Emily Hanford on Reading Science & K-12 Literacy

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Transcript: The Learning Curve, December 12, 2023

Emily Hanford on Reading Science & K-12 Literacy

[00:00:00] Albert: Well, hello again, everybody. Welcome to another episode of The Learning Curve podcast. I’m your hosts or one of your co-hosts this week, Albert Cheng from the university of Arkansas and co-hosting with me today is our friend Alisha Searcy. Alisha, nice to have you back on the show.

[00:00:40] Alisha: Thank you. I’m excited to be here today and great to be with you.

[00:00:43] Albert: Yeah. It’s been a while since we’ve had you on. I don’t know if last time it was actually you interviewing me, but yeah, well, we’re driving the plane together now.

[00:00:52] Alisha: So, I’ve been hearing you, you’re doing a great job. So keep up.

[00:00:55] Albert: Thanks. why don’t we start with some news, Alisha? You know, I’ve got something hot off the press here. I mean, this is a typical thing that happens when we release international test scores. Everyone pays attention to them and so, for the listeners who maybe aren’t looped into this consider this getting looped in we have new PISA scores this is the 2022 iteration of the PISA test scores and mean, were you in the loop of this? Any, guesses on what happened with our math and reading test scores?

[00:01:23] Alisha: Well, I won’t steal your thunder. And by the way, when I saw the math scores, I immediately thought of you because I know math is your thing.

[00:01:31] Albert: Yeah, it is. Yeah.

[00:01:34] Alisha: But I’m curious to hear what your thoughts are.

[00:01:36] Albert: Well, so, you know, yeah, math being my thing. I guess it’s a little disheartening to see the math scores. Actually not just across the world, but also in the U. S. In fact, the math scores for the U. S. are the lowest that have ever been recorded since PISA has been being administered to the U.S. So, I mean, I don’t know that the numbers mean much folks, but, you know, we’re sitting at a 465[00:02:00] that’s really the lowest since uh, there’s a nice chart available, you look at this you know, lowest since 20 years ago , and lower certainly than the international average of 480, so I think that’s the big story in fact, I think it’s also, if you want to just look at a more recent look at it time window, it’s a 13-point drop since the 2018 exam. So not great to see these downward-trending lines. Now you know, we all know that some of this might be the likely the aftermath of pandemic. So, we do have our work cut out for us, I think, to try to get these to rebound. but a bit of good news, though.

[00:02:34] Albert: In terms of reading test scores, the drop wasn’t as bad.

Alisha: In fact, the good news, right?

Albert: Yeah. Yeah. You know that. So there’s a big drop across all the other countries. So again, you can encourage you to look at graphs. I mean, the figure is worth a thousand words. You just see this sharp line going downwards on reading for all the other countries. But at least for the U. S. We’ve held steady. You know, there was an increase from Of course. 2015 to 18 and it’s kind of held steady this [00:03:00] time around. So, yeah, I don’t know. I don’t know what’s going on. I don’t know if you have a crystal ball to think about what’s going on. Why the drop in math but not reading. But I’m sure there’s a lot of research and commentary and thinking to be done around that.

[00:03:12] Alisha: Well, here’s the thing, Albert and math is your thing. Reading is more of mine. And so yes, it was, I guess, better to see that our scores in the U.S. were higher than other countries. But if you were to look at NAEP scores as an example, you know that our reading scores have been low for a very long time. And in some cases lower in the last couple of years, especially the last results that came out in 2020.

Albert: Yeah, absolutely.

Alisha: Right, we’re 30 something percent, 35 percent or really less depending on what state you’re looking at of our fourth graders are reading proficiently and reading. And so, while we may be higher than other countries, it’s still low and still should be unacceptable. Yeah. It really speaks to the fact that we have a lot of work to do in all of our core content areas.[00:04:00] And social studies was also a problem, right? I know that we focusing so much on reading math and science and have not been focused on social studies. So. It really speaks to the work that needs to be done.

[00:04:12] Alisha: And it’s interesting, right? Because the article that I looked at this week was from USA Today and it’s talking about private charter homeschooling how those numbers grew after the pandemic. But most kids are still attending public schools. what was interesting to me in this article. So, I grew up in Florida. I got a great public education and I’m a product of school choice. So frankly, Albert, when I moved to Georgia and later served in the legislature, I was kind of blown away at how politically charged school choice is. And it’s certainly the case in Georgia, but in Florida, where I grew up, particularly in Miami Dade County, I think because of all of the choices that are available, even within the private sector, the public school system in Miami Dade County schools has a robust and has, I mean, I’m, I’m old, right?

[00:05:07] Alisha: I was in school in the eighties and the nineties. Choice has been very normal and just commonplace. And so, the fact that it’s politically charged in other places is odd to me. In this article, it essentially talks about how, because of the pandemic enrollment has increased in private schools and home schools and in charters.

[00:05:27] Alisha: And not only did it increase during that time, but it’s been steady. So, in other words, those parents have left their kids in those schools. And so, the questions that you have to ask, what was it about the pandemic that made parents want to make different choices? And I would say based on some of the research and just being a parent myself, we’ve got three school age kids in my house.

