Teacher Preparation Q&A

What Teachers Should Know About the Science of Reading (Video and Transcript)

By Liana Loewus — March 12, 2019 26 min read
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Kids aren’t being taught to read, says senior education correspondent Emily Hanford of APM Reports, and that’s because many teachers haven’t learned how reading works.

Hanford’s hard-charging radio documentary, published last fall, has reinflamed decades-old debates about early reading. Her message is clear: The science has shown that systematic, explicit phonics instruction is the necessary foundation for successful reading. But that’s not what teachers are learning in their training, and it’s not what’s happening in schools.

We recently invited Hanford to the Education Week studio for a live conversation on what teachers should know about reading science. Below is the transcript of that discussion, which first aired on Facebook Live. (The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.)

Liana Loewus: I’m here with Emily Hanford. She is a senior education correspondent for APM Reports, which is the documentary and investigative reporting group at American Public Media. She, in the fall, published a radio documentary titled “Hard Words: Why Aren’t Our Kids Being Taught to Read?” So we’re going to talk about reading today—reading research and the science of reading. As Emily says in the documentary, decades of research have shown that reading doesn’t come naturally. The human brain is not hard-wired to read. It is hard-wired to learn to speak, but not to read. So kids have to be taught explicitly how to connect letters and [sounds]. So we’re going to talk about that.

She also found in her reporting that that kind of instruction is not happening in a lot of classrooms across the country, so I’m going to ask her about that. My background is actually, I began as a reading teacher. I’ve taught in a few different settings. So this topic is of particular interest to me, so I’m really excited to have you here today. And yeah, I mean let’s just kick things off and maybe you can tell us a little bit about, why did you decide to tackle early reading?

Emily Hanford: That’s a good question. So it started, it’s probably about two and a half years ago and I was really kind of a blank slate on this topic at this point. I had already been an education reporter for almost a decade but I had done very little about elementary education. I had done some work on early education and I got interested in dyslexia, in particular. So about two and a half years ago, I spent several months working on this documentary about kids who really struggled to read and what is going on for them and why many of them are having a hard time getting what they need in school, getting their dyslexia identified and getting the help they need.

And what I learned through that reporting is that a big part of the problem for kids with dyslexia is that there is a core instruction problem going on. Kids with dyslexia are often not being identified and given the help they need because there’s not as much of an understanding about how reading works, how skilled reading works, and what happens when kids are having trouble reading, as there could be in schools. We actually know a lot about that but the knowledge base sort of generally in schools on that topic is not real strong, so what I really discovered through the moms of kids with dyslexia, who themselves have gotten really dug into the research to try to figure out what’s going on, they are the ones that really clued me in, like, we think we have a core instruction problem here. We think that the way that we’re teaching all kids to read is a little off because kids with dyslexia don’t need some different or other kind of reading instruction from everyone else. They often need more of it, they need it more intensely, but what they need to learn how to read is the same thing that everyone needs to learn how to read.

So in some ways, dyslexia is sort of treated as kind of like a special ed. problem and really, it’s not so much for a lot of kids. It’s about getting good core instruction. Many of the kids who were being identified with dyslexia may not need that special education if they were getting the right kind of instruction in their classroom.

So then you decided to look into all learners, not just students with dyslexia and reading there. And you did a lot of research on the science of reading, on reading science. Talk a little about what that means.

Right, so what is the science of reading? It’s kind of a loaded term but, how do skilled readers read words and how do kids learn how to do it? These are fascinating questions. As human beings, we’ve been reading for thousands of years. We did not know the answers to those questions. So we had theories about it and we created ways to teach kids how to read, kind of based on those ideas about how reading works and we fought about that. We fought about it pretty viciously in the ‘80s and ‘90s but we’ve actually fought about it over history. You can go back a couple hundred years and find that we were fighting about how does reading work and what does that mean about how kids should be taught? So what’s happened, there’s that whole history, and then over the past like 50 years or so, scientists from all over the world have done thousands of studies about how we learn to read. And these are people in cognitive psychology, neuroscience, linguists, many different fields. There’s not like one field of reading science.

