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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.

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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 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 those products 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 that contain debunked practices. Parents, teachers and lawmakers want answers. In our final episode, we try to get some answers.
EXTRA CREDIT
Here's a reading list put together by Emily Hanford.
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.
More states are now requiring districts to adopt curriculum that adheres to the science of reading. Look up the policy in your state.
TALK TO US ABOUT THE SHOW

We're thinking about making a bonus episode with your reactions to the podcast. If you have thoughts, questions, or a story to share, record a voice memo and email it to us at soldastory@americanpublicmedia.org. You can also leave a voicemail: (612) 888-READ (7323). Adults and children welcome.

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TRAILERS
AUDIO
VIDEO
DOCUMENTARY ARCHIVE
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.
MORE ON READING

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

SENIOR CORRESPONDENT, PRODUCER AND HOST
Emily Hanford
REPORTER
Christopher Peak
EDITOR
Catherine Winter
DIGITAL EDITORS
Andy Kruse
Dave Mann
MIXING AND SOUND DESIGN
Chris Julin
Emily Haavik
RESEARCH AND REPORTING
Will Callan
Angela Caputo
RESEARCH AND PRODUCTION FELLOW
Chole Marie Rivera
FACT CHECKING
Betsy Towner Levine
ORIGINAL MUSIC
Chris Julin
THEME MUSIC
Jim Brunberg and Ben Landsverk of Wonderly
AUDIO MASTERING
Derek Ramirez
Alex Simpson
Cameron Wiley
OPERATIONS COORDINATORS
Lauren Humpert
Kristine Hutchens
INTERNS
Katelyn Vue
Farrah Minna
Alondra Sierra
SPECIAL THANKS
Chris Worthington
Margaret Goldberg
Jill Barshay
Mark Anfinson
Sarah Sparks
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
New York Public Library
Muckrock
Education Week
Yale Law School Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic
ARCHIVAL AUDIO
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
KXAS-TV
C-SPAN
Vanderbilt Television News Archive
YouTube
EarningsCast