[00:05:48] Alisha: You know, you look at the fact that schools were closing. There are many parents who are looking for where those schools that are actually open. I think in private schools, they figured it out a little faster than public schools did. They also looked at maybe the quality of education that they were getting.

[00:06:03] Alisha: Watching their kids get educated online and seeing that that wasn’t exactly working well for a lot of kids. And so, I think there’s a lot to that. I think parents also concerned about school safety. They’re concerned about, again, how education is being delivered. And so, I say all of that to say in relation to your article, we know that most.

[00:06:24] Alisha: American kids are going to be attending traditional public schools, even with this growth in, public charter schools and at home schools. We know that number is still going to grow, but the vast majority of kids are going to be in public schools. Yeah.

[00:06:38] Alisha: And so, my issue was while the pandemic may have changed where students are going to school, it did not change enough of how school looks. And I often talk about the fact that school looks the same as it did when I was in school in the eighties and nineties, it looks the same in 2023. And if we keep delivering what I call this telegram education to a TikTok generation, kind of keep getting the results that we’re seeing. I think that’s the reason why we’re seeing the scores or in math and science and reading. Because of the way we’re delivering education, our public schools is wrong. It’s outdated. And we’re going to keep seeing these poor results until we change that around.

[00:07:20] Albert: Yeah, one of the premises of choice is we have space to try something new, try new models of, of instruction and pedagogy. And so hopefully some of that will, latch and, maybe inform how we do teaching and learning writ large. So it’s a must.

[00:07:36] Albert: Yeah, let’s hope that happens. speaking of instruction y’all should stick with us after this break, because we’re going to have Emily Hanford who’s a journalist, and I’ll introduce her in a bit here to talk to us about reading instruction and phonics instruction in particular.

[00:07:51] Albert: So, let’s see what she has to say, maybe that’ll give us some more insight into what’s going on with reading scores.[00:08:00]

[00:08:10] Albert: Emily Hanford is the host of the hit podcast, Sold A Story, How Teaching Kids to Read Went So Wrong, the second-most shared show on Apple Podcasts in 2023, and one of Time Magazine’s top three podcasts of the year. Sold A Story has garnered some of the highest honors in journalism, including the Murrow, the IRE, two Scripps Howards Awards, a Third Coast Impact Award, and a Peabody nomination. Emily has been covering education for American public media since 2008 and working in public media for 30 years. She has won numerous awards for her work, including the EWA Public Service Award in 2019 for hard words, and an award for the American Education Research Association for excellence in reporting on education research. Emily is based in the [00:09:00] Washington, D. C. area. And as a graduate of Amherst College, Emily, welcome to the show. It’s great to have you on.

[00:09:06] Emily: Hey, thank you for having me. Yeah, happy to be here.

[00:09:10] Albert: So, let’s maybe talk about how you got into this a little bit and, you’re an accomplished journalist and podcast host.

[00:09:17] Albert: You’ve written and spoken widely about reading, reading research and the science of literacy. did you first become interested in covering better ways to teach reading?

[00:09:25] Emily: Sure. I’m sure when anyone asks you an origin story like this, it depends on how far back you want to go.

[00:09:31] Emily: So I can probably take it really far back. But I’ll go into the recent history to say that I had been an education reporter. For about close to 10 years already, maybe eight years when I was doing some reporting on students who were in remedial or developmental college classes. And they were telling me about their struggles with reading and spelling.

[00:09:54] Emily: I had this extraordinary interview with one woman who talked to me sort of about how she made her way through [00:10:00] text, even though she really couldn’t read and doesn’t remember being taught how to read. Had gotten special education services, but really had never been taught how to read. She told me that she is pretty sure she has dyslexia.

[00:10:10] Emily: It’s not something that was ever identified when she was in school. Not anything she seemed to get any particularly good help for when she was in school. And so it started with an interest in dyslexia because I honestly didn’t know anything about that. So I started really digging in on dyslexia and learning disabilities and sort of taking a lot of reporting that I had been done on the area of sort of preparation for college and who goes to college and who succeeds there because we know a lot of people.

[00:10:36] Emily: So much about the importance of a college degree, postsecondary credential of some kind, and I, it really just returned me way back to the beginning. So I started exploring learning disabilities and what I realized pretty quickly, and this was definitely I was aided by a number of very active.

[00:10:53] Emily: Parents who had kids who had gone to school and had all kinds of advantages in so many [00:11:00] ways. And the parents had done all the quote unquote, right things. They’d read to their kids a lot. There were lots of books in their home. The parents were well educated, they went to school and they couldn’t read.

[00:11:09] Emily: And so what I started to realize is number one, we do have a special ed dyslexia problem, but it’s rooted in a larger problem, which is the lot of schools, a lot of teachers, a lot of educators don’t know. A lot of what there is to know about reading and how it works and how people, like, how do we even do that?

[00:11:29] Emily: How do we read? How do little kids learn to read? Why do some kids struggle so much? And I started getting into this body of research called the science of reading. So it was really the parents of these kids with dyslexia had gotten very. Vocal about the problems that their kids were having coming from, in many cases, really a place of privilege.

