a Story
Winner of the duPont, IRE and Murrow awards
Sold a Story: How Teaching Kids to Read Went So Wrong

There's an idea about how children learn to read that's held sway in schools for more than a generation — even though it was proven wrong by cognitive scientists decades ago. Teaching methods based on this idea can make it harder for children to learn how to read. In this podcast, host Emily Hanford investigates the influential authors who promote this idea and the company that sells their work. It's an exposé of how educators came to believe in something that isn't true and are now reckoning with the consequences — children harmed, money wasted, an education system upended.


Dive deeper into Sold a Story with this multi-part Extra Credit email series from host Emily Hanford. We'll also keep you up to date on new episodes.

E1 The Problem
Corinne Adams watches her son's lessons during Zoom school and discovers a dismaying truth: He can't read. Little Charlie isn't the only one. Sixty-five percent of fourth graders in the United States are not proficient readers. Kids need to learn specific skills to become good readers, and in many schools, those skills are not being taught.
E2 The Idea
Sixty years ago, Marie Clay developed a way to teach reading she said would help kids who were falling behind. They'd catch up and never need help again. Today, her program remains popular and her theory about how people read is at the root of a lot of reading instruction in schools. But Marie Clay was wrong.
E3 The Battle
President George W. Bush made improving reading instruction a priority. He got Congress to provide money to schools that used reading programs supported by scientific research. But backers of Marie Clay's cueing idea saw Bush's Reading First initiative as a threat.
E4 The Superstar
Teachers sing songs about Teachers College Columbia professor Lucy Calkins. She's one of the most influential people in American elementary education today. Her admirers call her books bibles. Why didn't she know that scientific research contradicted reading strategies she promoted?
E5 The Company
Teachers call books published by Heinemann their "bibles." The company's products are in schools all over the country. Some of the products used to teach reading are rooted in a debunked idea about how children learn to read. But they've made the company and some of its authors millions.
E6 The Reckoning
Lucy Calkins says she has learned from the science of reading. She's revised her materials. Fountas and Pinnell have not revised theirs. Their publisher, Heinemann, is still selling some products to teach reading that contain debunked practices. Parents, teachers and lawmakers want answers.
E7 Your Words
Voicemails, emails, tweets: We got a lot of messages from people after they heard Sold a Story. In this episode, we bring you some of their voices. A 10-year-old figures out why he has struggled to read. A mom stays up late to binge the podcast. A teacher confirms what he's suspected for years — he's not really teaching kids how to read.
E8 The Impact
Across the country, school districts are dropping textbooks, state legislatures are going so far as to ban teaching methods, and everyone, it seems, is talking about "the science of reading." Things have been changing since Sold a Story was released. In this episode, we tell you about some of the changes and what we think about them.
E9 The Aftermath
Schools around the country are changing the way they teach reading. And that is having major consequences for people who sold the flawed theory we investigated in Sold a Story. But Lucy Calkins, Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell are fighting back — and fighting to stay relevant. And so are organizations that promoted their work: The Reading Recovery Council of North America and the publisher, Heinemann.
E10 The Details
Some of the teachers, students, parents and researchers we met in Sold a Story talk about the impact the podcast has had on their lives and in schools — and share some of their hopes and concerns about the "science of reading" movement.

Sold a Story is an independent investigative journalism project from American Public Media. We rely on your donations to support this kind of rigorous reporting.

November 10, 2022
The controversial educational publishing company has sold instructional materials and professional resources in almost every state, earning at least $1.6 billion over a decade. Explore a map of school districts.
November 17, 2022
More states are now requiring districts to adopt curriculum that adheres to the science of reading. Look up the policy in your state.
May 18, 2023
At least 15 states have passed laws about how schools teach reading since the Sold a Story podcast was released in 2022, but there is pushback.
December 11, 2023
"Flipping a coin would actually be better" for identifying struggling readers, one researcher said of the test created by influential curriculum developers Fountas and Pinnell.
April 4, 2024
Other schools are backing away from a disproven theory about how kids learn to read, but programs started by Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell train literacy coaches to believe in it.
April 11, 2024
As schools around the country are dropping Reading Recovery, the nonprofit that advocates for the tutoring program tapped into its cash reserves to push back against journalists and legislators.
April 11, 2024
An educator, a parent, a student and a scientist talk about what's happened since they were first interviewed for Sold a Story.
April 30, 2024
The educational publisher raked in hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue during the 2010s selling reading programs based on a disproven theory. The company now faces financial fallout, as schools ditch its products.
Here's a reading list put together by Emily Hanford.
This discussion guide, created by a teacher, invites educators, parents, community members and kids to have a conversation about the podcast.
Emails and voice messages poured in from people who listened to Sold a Story.
A false assumption about what it takes to be a skilled reader has created deep inequalities among U.S. children, putting many on a difficult path in life.
For decades, schools have taught children the strategies of struggling readers, using a theory about reading that cognitive scientists have repeatedly debunked. And many teachers and parents don't know there's anything wrong with it.
Scientific research has shown how children learn to read and how they should be taught. But many educators don't know the science and, in some cases, actively resist it. As a result, millions of kids are being set up to fail.
There are proven ways to help people with dyslexia learn to read, and a federal law that's supposed to ensure schools provide kids with help. But across the country, public schools are denying children proper treatment and often failing to identify them with dyslexia in the first place.

Sold a Story is a production of American Public Media with funding from the Hollyhock Foundation, the Oak Foundation, Ibis Group, and Wendy and Stephen Gaal.

Emily Hanford
Christopher Peak
Catherine Winter
Chris Julin
Curtis Gilbert
Andy Kruse
Dave Mann
Tom Scheck
Curtis Gilbert
Chris Julin
Emily Haavik
Will Callan
Angela Caputo
Anika Besst
Eliza Billingham
Chole Marie Rivera
Betsy Towner Levine
Chris Julin
Jim Brunberg and Ben Landsverk of Wonderly
Derek Ramirez
Alex Simpson
Cameron Wiley
Lauren Humpert
Kristine Hutchens
Katelyn Vue
Farrah Minna
Alondra Sierra
Chris Worthington
Margaret Goldberg
Jill Barshay
Mark Anfinson
Sarah Sparks
Emily Corwin
Chris Haxel
Anna Canny
Molly Bloom
Maja Beckstrom
Camila Kerwin
Holly Korbey
Sarah Whites-Koditschek
Gracie Stockton
Marvi Hagopian
Joseph Wycoff
Melanie Esplin
Cooper Marsden
Lyn Stone
Derrick Stevens
David Strathairn
Clark Young
Jeremy Arnold
Stephen Smith
New York Public Library
Education Week
Yale Law School Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic
National Center for Education Statistics
Radio New Zealand
National Library of New Zealand
Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision
William J. Clinton Presidential Library
The University of North Texas Libraries
DiMenna-Nyselius Library at Fairfield University
The Reading Recovery Council of North America
Vanderbilt Television News Archive