Chris Stewart & Emily Hanford Interview 9.10.2020
And we're live with Emily Hanford, senior correspondent with American public media, 25 years of journalist experience, 12 years of that in specifically reporting on education. Um, Also, as I was telling her before we started here a newly minted rockstar for people who have long thought that we have not paid enough attention to the science reading, or just the reading troubles and issues that our kids have been having forever, but actually is, is becoming more popularized as an issue.
Now today. Emily, thank you for joining. Hey, I'm really happy to be here. So I want to tell you, I got this tweet from an educator who knew that you were coming on. Who said I was still in the classroom when I first heard her podcast. When it first came out, it turned on a light in a dark room for me and the students I was serving.
I'm truly thankful to Emily and her research. That's a pretty, um, that's a pretty great, um, thing to be able to, to hear about the work that you do. Yeah. And what I hear, things like that a lot. And that's not because of the work I did. I think it talks about the magnitude of the problem problem. There are so many teachers who haven't been taught, this stuff that they really should know about reading and they're in the dark about it.
And it's light bulbs go off when they get introduced to it. Well, let's define the problem. I mean, I, I, I just want to say a couple of things that I got from looking at some of the work that you did, but you can help me define the problem when we say the problem in reading. Um, but here's my problem.
Numbers don't lie. 65% of American students are reading only at basic 80% Hispanics, 80% blacks, 80% low income. And those to me, every time I see numbers like that, I say the same thing, those aren't numbers, those are prophecies. Those tell you what happens to people later, right? And that's the problem where the problem really is as is what happens after you're not taught well to read, but help me define the problem.
When we talk about the science of reading, how reading is taught, what's the problem. So the numbers that you just, this mentioned, we've had numbers like that for a long time. And as a nation, we've been wringing our hands about it and talking about it and trying to do things about it. And I, I think the problem writ large is that.
There's this huge amount of knowledge that has accumulated over the past 50 years or so among researchers in classrooms and labs all over the country, cognitive scientists and other researchers who often are not in schools of education. They're often in other parts of the research world and they got really intrigued by a lot of questions, just about reading and how it works.
And they started studying it in really interesting and new ways back in the 1970s and a lot of the things that they learned. We're kind of different from some of the assumptions, um, that, uh, that have been sort of made about reading and education. And what's happened is this gigantic body of research, which is loosely defined as the science of reading at this point.
Um, is. It has a lot to say to education. I mean, it does. It's not the answer. It's not like this is the way you teach it, but there's like a whole lot that can be understood about how skilled reading develops and what is going on when kids are struggling with reading, by understanding this scientific research.
And for the most part teachers aren't taught this, they're not taught it in their teacher preparation programs. They're not taught in the professional development. They get on the job. And in fact, they often learn. Ideas that have been proven wrong, uh, by cognitive scientists and others over the past 40 years and the curriculum materials that they receive often lead them astray in terms of their understanding of just what reading is and what kids need.
So I think that largest we've, we've had a problem and we've known about it. For a really long time, but it's almost like we've gotten used to it. It's almost like those numbers you talked about before. Like, Oh, I get, we've been trying really hard and those numbers are barely budging. So I guess there's nothing we can do.
And I think what we've missed out on, uh, is understanding that we're not that a lot of kids aren't going to be good readers unless they're explicitly taught how to do it. And education writ large has not been doing that. Teachers have not understood how much it takes for a kid to understand their written language and what they need to be taught.
So I think, I think that's the problem. No. When I listened to that, I'm, I'm a little confused by a part of that, which is there. I see three groups of people involved in what you just said. So there's the schools of education that educate teachers. They're the science researchers who you're talking about.
Who've created this mountain of scientific research around specifically reading, um, And then there are the social scientists who know that, uh, upstream after you don't learn to read, there are things like, you know, um, you act out more in school, you're more sad, lonely, depressed. You drop out of high school more.
You end up in criminal justice. So lots of social science, but they're all in the same institution. So help me understand them a little fused. Why, how you can all live in the same way institution, but you never have a lunch. I mean, what's going on there? I think you're asking a question that a lot of people would like an answer to.
I mean, I think it's, I think it's a really good question. These people are like across the quad from each other. Um, I think the answer lies in the fact that there's a lot, yeah. Have strongly held beliefs in education about how children learn and how schools should be set up and what the role of the teacher is.