[00:11:48] Emily: Like, these were relatively affluent families who often had spent a lot of their own money trying to fix this problem. Thousands of dollars, in some cases tens, in one family’s case hundreds of thousands of [00:12:00] dollars. To try to get their kids the instruction they need in school. And I started to connect the dots through the help from those parents.

[00:12:07] Emily: And I actually think my reporting has even helped some of those parents connect the dots to the fact that this is a larger issue. It’s not just about kids who have a reading disability, quote unquote. But dyslexia and reading disabilities are on a continuum, and it turns out that a lot of us, in fact, maybe most of us really need some pretty good instruction to become pretty good readers and spellers.

[00:12:30] Emily: Some of us don’t. I think I was one of those people that didn’t need much instruction. I have two boys. I don’t think they needed much instruction, so I really had never thought very much about how people learn to read and how kids learn to read. And then I started getting into this and just started realizing that part of the problem, not the entire problem, but there’s an instructional issue and many, many teachers, and it’s rooted in the fact that many educators not only don’t know what they should or could [00:13:00] know about reading and how it works, and we can get to that in a minute if you want.

[00:13:03] Emily: Yep. but they, really just didn’t understand enough about reading to sort of understand what was going on with the kids who were struggling to learn how to read.

[00:13:12] Albert: Mm, hmm. Well, I mean, yeah, let’s get into that. I mean, so actually Alisha and I before the break were talking about the recent PISA scores, the recent NAEP scores, and we’ve seen that essentially you know, American K-12 students have been struggling with, reading for a while. And so, talk a bit more about how we, actually do teach reading. You know, we hear the monikers, look, say, or whole language reading. Yeah. Could you just define for our listeners? what are those and what are the strengths and weaknesses really?

[00:13:38] Emily: Sure. As soon as you get into education, as I’m sure you all know, everything gets, you know, covered in a lot of gobbledygook there’s a lot of terms to define it. And I do think that’s one of the things that my reporting has helped people do is just sort of distill this down and sort of explain some basic concepts, because I think that’s really what’s been missing. I think a lot of educators have fallen for things that aren’t true because they just haven’t had a good foundational base of understanding all this stuff that has been learned over the past, like 40 or 50 years.

[00:14:05] Emily: So the first thing I’ll say in response to your question is I think it’s important to recognize. That I don’t think there was necessarily sort of a good old days here like I sometimes hear people respond to my reporting by saying, well, we need to go back to the good old days to the traditional way of doing things.

[00:14:22] Emily: We don’t have evidence that shows us that there was a good old days, right? Since we started. Keeping track. Some of those tests that you just mentioned, the Nape and the Pisa, those are relatively recent. We’ve had a version of the Nape test actually since the 1970s. So know we’ve been struggling with this since the 1970s.

[00:14:41] Emily: the scores on that test have gotten a little bit better since the 1970s, but not very much. And I don’t think we really have any evidence to suggest that before we were measuring it, things were a whole lot better. The truth is that we lived in an economy at one point where if you didn’t have good reading skills, you could be okay.

[00:14:59] Emily: There were a [00:15:00] lot of ways to make a living and to sort of make it but you know, the world has really changed, right? So that’s why, one of the reasons why we know education is, so critical. So I think what’s really different is not that something changed and reading got so much worse. It’s that we’ve struggled with getting a lot of kids to read for a long time, by all indications.

[00:15:21] Emily: What’s changed is how much scientists have figured out about reading, how it works, and what kids need to learn, and in particular what they need to be taught, or what all kids should be taught to increase the chances that most kids can become good readers. So that’s this thing called the science of reading, which I would say is widely misunderstood in a lot of cases, but it’s really this gigantic body of research that’s been done by cognitive scientists, neuroscientists, psychologists, linguists, all kinds of researchers in labs and in real classrooms with real kids in English and in other languages, this research has been [00:16:00] done all over the world.

[00:16:00] Emily: So it’s revealed all kinds of fascinating things about How our brains read and what it’s revealed is that methods that became very popular and that versions of have been popular for a long time. In fact, we can see fights. Over phonics versus version of whole word, a whole language going back all the way to the beginning of public education in this country.

[00:16:25] Emily: There was some wild 19th century, like, I’ve gone back and read some of the things that these people wrote to each other. You could see these things on Twitter or X these days. But do you want me to start talking about some of the basics of what they found?

[00:16:38] Albert: Yeah, yeah. What they exactly. Just give a sense of what those are.

[00:16:41] Emily: Sure. So a lot of people will think that sort of reading is a fight about phonics. And the truth is that it has been a fight about that for a long time. And it turns out that phonics is really important. It’s not the only thing though. It’s really important for everyone to re. That the science of reading does not equal, Oh, kids need phonics instruction.

[00:16:58] Emily: In fact, what my reporting [00:17:00] has revealed is that part of the problem is that schools don’t just need to add some phonics. They need to take away some other strategies that they’ve been teaching kids for how to read the words that tell the kids. That you can sound out the words like you can use some of your phonics skills because many schools have added You know, there were schools that were really against phonics for a long time but in the last 20 years or so the sort of research base around phonics and How important it is and how important it is to learn how to sound out words has become sort of undeniable.

