucy Calkins recently acknowledged she was wrong about those strategies.
Lucy Calkins:Nothing that we do is ever perfect. It’s only the best that we know.
Emily Hanford:This is Lucy Calkins in March of 2021. It’s her Zoom Office Hours, and in this Office Hours, she announces that her publisher, Heinemann, will be releasing a new edition of her curriculum for teaching reading. Calkins says she and her team have been rewriting the curriculum to reflect what they have learned in recent years about the science of reading.
Lucy Calkins:We fixed up a few of the places where the science of reading has been pointing out we were messed up.
Emily Hanford:She says there are things she regrets, things she should have done differently, but research showing that strategies like check the picture were a bad idea has been around for decades. Why didn’t she know about it? I interviewed Lucy Calkins in 2021 and I asked her that question.

So much of this research isn’t new and this idea that readers use context, multiple sources of information to solve words, identify words as they’re reading, that was really taken on by researchers back in the ’70s and ’80s as an interesting question, like, “Is that what we do?” And they showed quite definitively that that wasn’t the case. I mean, were you sort of aware of that research and how clear that was already by the ’90s?
Lucy Calkins:You’re asking me to go back and figure out what was in my mind at one point or another, but I would say that you have to remember that that research was not… I don’t think that there were classrooms that were doing classroom-based methods that were exciting and poignant and beautiful and getting kids on fire as readers and writers that were using that chain of thinking. It was part of an entire gestalt that was different than ours.
Emily Hanford:Lucy Calkins wanted to create classrooms where children were curling up with books in cozy nooks, not drilling on phonics. She drew on the work of Marie Clay and also people who helped popularize Clay’s ideas in the United States. I want to tell you about two of those people, Gay Su Pinnell and her writing partner, Irene Fountas. Pinnell came to Columbia many times to teach Lucy Calkins and her colleagues what she knew about how children learn to read. Pinnell and Fountas have become enormously influential in how schools teach reading. In 1996, they wrote a book that became a bestseller for their publisher.
Lisa Luedeke:It was a huge hit, just a crazy hit.
Emily Hanford:Lisa Luedeke was one of the editors at the publishing company.
Lisa Luedeke:And from that point on, we started publishing a series of books by Fountas and Pinnell.
Emily Hanford:Some of the books Fountas and Pinnell wrote were about phonics. They weren’t saying no to phonics instruction, but they were saying you can teach a child to read without teaching them how to sound out the words. By the early 2000s, Fountas and Pinnell’s approach was in schools and in teacher training programs around the country. Sarah Gannon was assigned Fountas and Pinnell’s book in a class at the University of Michigan.
Sarah Gannon:I felt like I was part of this exciting movement.
Emily Hanford:She never asked about the research behind Fountas and Pinnell’s approach. She never thought to ask because Fountas and Pinnell were professors. Her professors had assigned their work. Why would she question it?
Sarah Gannon:I trusted that they’re experts. I trusted that this is the way you teach reading. How could they be wrong?
Emily Hanford:Fountas and Pinnell didn’t think they were wrong, as far as I can tell. I haven’t been able to talk to them. I’ve tried several times over the past few years to get an interview, but they’ve said no every time. They had to have heard about the scientific research on reading by the late 1990s. There were big government reports about that research. It was in the news. But apparently they were skeptical. We found a recording where Gay Su Pinnell talked about this.
Gay Su Pinnell:So we cannot count on science and must accept its findings tentatively.
Emily Hanford:Let me set the scene here a bit. This is the 2005 conference of the Reading Recovery Council of North America. Gay Su Pinnell is speaking to a room full of people who support the Reading Recovery program and have been trained in Marie Clay’s idea about how kids learn to read. But at this point in 2005, a whole bunch of school districts in the United States are getting federal grants to adopt programs based on the science of reading. And Pinnell is telling her audience, “Don’t be so sure about that science.”
Gay Su Pinnell:Remember that science can yield some universally-accepted findings that, looking back a century, seem actually bizarre.
Emily Hanford:The argument Pinnell is making in this speech is that Marie Clay is the person who figured out how children learn to read, and reading scientists haven’t caught up with Clay’s ideas yet.
Gay Su Pinnell:Newton discovered gravity, but there was no great heralding of his new thinking. In fact, the theory was widely disputed. It took 60 years for the new ideas to enter acceptability in science, and we’ve only had 40 so far.
Emily Hanford:Pinnell and Fountas still support Marie Clay and her theory of how people read. Even as Lucy Calkins has been rewriting her curriculum. In November of 2021, Fountas and Pinnell posted a series of recorded Q&As on their website. This is Irene Fountas.
Irene Fountas:We do feel now it’s the right time to clarify some mischaracterizations of our work in support of teachers, some of whom are under attack.
Emily Hanford:In this series of Q&As, Fountas and Pinnell double down on the approach they’ve been promoting for decades and reiterate their commitment to Clay’s cueing theory.
Irene Fountas:Multiple sources of information are combined in a complex and orchestrated way. If a reader says pony for horse, because of information from the pictures, that tells the teacher that the reader is using meaning information from the pictures. His response is partially correct, but the teacher needs to guide him to stop and work for accuracy.
Emily Hanford:Fountas says it would be simplistic to tell a child to just sound it out. Gay Su Pinnell, Irene Fountas and Lucy Calkins are all star authors for the same publishing company, Heinemann. Now, one of those star authors has moved away from the cueing theory. The other two have not. But Heinemann still sells both, books that encourage cueing and books that have gotten rid of it. Hi Vicki.
Vicki Boyd:Hi Emily. Very nice to meet you.
Emily Hanford:I talked to Vicki Boyd. She was the executive vice president and general manager of Heinemann when we did an interview last April. She’d been with the company since the early 2000s. I pointed out to Vicki that Fountas and Pinnell are sticking with the cueing theory and Lucy Calkins is not. Both of those things can’t be right. Where does Heinemann stand on that?
Vicki Boyd:Thank you for that question. Our authors disagree and we think that’s good. We think debate is a good thing.
Emily Hanford:But there’s lots of evidence against the cueing theory and there’s been lots of evidence since the ’90s. You just said that there’s a difference of a opinion among your authors, but I think this is bigger than a difference of opinion. Fountas and Pinnell are holding fast to something that has been shown decades ago to not be a good idea.
Vicki Boyd:Yeah, I’m not sure that I agree that they’re holding fast to something that has been disproven. These authors are leaders in the field. We rely on their many years of research and interpretation of that research into real classrooms. Research backs many approaches and teachers need a range of options.
Emily Hanford:About three months after our interview, Vicki Boyd left Heinemann. The company has a new president. I haven’t talked to him. After he took over, he said in a blog post that the company would be focusing on clarifying and formalizing its curriculum development practices. He later said that Heinemann would be working with Fountas and Pinnell to increase the emphasis on foundational skills and decoding in their materials. I emailed a spokesperson and asked what would be changing about the curriculum review process at Heinemann, and I asked if Fountas and Pinnell would be dropping the cueing strategies. I didn’t get a response.