And they’ve done all this research and they’ve pretty much figured it out. They figured out, how do we read? How do we learn to read? What does that mean about how we should be taught? So we’ve been fighting about it but at the same time, in the last 50 years, there’s this huge body of research. It’s not like a few studies or a few scientists. It’s like hundreds of scientists and thousands of studies that have really established an evidence base for the way reading works that is not disputed among scientists.

And talk a little bit about how does reading work? What is the most important thing you learned about how the brain learns to read?

So I think there’s two really kind of important concepts or ideas that I think teachers in particular really need to know, that come out of this vast body of research. So one is this model that’s actually been around since 1986 and it’s called the Simple View of Reading. And it was really proposed to try to understand actually some of these things we fight about, which is like, how does reading comprehension happen? What’s the role of phonics in decoding and all of that? So the Simple View of Reading is a model that is now been backed up by lots and lots more research. It has a solid scientific base behind it and it essentially says, reading comprehension is the product of your language comprehension—the words you know how to say, the words you can hear—and your decoding ability.

So if you multiply those two things together, you get reading comprehension. So what’s going on for a child who’s entering school is, they already know how to say a lot of words. They already know what a lot of words mean in their spoken vocabulary and their task, and it’s not a small task for a lot of people, is to figure out how the words they know how to say are represented by written language. Now kids certainly come into school at different levels with this, in terms of the pre-literacy experiences they have, and some kids are actually reading some words, but it really is the primary task for most kids in kindergarten to figure this out, to understand how their spoken language is represented in writing.

The other big idea that I think teachers really need to understand is ... even when phonics was sort of developed as an idea, that was kind of invented before we really knew how people learned to read also. So phonics isn’t 100 percent right. It turns out that the people who are advocating a phonics approach, which is paying attention to helping kids understand the way that the sounds in their language map onto letters and combinations of letters, that they’re sort of more right than some of the other models we’ve had for reading. But it’s not 100 percent right. And one of the things that phonics kind of failed to explain completely is ... phonics is about decoding words, but when we’re skilled readers, what the research has figured out is we don’t decode words as we go. We do eventually sort of store words in our mind, not as whole words, but we store them so that they are automatically known to us when we read.

The hallmark of skilled reading is you very, very quickly and very accurately know exactly what a word is when it’s flashed in front of you. In fact, scientists have done these studies which have showed that if you flash in front of a skilled reader the word chair and the picture of a chair, your brain actually processes the meaning of the word chair quicker than the picture chair.

So we become super good at reading and, like you said in the beginning, our brains weren’t meant to do this but when you become a skilled reader, you get really, really good at it. So one thing I think that teachers really need to understand about all this is that the goal is automatic recognition of words, but we do not recognize them as wholes. When you and I are reading words, we are very quickly processing every single sound, every single letter in that word. So that is a hallmark of being a good reader and ... scientists have figured out, how do people do that? How does stuff get stored in your brain? Well it gets stored in your brain through processing a word several times through its phonology and through its orthography. So the way it sounds and the way it’s spelled.

So a typically developing reader, once they’ve been taught the basics of the alphabetic principle, like phonics, how their language is represented by letters and combinations of letters, once you give kids a good grounding in that, most typically developing readers, starting in like 1st or 2nd grade, need just a few exposures to a word through its phonology and its orthography. So through not memorizing the word as a whole but looking at all the letters in the word, going through the word from left to right, processing the whole thing—you do that a few times and it’s mapped into your memory as a word that you know on sight in the future. So those two things, the Simple View of Reading and this concept called orthographic mapping, both reinforce the idea of how critical phonology and orthography, how critical it is to have kids pay attention to the sounds in words and to have them really understand the letters that represent those sounds.

Yeah, you explained it to me recently by saying, the way we know the difference between house and horse is because we’ve orthographically mapped them both and each letter is important in that mapping, right?

And every time we see those words, we quickly see every letter. That’s how we know the difference between horse and house. And we do it really, really fast. Yeah.