[00:17:33] Emily: So a lot of people have added in a little phonics, but they’ve kept these other things they were doing that were part of the theory or sort of the idea that justified whole language or whole word. So versions of that go back a long time and essentially the two competing camps for a long time before anybody really knew how people learn to read.

[00:17:53] Emily: Was, well, you have to start with the pieces and the sounds, start with the letters and their sounds, teach kids how to [00:18:00] sound out words, blend them together, that’s basically phonics. Versus this other idea, which said, oh, well, that, actually turns out, especially in a language like English, to be kind of hard, that’s actually kind of difficult.

[00:18:10] Emily: Like, maybe that is too difficult for little kids, maybe it’s too tedious, maybe it’s boring. Maybe there’s too much stuff that seems like sort of rote instruction, which we don’t like, that is involved. So let’s do it a different way. Let’s not start with the pieces, let’s start with the whole. Let’s start with whole words, whole sentences, whole paragraphs, whole stories.

[00:18:29] Emily: Let’s start with the meaning of the text, and through kids being motivated and interested in trying to derive meaning from text, they would sort of be able to figure out how to read the words, rather than you have to teach them how to read the words. And it turns out that some kids with very little instruction, Can figure out how to read the words.

[00:18:51] Emily: But what I think is so important for everyone to take away from this conversation is that teaching that sort of whole word or whole language method [00:19:00] creates inequity in our education system. For two reasons. Kids who come to school with a lot of being read to by their parents, being talked to a lot, having parents with a lot of education having lots of books in their home, they are set up very well to not need a whole lot of instruction. Now, some of them still will need a lot of instruction, right? There are these kids who are on that spectrum of having some sort of reading disability and they really rely on that instruction. So, kids from certain kinds of backgrounds just sort of have a better chance of becoming okay.

[00:19:35] Emily: Readers sort of, no matter how their school teaches reading. And then, in many cases, those very same kids who have a lot of advantages in their lives, in terms of their family background, are the very same kids who have the parents who can write the checks that get them the instruction they need if they’re not getting it in school.

[00:19:56] Emily: So, you have this really pernicious kind of inequity built into the system where some kids are more set up to not need a lot of instruction. And if they don’t get the instruction, those very same kids are set up to have the backup plan, which is called parents who. can figure out a way to come up with the sometimes tens of thousands of dollars to figure out a way for their child to be taught how to read.

[00:20:19] Albert: You were mentioning how it’s, you know, 40 years of, reading research. You know, I think of experts like Jeanne S. Chall from Harvard and her protege Sandra Stotsky you know, who helped build Massachusetts curriculum frameworks. you know, they advocated for phonics and, and, and reading classic literature.

[00:20:36] Albert: So, in spite of all that. science of reading. The phrase you were using. So what is it that policymakers and maybe teacher training, you know, schools of education? is it that they missed? Why is there this disconnect between what we know from research and how people practice the teaching of reading?

[00:20:54] Emily: Well, you ask a question with a very complex answer, so I will say that I have now [00:21:00] been reporting on this for close to six years, and I’ve written several articles and podcasts and just did this six episode podcast with two bonus episodes, if people haven’t heard the bonus episodes, and we have new episodes coming in 2024. Great. Yeah. So, it is not an easy, it is not easy to summarize this quickly, but I will give us

[00:21:17] Albert: the, you know, 10,000 foot. 30 000 foot version of that.

[00:21:21] Emily: I mean, I think the truth is that phonics really has been a lightning rod for a lot of people and for a long time. And I think it’s gotten politicized.

[00:21:28] Emily: you know, it has been associated with sort of traditional or conservative or back to the basics. So there was a decent amount of resistance to that in our education system where sort of more progressive, less, focused on explicit instruction really flourished and thrived and I would say thrive today, but really started to flourish and thrive through the sixties and seventies.

[00:21:49] Emily: you know, there’s been this sort of complex stuff around this issue that has made it intractable. but I think one of the things I notice about the basic sort of [00:22:00] explanatory journalism that I have done on this is that when teachers really start to understand the why, why phonics is so important, why it’s not the only thing, why that’s one piece of it, but the critical role it plays in someone becoming a good reader, how a kid becomes a good reader, Once teachers begin to really understand the why, a lot of the ways that they’ve been teaching reading sort of fall apart.

[00:22:26] Emily: And the ways that they’ve been teaching reading, I would say, have been these kinds of shortcuts that they’ve been given. Because, truthfully, they’ve gone into suddenly being a first grade teacher and realizing, like, I don’t know how to teach kids to read. And some of my kids are learning to read, but some of these kids aren’t.

[00:22:43] Emily: And I don’t know what to do about it. And they’ve been given these sort of shorthands, like, well, here are some kinds of books that you can have read. Well, we’ll give them lots of clues in the text, lots of pictures, simple words, where you can have them memorize lots of words, [00:23:00] and you can sort of get these kids in.

[00:23:02] Emily: To text you can teach them to do things like look at the picture, look at the first letter, think of a word that makes sense. These are all strategies that kids can use when they sort of don’t have the phonics knowledge that they really need to sort of laboriously in many cases, like sound out those written words.

