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.
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. In our final episode, we try to get some answers.
BONUS 1 Your Words
Messages poured in: voicemails, emails, tweets. We got a lot of messages from people after they heard Sold a Story. In this bonus 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.
BONUS 2 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 bonus episode, we tell you about some of the changes and what we think about them.
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 17, 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.
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.
We'll let you know when we release new episodes of the podcast. Enter your address below.
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.