And a lot of the stuff is called into question. By the scientific research on reading. So I think, I think, I think there's real resistance, uh, to the science of reading within schools of education. So, so I think there's some active resistance. And then, and then there's a lot of people who may not be right, doing the act of resistance, but because there's been active resistance, they just don't get this stuff.
They're not the teachers, the administrators who are coming up, they're just not taught this stuff because the people who are teaching them. Don't think it's important. Don't believe in it, or maybe don't know about it themselves. Let me just ask you about that real quick. What's behind the resistance.
Well, I think we need to get in some sort of larger questions about, um, teaching and learning and you know what I think the big takeaway from the science of reading and what studies have shown over and over again is that. So like people fight about phonics. So we're going to talk, we can talk about that in a moment.
The big fight really is about the question of explicit indirect instruction versus a more. Constructivist or progressive kind of view, which is that you put kids in an environment that will stimulate their curiosity and their desire to learn. And a lot of it, and I'm not, I'm not denigrating these things, but hands on learning and discovery learning and all of that, but what is very clear from the scientific research and reading and other studies that have been done at J education and just learning in general learning all kinds of topics is that.
There's a real difference between like what you need when you're a novice at something, when you don't know anything about it, what the basic things that you need to learn to get good at something. So something like reading, we've sort of presumed our school sort of assume. That putting kids in an environment with a little bit of guidance, a lot of guided reading, for example, matching kids with books, getting them interested in books, sort of doing a whole bunch of things will all add up to reading and for some kids it does.
And that's, what's really tricky about this. I think what the, what the scientific research on reading suggests is that half of us. Maybe a little bit less than half of us are probably going to, or to be pretty good readers, kind of, no matter what we get in school, like if we are read to enough and we do have access to books and we get a little bit of instruction here and there, and someone explained some basic things about the Africa, better principle, it is, as long as we get access, like it's going to add up, we're going to become good, but a lot of people.
Of all different income levels of all different races, right? A lot of us human beings are not, I'm going to take to this very easily. Like it's going to be confusing and hard unless someone really shows it to us. And the, the presumption is in school is that you don't really need to explicitly show it to most kids.
So, as I say, in my most recent. Um, report what the words say. It's like our reading instruction right now is sort of tilted in favor of the few, the few who don't need a lot of instruction to become good readers and the few who have some, one else or some other way to get help. If school isn't helping them.
So that's a parent who might teaches themselves at home. That's a parent who can pay for tutoring. That's a parent who can pull you out and put you on a specialized private school for kids who have language there's learning differences. Right. But we have, it's sort of like. At the earliest levels, when we're teaching kids to read, we're making some assumptions about teaching and learning that is tilted in favor of the few.
And that is a fundamentally inequitable system all in favor of the resource. It sounds like, I mean, you're one of your first stories on this was around dyslexia. Um, and I think this was about dyslexic. What I'm about to say was about parents that had students that were, um, dyslexic, but. If I remember, right?
This is where you came up with the idea that this is with people with resources are the ones that go on a predictable pattern. They're told by schools for years, that there's nothing wrong. If your kid's struggling to read, there's nothing wrong. Just don't worry about it. It happens at its own pace, kind of like the whole Finland thing.
You know, kids learn when they're naturally curious and blah, blah, blah. And as it goes on, they start figuring out what that's not exactly true. That, that seems to be a little bit off and then they get help and they get their own kind of assessment, which costs money. Um, and then that assessment leads them eventually to pull their kids from public school and put them in very specialized private schools that not everybody has access to.
Um, take that split screen, take that exact same situation with the mother who is under-resourced and she's the one whose kid keeps going through the system that keeps telling her the lie. So those two kids end up in very different places and it sounds like it's based on resources. It doesn't sound like.
Um, well, this is struggling reading in the science of reading, but the resources matter, I think the resources matter in terms of the chances of getting out of the downward spiral. Right. But I think that what I have talked to parents in all different kinds of schools, of all different levels of family resources who are told the same things, don't worry about it.
He'll catch up. We got to find them the right book, make sure you read to them at home. And then, you know, it can take this turn to parents of all levels. Like they start to blame the parents. Well, if he's not getting it, you must be doing something wrong. Like you're not reading to them enough. You didn't do enough when he was a baby or, or like, Oh, I guess he has a learning disability.