[00:23:19] Emily: But it turns out if you look deep into the. Research about this. It is that process of laboriously sounding out written words. Connecting the sound of the word, the pronunciation, the spelling, and the meaning. When you link those three things together, that word can get mapped into, stored in your long term memory.

[00:23:39] Emily: And this really is sort of the key difference between really good readers and not so good readers is good readers have lots and lots of the forms of written words stored in their memory, in fact, tens of thousands of them, which means that when they read, they’re not really exerting a lot of conscious effort on the words themselves.

[00:23:57] Emily: Occasionally you are, you’ll come across a word you don’t see very often, a [00:24:00] word you’ve never seen before, you sort of pause, sound it out, slow it down. in research, they can actually show this literally, like a lot of research has really come from watching in people’s brains and flashing different words in front of their eyes and seeing how quickly they respond to those.

[00:24:14] Emily: Yeah, interesting. Yeah. And the truth is that when you’re a good reader, there are tens of thousands of words that you just know in an instant in like less than a second. And that’s one of the reasons, not the only, but that is one of the reasons you are able to comprehend what you are reading. Because the words aren’t a problem.

[00:24:30] Emily: You’re focusing your attention on understanding what you’re reading. But of course, it’s not only knowing those words, right? You need to know what they mean. There’s a lot of background knowledge. Lots of research that shows us how critical background knowledge is to becoming a good reader. But we have just gotten this early stage of reading so wrong for so long in the United States. It’s not our only problem, but I think we have lots of evidence to show us that it’s a substantial part of it.

[00:25:13] Albert: I want to ask you one more question before I [00:25:00] turn it over to Alisha and just, ask you to offer some commentary on, the fact that you know, what we’re wrestling with as a society now is the impact of the digital age on the minds of young people and adults alike, really. Could you talk about the way in which technology is changing and whether that affects what we’re learning, our attention spans, how we handle More demanding books, ideas, reading in general.

[00:25:24] Emily: I mean, I’m sure you’re asking this question because you’ve noticed a change in your own attention span.

[00:25:27] Albert: Oh yeah. You know, as I now going to be a tune out right now, as I listen to you talk, right?

[00:25:33] Emily: No, I think, I think all of us who are adults have experienced this, it is obvious to all of us that this is a real thing. And we have research that shows that the way we are reading is changing. I would not say that I have become a, an expert on this particular area in any way in my reporting, but I would highly recommend work of Maryanne Wolf. She has written many books. Her most recent one is called Reader Come Home. And it’s all about this. It’s all about the idea of deep reading and [00:26:00] how the digital age is affecting us, how it’s changing our brains. So I think this is critical and definitely a part of what’s going on here. I do sometimes hear people though, say that this is why kids aren’t reading well. And I just need to point back to all the data that shows that was a problem long before we had the internet. So, the internet is affecting this and I think it is affecting all of us. We know we’ve had problems with reading instruction and the basic word reading skills that kids need to have a chance of becoming good readers. We’ve had a problem with that for a really long time.

[00:26:35] Alisha: It’s great to have you on. as we talked over the break, I’m a former legislator and policymaker. And so this conversation about reading, I think is so important and I think it’s great. Maybe we can call it great that, finally in many states across the country, you know, laws are being passed right to change the way we. Deliver reading instruction. And so the timing of this conversation and the work that you’re doing is just very important.

[00:26:59] Alisha: And I’m [00:27:00] kind of fangirling over here. I’m just happy that you’re here and happy be with you today. Thank you. Sure. So I want to jump in and ask about. The central importance of having the academic background, knowledge and reading instruction. So UVA curriculum expert E.D. Hirsch, right, has long been a proponent of this, and especially when it comes to educating low income and minority students. And so would you talk to our listeners about what educators and policymakers alike should know about Hirsch’s work? It’s grounding in cognitive psychology and why it’s not. Been more widely embraced by the education establishment.

[00:27:39] Emily: Well, you also ask a very complex question with a complex answer. I will first say that the work of E. D. Hirsch and many others there are many, many cognitive scientists. Dan Willingham is one at the University of Virginia. He knows E.D. Hirsch very well. And many others who have produced a really robust and interesting body of research about the importance of background knowledge and that reading comprehension ultimately depends on what, you know, and what you already know about a text when you come to it determines a lot about what you’re going to get from it and how well you’re going to comprehend it.

[00:28:13] Emily: And we know that the kinds of tests that we give to kids to assess their reading ability. Are in some ways really knowledge tests in disguise. That’s something that Dan Willingham and I think E.D. Hirsch has said a version of that because you know, there’s a famous example that is given. Maybe this is used too often, but I think it explains it really well.

[00:28:32] Emily: Of a study that was done years ago, where they took a bunch of kids who were good readers and not so good readers. They determined sort of their level of like word reading ability, essentially, and then they gave these kids a text about a baseball game. And the kids who weren’t very good readers, but knew a lot about baseball, did pretty well on that reading test.