So we started to talk a little bit about the reading wars, but let’s sort of just give a little ... a brief history of the reading wars and sort of talk about where we are now. So you say that they actually go back a hundred years.

They do. Hundreds actually.

But they became pretty vicious in the ‘80s and ‘90s, so we can start there if you want.

So there are these different ideas about how reading works that we’ve been fighting about for a long time, so one is kind of phonics and that’s the idea that you need to pay attention to the sounds. It’s kind of a bottom up approach, so you begin to teach kids to read by helping them understand the letters, the combinations of letters, and you build up to whole words and to sentences and to paragraphs and to full texts. And then the other approaches were whole word, which is a little bit different than whole language. So whole word was kind of the Dick and Jane books of the early 20th century. That was the look-say model. Like look at a word, say it, and the idea there was that we ... they thought that we read words by wholes, so we should teach kids words by wholes and the way that you become a skilled reader is you basically memorize a whole bunch of words. You’re exposed to them enough that you just know them on sight.

And then the whole language iteration of reading was more, came about in more of the 1960s and ‘70s, shared some ideas with the whole-word approach but had some differences. And one of the key kind of beliefs of or tenets of whole language is that learning to read a language and write a language is very similar to learning to speak a language, that it is essentially a natural thing and that through exposure to lots of text, kids will learn to read. So we fought about that for a very, very long time and we’re still fighting about it. But like I said, we have all this research that shows that in fact, phonics is critical to becoming a reader. It is essential. It is not the only thing you need, but all good readers have good phonics skills. So some kids learn a lot of that without getting a lot of instruction in school, but most kids need instruction. So if all kids need phonics skills, we can either hope that they get it somewhere or we can teach it to them.

You say in your documentary ... you quote Mark Seidenberg. He’s a cognitive neuroscientist. He said, “The reading wars are over and science lost.” What are your thoughts on that? Where do you think we are right now? And the debate does continue in a lot of places, like why is that still happening?

Well what you will find in a lot of schools in the United States and in other parts of the English-speaking world is this term balanced literacy. And balanced literacy is a term that really was sort of introduced during ... in the midst of and in the wake of the reading wars. And the idea of balance is great. I mean, you want balanced instruction sort of in all things, so it’s a hard term to bicker with, and it’s also a hard term to fully understand because it kind of means different things to different people. But I’ve been spending a lot of time talking to people, looking at the research, looking at curriculum materials, and there are some things that you ... I think what’s happened in the name of balanced literacy is what you find in a lot of classrooms that are doing balanced literacy is sort of a little bit of everything all at once. And what the research shows is that’s not actually what kids need. They don’t need a little bit of everything all at once. What you really want to see in early reading instruction, when kids are first coming to school—and remember, the task ahead of them is not to learn a whole bunch of words, they already have this advantage, they speak a language. Now they have to learn the written code.

So you want to see a pretty heavy emphasis on that, not entirely, but you want to see a really heavy emphasis on that. I think what you find in a lot of balanced literacy classrooms that I’ve been in and that I’ve talked to people about, is kind of putting it all, in the name of doing everything, putting it all together at once. And I think a lot of the important skills that kids really need to master to get from here to here with reading are kind of being missed.

Another observation I have about balanced literacy is that in some ways, when you kind of look at what is going on in the name of balanced literacy, there’s a little bit of an idea that to become an expert reader, you mimic what experts do rather than you go along a series of steps to become an expert. So there’s a lot of this research just in learning in general, and I think there’s a kind of resistance to breaking reading into its parts, but we really need to do that for kids, to break it into its parts, to build it up so that kids then have all the skills that go together.

There’s all these different skills that go together to become a proficient reader and it’s like there’s this foundation of phonics and phonemic awareness knowledge, which really is kind of one of the first tasks in school, and so much research, including the National Reading Panel and since the National Reading Panel, reiterates the critical role of really focusing on the alphabetic principle and the alphabetic code, sort of emphasizing the written code in early learning.