After Sold a Story was released, Heinemann posted a response on its website. The company said research supports their materials and that the podcast radically oversimplifies and misrepresents complex literacy issues. It’s true that the podcast doesn’t explore all of the components that are necessary for effective reading instruction. Sold a Story explores one problematic idea, the idea that kids don’t have to sound out written words because there are other ways to figure out what the words say.

That idea is everywhere, in teacher training programs, in books, in curriculum materials, and not just in materials published by Heinemann. The problem here isn’t just whether or not kids are getting phonics instruction, it’s that they’re being taught those cueing strategies, like “Look at the picture, think of a word that would make sense.” Teaching those strategies can cause bad habits to get ingrained so that even when kids are older, they tend to skip letters and words, they guess a lot rather than actually reading the words.
Bruce McCandlis…:I think more and more people are starting to recognize that there’s a pretty significant number of kids out there that we’re neglecting their needs.
Emily Hanford:This is Bruce McCandliss. He’s a cognitive neuroscientist at Stanford.
Bruce McCandlis…:The kids struggle and they suffer, and at times I’ve run reading clinics where the kids break down the fourth word into a reading test and start crying and telling you that they’re a defective person who is stupid and doesn’t belong in school and hates school and never wants to do anything with reading ever.
Emily Hanford:Bruce McCandliss says teaching kids that they don’t have to look carefully at words and sound them out is putting many of them at risk of never getting there, of never becoming good readers.
Al Letson:For a lot of teachers, it’s been a painful realization that the way they’ve been taught to teach kids to read was wrong. Across the country, teachers have been changing their approach and coming to terms with all the years they taught kids using a debunked theory.
Carrie Chi:And I just kept saying, “Well, keep trying.”
Al Letson:This is Carrie Chi.
Carrie Chi:And then when they couldn’t, I just thought they didn’t want to try. And what I’m haunted by is when it wasn’t working, I blamed it on children.
Al Letson:I can’t recommend this podcast enough. You can hear Sold a Story from American Public Media wherever you get your podcasts. You can also find it, along with all of Emily’s articles and documentaries on Reading at

Today’s show was reported and produced by Emily Hanford and Christopher Peak. Katherine Winter edited today’s episode. Support for Sold a Story was provided by the Holly Hawk Foundation, the Oak Foundation, and Wendy and Steven Gal. Reveals’ general counsel is Victoria Baranetsky. Our production manager is Steven Rascón, original score by Wanderley. Sound designed by the dynamic duo, Jay Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs and Fernando, my man, yo Arruda.

Our post-production team is the Justice League, and this week it includes Kathryn Styer Martínez and Chris Julin, who also created some of today’s music. Our digital producer is Sarah Merck. Our CEO Robert Rosenthal. Our COO is Maria Feldman. Our interim executive producers are Brett Myers and Taki Telonidis. Our theme music is by Camerado, Lightning.