[00:28:50] Emily: And the kids who were really good readers, but didn’t know much about baseball, didn’t do so well. So, knowledge really matters. I think one of the reasons that it’s hard [00:29:00] to get to where we need to be in the sort of knowledge conversation, and why E.D. Hirsch can be controversial for some people, is that once we start talking about this, we have to start talking about what knowledge?

[00:29:13] Emily: Whose knowledge? We need to start making decisions. And there is no way that that’s not fraught. There are just, it’s very complicated. There is a lot of knowledge out there. How do you decide this is what you need to know in 4th grade? This is what you need to do in 8th grade? And we have built into our education system And maybe for some good reason things that push against that, like we have fundamentally sort of a local control system.

[00:29:38] Emily: It’s been that way for a long time. It’s actually written into when the federal Department of Education was set up in the late 1970s, and that was a controversial thing because the idea that the federal government was going to have a role in education has really been antithetical to American education in a very deep and profound way.

[00:29:54] Emily: But when the Department of Education was finally set up, there was like language put in there that essentially said [00:30:00] like, the Federal Department of Education cannot tell states and schools sort of what to teach or how to teach it. We need this to be a local decision. Yeah, so this is very, very difficult because obviously it’s very important to make sure that kids have a good broad knowledge and shared knowledge.

[00:30:20] Emily: I think there’s something about shared knowledge is very important for a society and deciding what knowledge kids are going to have and having shared knowledge is actually. Absolutely critical to being able to assess kids reading ability because the example that I just gave so you cannot actually give a third grade reading test to a bunch of kids and have it tell you with a whole lot of precision how well all those kids are reading because it’s also telling you something you don’t know which is how much the kids happen to know about the reading passages that they were asked about.

[00:30:51] Emily: If you had a particular curriculum And you said, here’s the body of knowledge we want fourth graders to know in fourth grade and here’s, teachers are going to teach this and [00:31:00] at the end of the year, we’re going to assess them on that. That reading test would give you a much better measure of how well kids learned that stuff and how well they read, but it is immediately political and immediately difficult.

[00:31:14] Emily: To have this conversation, it

[00:31:16] Alisha: is. And I’m so glad you said that because I also think about cultural competency, right? And how relevant some of the knowledge is right that we want students to have. And that differs, as you mentioned, from state to state community to community. So that’s an excellent point.

[00:31:33] Alisha: Thank you for bringing that up. You also mentioned right when we talk about what we want students to know the topic of common core comes to mind. And so after the implementation of Common Core ELA between 2011 and 2019, and even more dramatically during COVID, more than two thirds of our states, including high performers like Massachusetts and New Hampshire, have really experienced dramatic declines on NAEP reading test scores.[00:32:00]

[00:32:00] Alisha: And so what’s your advice to current state chiefs and education policymakers about how to recover the literacy loss from education reform’s quote unquote lost decade?

[00:32:10] Emily: Yeah, you know, as a journalist, I always feel quite reluctant to make any particular kinds of policy recommendations. That’s really not my role.

[00:32:19] Emily: I feel like my role is to do the reporting, do the explaining, do the investigating So it’s difficult for me to know. I mean, I will say that one of the things I do know from our reporting is that I think the sort of balanced literacy approach to teaching reading really took off over the past 15 years or so.

[00:32:40] Emily: It’s sort of correlated with The launch of common core, but it’s probably more rooted in the demise of reading first. And those things happened around the same time. things in education, it’s things respond to each other, right? Like we have like cause and effect and you can look back in history and my [00:33:00] co reporter and I looked back, you know, made this timeline where we were trying to understand some of the swings and what causes what, and we went all the way back to the 1600s for crying out loud, but after we invested in really working on foundational skills with young kids, we did see an increase in NAEP scores, reading scores. No one can say for sure if that’s. because of that. And we have seen a bit of a decline with a more rapid decline, as you said, over the past few years, which I think has a lot to do with covid on those tests more recently.

[00:33:29] Emily: So, my advice to policymakers is that they, too, should understand some of this science of reading stuff. there are podcasts, there are good books, there are good articles that synthesize a lot of this research. And I think legislators should learn about it, especially those who are taking a lead on legislation related to it in their states.

[00:33:49] Emily: I have to say that there are some legislators I’ve talked to who are very well informed. I’ve also listen to a lot of debate in state legislatures about this issue and cringed at the [00:34:00] lack of sort of level of sophistication when people are talking about this. So I think it’s incumbent on legislators and school leaders and educators and teachers and parents to know something about this because it’s very accessible information now.

[00:34:15] Emily: it wasn’t as accessible even 20 years ago when we were investing a huge amount of taxpayer money in Reading First. And what I’ve heard from a lot of people who were involved in Reading First, the people who were designing it, as well as like the teachers who were involved in it, is that what’s different now is that more people really understand the why.

[00:34:35] Emily: They understand the science on a deeper level. And I think that’s just because the science itself, and particularly the translation of it. Has evolved and we have social media in a way that we didn’t back then and social media is doing a lot of things that are difficult for us to deal with in this society, but I think social media has really helped get a lot of good information out there about the science of reading and so go and seek out that [00:35:00] information.