Just to talk a little bit about what the National Reading Panel was, it was published in the year 2000. Congress mandated that a group of experts come together and decide, sort of to settle the reading wars, and they looked at 100,000 studies, and a lot of those studies they dismissed. And the end result of that was that they said phonics is very important. It has to be systematic and explicit, right? This is now 19 years ago, and you’re saying we’re not seeing phonics in all our classrooms.

But I’ve talked to teachers and in our reporting we talk to teachers who are using balanced literacy and they say, we are doing phonics. And they get very ... there’s a lot of emotion behind this ... because some people will say it’s a euphemism for whole language and others will say, no, we’re doing balanced literacy and we’re doing phonics. What do you see as the issue there though?

Well I think what balanced literacy is is whole language with a little bit of phonics in it. And the question is whether or not, if you really know the research base on reading, would you design reading instruction that way? And one really important thing to point out to people is, among the people who study how the brain reads and how people learn to do it, there’s not controversy about phonics. There’s no controversy that this is an essential building block, right?

At K-2 though, right?

At K-2.

We’re talking very early.

And older if you haven’t learned how to decode words. There’s a resistance ... There’s a lot of people out there who will say, if a kid’s not a good reader in 5th or 6th grade, they’re beyond phonics. They’re not beyond phonics if they haven’t mastered that. They really need to learn that. So I think there is ... Yes, I think in most schools ... You can still find some schools that really don’t do much about foundational skills at all, but yes, in my reporting, I found and I said in the documentary that most balanced literacy classrooms do do some phonics. The question is, are they doing enough of it? Are they emphasizing it?

It’s kind of like an opportunity cost question, is one of the ways that I’ve come to see a balanced literacy classroom. If you really look at the science, what would you want to emphasize first? What’s the sequence you would want to go in to build all the things that you would need to become a proficient reader? And I think what happens in a balanced literacy classroom is there’s potentially a lot of time lost, like a lot of stuff sort of left on the table because there’s not enough time being devoted to the phonics and phonemic awareness, the alphabetical principle, the written code. And it’s also really important to understand what we mean by explicit and systematic, because what’s happening in a lot of classrooms is that the phonics is being taught kind of incidentally, like it comes up as kids struggle with words. There’s a particular letter pattern that they’re struggling with, so the teacher will teach a mini lesson on that, and a lot of stuff kind of gets lost because you don’t necessarily know all ... unless you’re listening to every single kid read everything out loud, you’re not going to know all the different patterns that kids are struggling with.

People can fight and there’s no agreement on what particular order you teach the written language to children in, but you kind of need to have a system. You need to have an order so that you cover it all. And again, kids are in different places, but you need to make sure that there’s not holes in their knowledge. I’ve interviewed many children and parents who are older, who have huge holes in their knowledge when they’re taught in this kind of incidental way. The teacher notices they struggle with one thing, they focus on that, but they may miss that there’s a lot of other things that these kids don’t understand.

There are actual sounds they don’t know or digraphs or some part ...


I’m going to ask you one more thing and then we’ll go to audience questions and if you’re just tuning in right now, I’m here with Emily Hanford. She is of AMP Reports. She did a radio documentary called Hard Words. It’s about reading science and why kids aren’t learning to read.

But I did want to ask, teacher prep comes up in your radio documentary. What did you find that teachers are learning in their preparation programs? As they’re studying to become teachers, what are they learning about reading?

Well, first I want to say that there’s actually a decent amount that we know about this. So there have been a number of surveys of teachers. There have been reviews of syllabi and textbooks by a number of different groups and researchers. There have been some really good research in a couple of states, where they’ve gone in and done some reporting, where they really interviewed teacher candidates, interviewed teachers after they went to the classroom, interviewed professors, interviewed deans, went and observed what was happening. So it’s not such a black box. Some people are like, we don’t really know what’s happening. We have a decent amount of research that shows us what’s happening in teacher prep and I have talked to, at this point, talked to and interacted with hundreds of teachers.

And what I am hearing is that the basics of the reading science, like the Simple View of Reading that I just described, most teachers aren’t learning that in their teacher-preparation programs.So they’re not learning the basics of all of this stuff that researchers have learned about how the brain learns to read, which is very, very relevant to how you would design reading instruction.