Support for Reveal’s provided by the Ford Foundation, the Riva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Park Foundation, and the Hellman Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I’m Al Letson, and remember, there is always more to the story.

Steven Rascón (he/they) is the production manager for Reveal. He is pursuing a master's degree at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism with a Kaiser Permanente Institute for Health Policy Fellowship. His focus is investigative reporting and audio documentary. He has written for online, magazines and radio. His reporting on underreported fentanyl overdoses in Los Angeles' LGBTQ community aired on KCRW and KQED. Rascón is passionate about telling diverse stories for radio through community engagement. He holds a bachelor of fine arts degree in theater arts and creative writing.

Jim Briggs III is the senior sound designer, engineer and composer for Reveal. He supervises post-production and composes original music for the public radio show and podcast. He also leads Reveal's efforts in composition for data sonification and live performances.

Prior to joining Reveal in 2014, Briggs mixed and recorded for clients such as WNYC Studios, NPR, the CBC and American Public Media. Credits include “Marketplace,” “Selected Shorts,” “Death, Sex & Money,” “The Longest Shortest Time,” NPR’s “Ask Me Another,” “Radiolab,” “Freakonomics Radio” and “Soundcheck.” He also was the sound re-recording mixer and sound editor for several PBS television documentaries, including “American Experience: Walt Whitman,” the 2012 Tea Party documentary "Town Hall" and “The Supreme Court” miniseries. His music credits include albums by R.E.M., Paul Simon and Kelly Clarkson.

Briggs' work with Reveal has been recognized with an Emmy Award (2016) and two Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards (2018, 2019). Previously, he was part of the team that won the Dart Award for Excellence in Coverage of Trauma for its work on WNYC’s hourlong documentary special “Living 9/11.” He has taught sound, radio and music production at The New School and Eugene Lang College and has a master's degree in media studies from The New School. Briggs is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Fernando Arruda is a sound designer, engineer and composer for Reveal. As a multi-instrumentalist, he contributes to the original music, editing and mixing of the weekly public radio show and podcast. He has held four O-1 visas for individuals with extraordinary abilities. His work has been recognized with Peabody, duPont-Columbia, Edward R. Murrow, Gerald Loeb, Third Coast and Association of Music Producers awards, as well as Emmy and Pulitzer nominations. Prior to joining Reveal, Arruda toured as an international DJ and taught music technology at Dubspot and ESRA International Film School. He worked at Antfood, a creative audio studio for media and TV ads, and co-founded a film-scoring boutique called the Manhattan Composers Collective. He worked with clients such as Marvel, MasterClass and Samsung and ad agencies such as Framestore, Trollbäck+Company, BUCK and Vice. Arruda releases experimental music under the alias FJAZZ and has performed with many jazz, classical and pop ensembles, such as SFJAZZ Monday Night Band, Art&Sax quartet, Krychek, Dark Inc. and the New York Arabic Orchestra. His credits in the podcast and radio world include NPR’s “51 Percent,” WNYC’s “Bad Feminist Happy Hour” and its live broadcast of Orson Welles’ “The Hitchhiker,” Wondery’s “Detective Trapp,” MSNBC’s “Why Is This Happening?” and NBC’s “Born to Rule,” to name a few. Arruda also has a wide catalog of composed music for theatrical, orchestral and chamber music formats, some of which has premiered worldwide. He holds a master’s degree in film scoring and composition from NYU Steinhardt. The original music he makes with Jim Briggs for Reveal can be found on Bandcamp.

Kathryn Styer Martínez (she/ella) is a former production assistant for Reveal. She studies audio and photojournalism at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. She is also a Greater Good Science Center reporting fellow, focusing on Latino well-being.

Martínez was the 2020-21 Toni Randolph reporting fellow at Minnesota Public Radio, the 2019-20 New Economy Reporting Project fellow and the former director of KGPC-LP FM, Peralta Community Radio. Her work has appeared in El Tecolote, The Oaklandside, MPR News, National Public Radio, Outside Online, Talk Poverty, New Life Quarterly and Making Contact.

She earned bachelor’s degrees in Raza studies and political science from San Francisco State University.

Taki Telonidis is an interim executive producer for Reveal. Previously, he was the media producer for the Western Folklife Center, where he created more than 100 radio features for NPR’s "All Things Considered," "Weekend Edition" and other news magazines. He has produced and directed three public television specials, including "Healing the Warrior’s Heart," a one-hour documentary that explores how the ancient spiritual traditions of our nation’s first warriors, Native Americans, are helping today’s veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Telonidis also was senior content editor for NPR’s "State of the Re:Union." Before moving to the West, he worked for NPR in Washington, where he was senior producer of "Weekend All Things Considered" between 1994 and 1998. His television and radio work has garnered a George Foster Peabody Award, three Rocky Mountain Emmy Awards and the Overseas Press Club Award for breaking news. Telonidis is based in Salt Lake City.

Al Letson is a playwright, performer, screenwriter, journalist, and the host of Reveal. Soul-stirring, interdisciplinary work has garnered Letson national recognition and devoted fans.