Teachers, training, patience, all play role in fixing reading – Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Editor’s note: With low reading proficiency scores across the state, USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin is exploring the causes and consequences of low literacy. This article is part of the By the Book series, which examines reading curriculum, instructional methods and solutions in K-12 education to answer the questions: Why do so many Wisconsin kids struggle to read, and what can be done about it? To read other stories in the series, click here.
Emily Hanford said she had several “aha” moments on the way to developing a series of podcasts about teaching children to read, moments of insight about why so many children nationwide were not becoming capable readers.  
Then the podcasts — especially six of them released a year ago — delivered big aha moments across the nation, drawing millions of listeners, energizing advocacy for using phonics to teach reading, and sparking legislation to reform reading instruction in a list of states that includes Wisconsin.
But in two talks in Wisconsin this year, Hanford suggested there are likely to be more aha moments to come when those who are enthusiastic about phonics-oriented reading instruction will face realizations about how difficult and complex it will be to bring broad improvement in reading success for children of all backgrounds.  
More:What is phonics? Here’s a guide to reading terms parents should know
Simple calls for going back to “the old ways” of teaching reading or for relying on teaching all kids to sound out the letters in words aren’t enough to bring a surge of success, she said.  
“Just buying a new curriculum won’t fix this problem,” Hanford told about 250 reading teachers and others in late October at a Reading League Wisconsin program at the Brookfield Conference Center. 
Furthermore, while ending the use of an approach to teaching reading that is often called ”three-cueing” is a good step, that, too, is not enough, Hanford said. 
Hanford didn’t specifically point to Wisconsin’s new reading law, but changing curriculums and ending three-cueing are two of the main provisions of the law.   
Hanford is a journalist who works for American Public Media and lives in the Washington, D.C., area. Her podcasts have made her the most prominent figure in advocacy for big changes in reading instruction. More than 30 states have passed laws in the last several years similar to the one Wisconsin passed last summer. Hanford’s podcasts, especially the “Sold a Story” series released in 2022, spurred support for such laws. The podcasts focused on the failures of some of the nation’s most widely used approaches to teaching reading, approaches that are now in retreat from coast to coast.  
In both of her Wisconsin appearances and in an interview, Hanford said what will be needed to bring substantial success includes good training of teachers, adequate resources and staffing, and strong attention to all the aspects of what is often called the “science of reading.” Plus patience, a willingness to make mid-course corrections, and humility in thinking that you know the answers.   
More:Wisconsin passed a landmark literacy law 3 months ago. So what happens next?
Using phonics — teaching kids the sounds made by letters and how to put the sounds together to form words — is the aspect of reading reform that gets the most attention. But advocates for what is popularly called “the science of reading” emphasize that sounding out words is only one part of good practice. Developing vocabulary and helping children comprehend what is being read are crucial, as is building children’s knowledge of the world around them.    
“Everyone has to pay attention to all of the parts,” Hanford told the Brookfield audience. Teaching kids to “de-code” words may be one of the easier parts of leading kids to success in reading, she said. “Let’s do things right, rather than fast,” she said. “Let’s not make promises we cannot keep.”  
Hanford’s own aha moments over the last seven years have included realizing that there were problems with widely practiced ways of teaching, generally under the labels of “whole language” and “balanced literacy,” and that research supporting those approaches was weak or nonexistent.
More:‘Science of reading,’ whole language,’ ‘balanced literacy’: How can Wisconsin resolve its ‘reading wars’ and teach kids to read?
Those approaches included instructing children to figure out words by using clues from the context of the words, including surrounding words and pictures — what is often called “three-cueing.” Critics say that was a way of teaching many kids to guess at words, rather than read them. Hanford said that was a key to why so many children — about a third of students nationwide — struggle as readers.  
She said she started working in 2016 on a reporting project about why so many college students needed remedial instruction. That led to an interest in children with dyslexia, which led to broader interests in the reasons so many children were not good readers. 
“A lot of schools just aren’t teaching kids how to do it (read),” she concluded. Kids weren’t being taught “the code-breaking thing that they need.”   
A big aha moment for her came in 2017 when she realized that ”there’s an instructional problem.” She said, “It doesn’t explain everything, but it explains a lot.”  
Hanford is cautious in assessing what will result from the surge of interest in improving reading success. I asked her whether it is good that there has been so much action across the U.S. “I think so,” Hanford said. How much effect will all the changes have? “Some,” she said. But she said that what is going on nationwide is not just a repeat of reading controversies that go back decades. It is a fresh opportunity to do better.   
Reading improvement is complex, implementing policies is messy, and there are often unintended consequences of making big changes that make success hard to realize, Hanford said. Plus children’s prospects for success as readers involve factors beyond school walls such as the effects of poverty, unstable living circumstances and trauma. 
But Hanford told the Brookfield audience that good reading practices make a difference. Poverty, she said, correlates generally with lower reading success, but reading problems involve more than poverty, and many more low-income kids could become good readers with good instruction. For that matter, the same is true of high-income kids.    
Hanford sounded optimistic notes. She told the Brookfield audience, “Things are changing. You’re all here.” Momentum has grown and knowledge about how to do better has increased. “Research has shown that it doesn’t have to be this way,” she said.  
One of the people who have had the most influence on her, Hanford said, is University of Wisconsin-Madison psychology professor Mark Seidenberg, author of the book “Language at the Speed of Sight: How We Read, Why So Many Can’t, and What Can Be Done About It.”  
Like Hanford, Seidenberg cautioned at a reading conference at Monona Terrace in Madison in February that a full range of needs must be addressed if more children are to become successful readers. He included good early childhood experiences as one of the things that matter.     
So many education reforms and initiatives have yielded small or no positive results. At the Madison session, Hanford referred to Seidenberg and to the title of her best-known set of podcasts, saying, “Mark is right; let’s make sure we’re not sold another story here.” 
Alan J. Borsuk is senior fellow in law and public policy at Marquette Law School. Reach him at alan.borsuk@marquette.edu.


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