[00:35:01] Emily: Educate yourself about what this is and what the implications are for education.

[00:35:05] Alisha: I appreciate that. I’m going to push back just on one thing you said. Sure. I appreciate that you are a journalist, and you’ve done this incredible research on this, but I would argue that you are probably one of the best suited to give some policy advice because you’ve done that work.

[00:35:22] Alisha: And as a former legislator, I can tell you that you don’t get a chance to do a lot of the research we should do. But we’re tasked to make these really important policy decisions. And so I would push you just a little bit to consider making some policy recommendations really, because you’ve done the work and you know what it is that we need to do.

[00:35:43] Alisha: And, and arguably when it comes to the science of reading in particular, I think the reason that we’ve not had good policy, is because the research has not been done. So just consider that.

[00:35:53] Emily: I will also say this. think it’s very important for people to recognize that this science of reading really refers.

[00:35:59] Emily: [00:36:00] in many cases to sort of a big body of evidence on the sort of process of reading and how that works and some really good research on implementing that, like translating into practice what we, I don’t know that we really have yet. I think reading first is as close as we came. Was seeing this done at scale, like doing something in a lab or in a classroom or in one school or even in one school district is one thing, doing it in an entire state, doing it in an entire nation that’s as big as ours with as complex an education.

[00:36:34] Emily: I mean, education is a complex system. We’re talking about a lot of people, a lot of entities. It’s just complex stuff. know, We haven’t done it yet at scale, so I’m going to push back on, on your thing, which is, I’m not sure I really know the answer to the policy question. I don’t know, you know, I’m really interested to look and see what happens over the next few years.

[00:36:54] Emily: A lot of policies have been passed over the past few years. I think policy can play a really [00:37:00] important role. Policy is also sort of like a blunt force instrument, you know, and it can have a lot of unintended consequences. It can create a lot of resistance. I think the jury’s still out on sort of what the best policies.

[00:37:14] Emily: I just don’t know if I know the answer to that question. And again, as a journalist, I really believe in knowledge. So I would say, I put together a reading list on the science of reading, and it’s on our website, soldastory.org. And I would tell every legislator and their staffers, because as you know, their staffers do a lot of this work and do the prepping for them, to go check out that reading list.

[00:37:32] Emily: Yes, agreed. And we will have more Sold A Story coming, by the way, about this question of where are things working? Where are things not? How do you translate this stuff into practice? There’s a whole body of research on translational science. Translating this stuff, in education in particular, into practice, and I’d like to really look more at that.

[00:37:53] Alisha: Understood. And I would say we’d be remiss if we did not mention the Mississippi Miracle, right? And the work that happened in [00:38:00] Mississippi and still going on, and I think a good example. Okay, I’m going to move on because I have a couple more questions for you. Okay. Increasingly, and we talked about this.

[00:38:09] Alisha: You talked about this a few minutes ago with Albert, but I want to ask a different question when we talk about education policy discussions that include neuroscience research and anecdotes about the wide, often negative impact of smartphone screens and multimedia on the brains. And learning of young people.

[00:38:27] Alisha: Can you talk about what the current brain science is telling us about the differences between acquiring literacy and knowledge through printed or written word and digitally and how educators and parents should be thinking about carefully and constructively using technology in schools and at home?

[00:38:45] Emily: Yeah. Yeah. You know, like I said, honestly, I, I cannot say that I am an expert. There are many more people who know much more about this and specifically on your question on sort of the research about the differences between reading in different forms. Again, that’s a really [00:39:00] important question.

[00:39:01] Emily: You know, I think one of the things we have to realize as with so many things in our life, like the, cat is out of the bag when it comes to technology and screens and cell phones and We have to sort of learn to live with them in some way, although you can see that there are examples of schools and districts that are trying to do things like ban cell phones, you know, and that’s an interesting thing to watch.

[00:39:23] Emily: You know, I think that there was a lot of enthusiasm about bringing technology into our classrooms, and I think a lot of people are rethinking that, like whether or not that was really the best idea, whether we need to have a little bit school be a little bit more of a technology low or technology free kind of environment.

[00:39:40] Emily: I know anecdotally, and I’ve read this in some pieces that there are like, you know, big people in tech who send their kids to schools where there isn’t any technology and don’t want their kids to have a cell phone, you know, and a lot of this is going to come down to parents that decisions that parents make.

[00:39:56] Emily: I mean, I have sons who are in their early twenties and I already talked [00:40:00] to them about someday when you have children. Don’t put a phone in that little baby’s hand, you know, like I definitely have that feeling. I, I see people in my neighborhood walking around just staring at their phone instead of staring into their baby’s eyes, you know, and I don’t want to be doom and gloom.

[00:40:14] Emily: Like I think there’s many ways that technology has and can help and support education. So it’s just complex stuff. And I’m not trying to avoid your question, except that I just don’t really have a good answer for you, but it’s a really good question. Yeah,

[00:40:29] Alisha: understood. And I think you pointed out some great resources that we should look into and just bring up the point about, you know, the impact of technology.