The other thing I think that we pay less attention to, but there’s been some good research on this, too, is that teachers are not learning very much about the structure of the English language themselves. And this gets back to what you asked about in terms of balanced literacy. Teachers are saying, well I teach phonics. I think one of the things that we know and that teachers have told me is that they themselves don’t know that much about how the English language works. I mean, many of us don’t. Many of us who become readers don’t necessarily know all the rules and you don’t need to, like, learn them. I don’t even want to call them rules because that’s not a good way to talk about what phonics is. But there’s a decent amount, that if you were going to be a kindergarten, 1st, or 2nd grade teacher, or even a teacher for older kids because we’ve got a lot of struggling readers in older grades, there’s a lot of stuff you need to understand about how the English language works to be able to teach it well to little kids. And that is not a focus, according to the teachers I’ve talked to and the surveys that I’ve seen in teacher preparation.

So we have this wide gap between research and practice, along the research itself and the knowledge of the English language.

And one of the things that I want to say here is that I think it’s unfair to teachers that they’re not being taught this, and teachers want to know it. I mean teachers want to be able to effectively teach their kids how to read. It’s not like we have any silver bullets out there but we know so ... I mean this was really surprising to me as a reporter, and I’m still learning stuff, but there are dozens of books, so many papers, tons of videos, I mean it is a voluminous amount of stuff that we know about how reading works. And the fact that that is just over there and is not, for the most part, making its way to teachers when they’re being prepared or making its way to them when they’re getting professional development is unfair to teachers and unfair to kids.

So somebody is asking, what’s the best response to the argument that structured literacy instruction would be boring to some advanced students. I assume that they mean sort of a, an explicit program by structured literacy. I mean what’s your response to that.

So I think that’s one of the misunderstandings about phonics out there. I’ll tell you this, I just took ... audited a class, an online class, in the psychology of reading and the last half of the class was just all about the structure of the English language and about phonics and phonemic awareness. It’s fascinating. I mean completely fascinating. This is one of the reasons we have a problem in the United States, is English is a complex language. We have many layers of our language. There’s many influences. We’re a kind of melting pot language. So our spelling patterns, we have many different ways to explain our spelling patterns. We don’t have one clear set of rules that this is the way things are spelled in English. We take stuff from the French, the Germans, the Anglo-Saxons, Latin and Greek.

But that becomes an argument not to teach phonics, right? It’s too hard. There are too many things to learn. Our language is too irregular, so we can’t teach all the rules.

That’s one of the myths too because there’s ... Linguists will debate this but between 80 and 95 percent of English words can be explained. Sometimes there’s not just one rule to explain it all, so you have to teach many things to children, but this gets to the idea that it’s not boring at all. If it’s taught well, it’s completely fascinating and so I think this is one of the things that kind of hangs us up. I think some people have this idea that phonics is just worksheets and boring. But, number one, if it’s taught well, it’s not at all, and I’ve been into many classrooms where it is not boring at all. And if you describe to kids like, this is from Greek, and why is was spelled that way?, and all these very common words we have that are the most irregular words are Anglo-Saxon words and we used to pronounce them differently—you can tell that to kids and it’s fascinating to them.

So I think we’re kind of stuck. I think one of the things that keeps us stuck is some ideas about phonics that I don’t think are really true. And I’ll say number two, phonics is so ... if you know the research, you know how absolutely critical it is to have phonics skills. I mean you cannot be a really good reader without phonics skills. Again, we can hope kids just learn that somehow or we can teach it to them. So even if it were ... I’m not advocating for boring instruction, but boring phonics is better than no phonics. Kids are going to become better readers and the research, the evidence base I think shows you that. So it is a non-negotiable to teach phonics, and there’s no reason it should be boring. And if teachers themselves understood why phonics was so important and had a really good understanding of the English language, I’d want to go to kindergarten again. The stuff you would learn about language in a good kindergarten class, and I’ve seen some of it, is just mind-blowingly interesting.