So, but the truth is that when kids are struggling with reading, what the research suggests is, it's, it's not that it's not that he wasn't read to enough at home. Or that he has a learning disability, most likely, slightly, he wasn't taught how to read. And so the reason I think that many parents are told the same thing by their schools.
It's just that if you have resources in terms of time and money, When you have that aha moment, plenty of people who don't have that, uh, time and money have the aha moment. Like, I don't think this is quite right, but they don't, they don't are they going to do about that with their job and teach their kid themselves, which I've spoken to many parents who do, right.
Some people have that option. A lot of people do not, what are they going to do? Pay $85 an hour to a tutor, find a good tutor. That's that's troubling right there. How do you find someone who really knows how to help your struggling reader? How do you get them there? How do you pay for it? With what time in the day?
You know, like so many of these obstacles, you know, all of the ways that we know that when schools fail kids, we know so much that parents with resources can make up for that. And parents with resources are more likely to be in schools that are going to be doing more for them potentially. I don't think affluent schools necessarily have a lock on teaching, reading better, but when kids are in.
Higher income schools and they have a struggle with reading. Their reading problem is more likely to be noticed by the school because there are more likely need to be in the, in the minority. As in there, you know, you go into high poverty schools. And a lot of the kids often tend to be struggling with reading.
If they're not being taught, how to read you go into a more affluent school. You can still find a shocking number of kids who are not doing very well in reading, but it tends to be fewer. Right? So the kid who's really struggling can kind of rise above. And when the parent brings that maybe the administrators and the teachers are more likely to nod and be like you're you're right.
Yes. Yes. Let's. Let's try to do something about that. Um, So I just count my own point that I just made there about resources, mattering. They do matter, but let's put that aside, put a pin in that because practices better. So, um, we're talking about a 750, maybe $800 billion, um, education, um, enterprise project in the United States.
So if we were to say, well, what are the practices? That other people discover in those schools that are doing well. Um, it would go back to where I think you were going there camps. There's a phonics camp, or there's a, um, a direct instruction camp and there's a constructivist camp. So tell me more about how those camps play out and how they create the politics of reading.
Yeah, well, we're getting into something, you know, really complicated. I mean, that's, that's the issue here, I mean, and you asked before, like, why don't people talk about this stuff or why do they not know it from one side of the campus to the other? Is that this, this is very political. It has been very political over time.
We fought things that people called reading Wars over it, you know? Um, and so, and, and it, and it. There's a, there's a picture. I think of the politics of it that people can get it. You can sort of simply say like, while there's the sort of traditional conservative side that wants more direct instruction and more phonics, and, and then there's the liberal, progressive side that wants more explore exploratory learning or whatever.
So you get this kind of liberal conservative thing. But when you, when you start to dig into this stuff, like those. Political that political divide falls apart. I like plenty of these readings. Scientists are politically speaking, very liberal. They've told me about that. This is not sort of a Democrat versus Republican liberal versus conservative.
Some of it's played out that way because of certain. Presidents and other leaders who have made big, um, and you know, policy pushes and, you know, a lot, the reading Wars of the early two thousands came out of the national reading panel report, which the Clinton administration started. And then George Bush was in office when child left behind, came along and reading.
First that there was a lot of controversy about, and again, I think part of the problem is we're distracted by a fight about phonics. And if there's one of the many things that I hope my reporting is helping to do is to blow that up a little bit. This isn't about whether you believe in phonics or not.
It's really about whether there's a deep understanding the teachers have about. How kids need to have the most, the best it's way to make sure that we have an equitable education system is to explicitly teach all kids how their written language works. And teachers need to know a lot to be able to do that.
And we're not preparing teachers in the science of reading or in the structure of the English language. You know, one of the reasons we fight about this in the English speaking world, not just me United States, but all over the English speaking world. It's because English has a complex orthography, it's a complex language, right?
There's a lot to learn to understand English and it gets dismissed as this wacky language full of exceptions. And it's really not. Um, it's a, it's a very rule governed, uh, language. It's just that it's this kind of beautiful, melting pot language, right? Like English has had all these influences from different parts of the world in different languages.
We've got French layer and Latin layer and the Anglo-Saxons and we. We borrow, uh, spelling patterns from other languages all the time. So there's like a depth to the English language, um, which is why phonics teaching kids, the basic, um, correspondences between letters and groups of letters and sounds, and words is a sort of a place to begin, but there's so much more to helping kids really understand how to spell in English.