[00:40:36] Alisha: And I think we have to embrace it and use it in a way that really helps drive learning. But we also have to understand, the research behind it, right, and how it does have some negative impact. So I appreciate that. so my final question and I’ll ask this personally as a parent my husband, I have three school age children at home and we all often are talking about what does it mean to be a good [00:41:00] reader you talk about the different kinds of reading that you think young people should be doing.

[00:41:05] Alisha: We talk about high quality fables, poems, myths, fiction, novels, history, and biography that. Really help them give the language, the vocabulary and the knowledge that they need to become quote, unquote, good readers.

[00:41:19] Emily: Yeah. Well, I mean, it’s pretty clear that wide reading is really important, right? Like I talked before with Albert about, you know, the background knowledge, right?

[00:41:28] Emily: So how are you going to get wide, deep background knowledge? Well, you’re going to read a lot of different kinds of things. You know, at the same time, I think there’s a lot of parents who. you want to get your kids reading and if you can find things that they really want to read and really like to read, then that’s great.

[00:41:44] Emily: So if they want to read a whole bunch of. books about spaceships or books about the, you know, 19th century warfare or I have boys. So there you go, then, you know, let them. So I don’t know. I guess the only way I can answer that is just to say [00:42:00] that. Going back to the fact that it’s difficult for schools to decide what knowledge they want kids to have.

[00:42:07] Emily: I do think obviously where kids can be gaining lots of knowledge and where kids do gain lots of knowledge and why we do see such a strong association between Test scores and family educational background because kids are acquiring a lot of what they know outside of school and that’s always going to be the case.

[00:42:26] Emily: You just think about in terms of the time kids are in school and the time that they’re out of school. They’re, in school for a lot of time, but they’re out of school for a lot of time, and they’re just acquiring a lot of the knowledge through school. The stuff they get exposed to at home and in their communities and through conversations with their parents and their parents, friends and their peers.

[00:42:42] Emily: And, you know, at the end of the day, it is just such an advantage, the wider and the deeper your knowledge, the better. So as a parent, whatever you can do to encourage that kind of depth and breadth I think it’s going to benefit your kid in so many ways. Makes a lot of sense.

[00:42:57] Alisha: Thank you, Emily, so much for [00:43:00] being with us.

[00:43:01] Emily: You’re welcome. It was great to be here.

[00:43:24] Albert: and I’ll add my Thanks to you, Emily, for being on the show. It’s really great to hear what you’ve uncovered over the past several years. And Alisha, I also want to thank you for co-hosting. It’s great to be on

[00:43:33] Alisha: with you. Thank you. Great to be on with you too.

[00:43:36] Albert: Great conversation today. Yeah. And so before we wrap up, our tweet of the week comes from EducationNext driving across tracks of new home development in El Paso, Texas, one can’t miss the signs of charter school momentum. And actually, you know, this reminds me of the news article that you just discussed at the beginning of the show, Alisha. Really, I actually encourage all listeners to look at that piece. it’s a fascinating piece [00:44:00] just documenting some of the history in the, charter school movement in Texas since its beginning and what’s going on now, just the things that are going on in the political economy just what’s in the ecosystem there.

Albert: So, read up on it and kind of get the scoop of what’s going on in Texas. You can access that link online and that’s it for today, but tune in with us next week as we have Professor Carol Zaleski who’s a professor of world religions at Smith College. She’s going to be joining us to talk about J.R.R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. She is the co-author of the book, The Fellowship, Literary Lives of the Inklings. And so, should be a fascinating discussion be sure to tune in with us next week. Until then have a great one and I’ll see you next time.

This week on The Learning Curve, guest co-hosts Prof. Albert Cheng of the University of Arkansas and Alisha Searcy interview journalist Emily Hanford, host of the hit podcast Sold a Story: How Teaching Kids to Read Went So Wrong. Ms. Hanford discusses how she became interested in the science of reading, the growing consensus around phonics as the best way to teach children to read, the impact of the digital age on learning, and the importance of academic background knowledge for schoolchildren’s learning. She offers her thoughts on how to reverse dramatic declines in NAEP reading test scores and the different kinds of reading that young people should be doing, including fables, poems, myths, fiction, history, and biography, that give them the wider vocabulary and knowledge to be good readers.

Stories of the Week: Albert discussed a story from Axios about U.S. students’ math scores plunging in the PISA global education assessment; Alisha commented on a story in USA Today about how, despite the ongoing growth of private, charter, and homeschooling during the COVID-19 pandemic, most U.S. students continue to attend a traditional district public school.


Emily Hanford is host of the hit podcast Sold a Story: How Teaching Kids to Read Went So Wrong, the second-most-shared show on Apple Podcasts in 2023 and one of Time Magazine’s top three podcasts of the year. Sold a Story has garnered some of the highest honors in journalism, including the Murrow, the IRE, two Scripps Howard awards, a Third Coast Impact award, and a Peabody nomination. Hanford has been covering education for American Public Media since 2008 and working in public media for 30 years. She has won numerous awards for her work, including the EWA Public Service Award in 2019 for Hard Words and an award from the American Educational Research Association for Excellence in Reporting on education research. She is based in the Washington, D.C. area and is a graduate of Amherst College.