Yeah and great teachers can make anything interesting. I’ve definitely seen that in reporting and in the classroom.


So here’s a question that kind of goes back to your dyslexia documentary. Somebody says, if a kid has dyslexia and learns how to read, do they still have dyslexia?

That’s a really good question. So what the researchers have found ... I mean dyslexia is caused by a phonological weakness. So the reason people with dyslexia have a hard time learning how to read is it’s hard for them to not hear necessarily but sort of discern and manipulate the individual sounds in words. So their brain just processes these speech sounds kind of differently and they need more explicit kind of awareness of what’s going on. They need more kind of training and practice to hear the different sounds of words. So dyslexia is something that’s based in neurology. There’s something in your brain. But the definition of dyslexia is an inability, a hard time reading words, even if you’ve had good instruction. So technically, if you have a phonological weakness but you’re taught how to read really well and you become a very good reader, it’s kind of one of those ... Are you still dyslexic? In some ways, it doesn’t really matter.

Because you can read.

Yeah, so you just happen to be someone who becomes really good at ... I don’t know a good analogy. I mean you become good at math even though you have a weakness like you’re not one of those kids who can do multiplication tables in their head. I have two boys and one of them could multiply three-digit numbers by three-digit numbers in his head and I was like, whoa. I can’t do that. But you don’t have to be able to ... you don’t have to be strong at that to become a good mathematician. ... That’s probably a terrible analogy because I don’t know anything about math, but anyway, what I’m just trying to say is that what we know is that people with dyslexia can become very good readers if they’re taught. We also know that people who don’t have dyslexia, they don’t become good readers if they’re not taught really well because there can be a lot of other factors that put you at risk for reading that aren’t having a phonological core deficit, if that makes sense.

I’m going to ask one more question. If parents, teachers, and policy makers could do one thing to help shift the thinking and bring about needed change in teacher-prep programs, what do you think they should do?

I think that teachers need to speak up, honestly. Because I really think that in some ways, we’ve gotten stuck in the reading wars because this debate about reading has gotten attached to a whole bunch of other things. And one of them is sort of this idea of teacher autonomy. And so when people start talking about what the research says about reading and bringing in phonics programs or whatever, there’s this kind of backlash like, you’re encroaching on my space and my professional autonomy and I know how to teach my kids. And this is true. Teachers are the ones who need to get up everyday and teach kids how to read. And when the teachers that I have talked to, who have written about this and who have spoken up about this, I mean so many of them when they discover how much is known about reading, they go, oh my god. Why didn’t I know that? Why didn’t I know these basic things?

So I really think the key is for teachers to be like, we want this information. You are not coming in here telling me what to do. I want to know what to do and I don’t want to be hammered over the head and told what to do, I mean ... teachers need to be given this knowledge and they need to be given good materials and good programs so that they can go in and be teachers. They can put their own spin on it. They put their own personality in it. I have seen teachers who didn’t know this stuff, learn this stuff, started teaching in a very different way. They say, this is very different than the way I used to teach reading. And they love it. And the class is fun and it’s their personality and they’re really into it.

So I really do think that teachers need to speak up about the knowledge that they don’t have. And the teacher preparation programs need to listen to that and then the schools need to listen to that. We do have a really big challenge ahead because there’s quite a big gap here between knowledge and practice. So it’s going to take a lot of time and resources in terms of money and know-how to bring this knowledge to teachers. But like I said before, I think it’s unfair to teachers and unfair to kids if we don’t commit to doing that.

Well I could talk about this all day ...

So could I.

And you probably could, too, but we have to stop somewhere. This has been fascinating. Thank you so much for coming and chatting with us, and thank you to everyone who is chiming in and sending questions. And if you want to continue the conversation, find us on Twitter. You can find Emily on Twitter. We have a new Facebook group if you’re interested in joining. We do some more in-depth conversation. It’s called the EdWeek Homeroom. Find us there, ask for an invite. And then head to the website, edweek.org, we have plenty of articles on reading. Thanks for being here, Emily. This was fun.

Yeah, you’re welcome. Thanks.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.