For example, spelling is a big thing that if we taught kids to spell better, I think we could really make some improvements in reading scores in this country. So, I don't know if I answered your question about politics, but no, I mean, I can see how that CA there is exactly what you said. There feels to be like a liberal, conservative, um, lens that you can put on one of the, one of these ways of teaching versus the other.
So the back-to-basics, let's just teach phonics, you know, let's stop doing all this wacky faddish stuff that we do. What not that feels very conservative, very kind of like let's get back to something back to basics. And, um, and education seems to go on. Different direction in that teachers want kids to explore, and they want kids to learn at their natural pace.
And, and you want to put them in bright rooms with a bunch of like, you know, content, rich rooms, but not necessarily get explicit with them. Don't tell them what to read. Don't tell them how to read it. Don't tell them what to understand from it. Let them kind of discover, discover, discover. I mean, it happens if you know, the majority of your teachers don't want to teach.
Yeah. In a way like direct instruction has a bad rap with a lot of people in the teaching profession. It's not that they're resistant to the science it's that they're resistant to the practice. It's a big problem. I mean, it's a, it's a, it's a, there's, there's a lot of research behind direct instruction and I think there's a lot of resistance to it.
And we have, uh, people who are really doing that. Uh, we have, uh, but instead it's a very small percentage of schools. Um, so yeah, I mean, but you know, I have to ask them the questions, like what do teachers like to do and what needs to be done? What's their evidence behind for kids to be successful learners.
And I think at the end of the day, Teachers want their kids to learn. I don't, I haven't met teachers who don't want to teach their kids how to read. And so I think if teachers really understand that there's a big body of evidence behind this and that there are some things, there are some ways they can be using time, better in school.
And, and that at that beat, it's sort of like at the earliest stages when we think. That learning should be the most sort of discovery oriented. And it's not that it shouldn't, it's not that we shouldn't have bright classrooms and lots of great libraries and, and, and kids playing. Absolutely. It's just that when it comes to something like learning how to read, there's just such a, there's so much evidence behind how important it is to directly teach that to children.
And I think, I mean, I think we have to sort of ask the tough political question. Like if teachers don't like it. Is it okay for them not to do it. We have, so this is taxpayer money and this is the, those, those are prophecies, as you said earlier, those bad test scores, right? Like. And so I, I think this is really like a teacher knowledge thing.
Cause again, the teachers that I hear from that start to learn about this have these big aha moments. And they're so grateful because most teachers know that there is a certain percentage of their kids and in some schools, a large percentage of their kids who aren't getting it and they know it. And they have a pit in their stomach and they're working their butts off and they're doing everything they've been taught to do.
And when you're working really hard and you're doing everything you were taught to do, and the kids still aren't learning well, one of the things that happens is to say, well, I, it must be the kids. They must have like a disability. Yeah. It must be their family. Right. It's not my fault. And it, and it's really important to say this isn't teacher's fault because they weren't taught this stuff.
But we have to recognize that instruction can be powerful. And, um, and that if teachers have this knowledge, uh, I, I think, you know, bait, there's a lot, there's a lot that can be done to teach kids how to read. And when teachers start to do this, they see it in their kids. They, they are like, Oh right. This making sense to him now.
So many teachers, you know, a lot of teachers come to their aha moments about this. Cause they've been a first or second grade teacher for 10 years, and then they have a child who goes to school and that child is having a hard time learning to read. And that. Mother in many instances, who's a teacher tries to teach her child how to read and it isn't working.
And she's saying like, I, Oh my gosh, I'm a first grade teacher. I can't teach this child how to read. I've heard from so many parents like that. And that's when they turned to the science of reading. Cause they, they, they, they realized that for their own kids need something different. And so they realized that their students need something different too.
I mean, it feels like part of that is something I harp on all the time is that they believe something can be done different with their kids. So they investigate and they don't just stop with there's something wrong with the kid. And if I'm a teacher who's teaching in schools where, you know, you're teaching that 40% who will just do well anyways, It's going to be hard to convince me that I should change.
Um, my pattern because my science, this is working, it's working, but where you have high populations, you've made a big point in a lot of your work to keep coming back to the equity issue, to the issue around how this has, um, really different impacts for low income students and students of color. Um, I was really interested in, um, uh, juvenile detention center that you visited, um, um, Burnett Bayland, uh, rehab rehabilitation center.
You have a story on, uh, am reports on it now. And I think people should go listen to it. We'll put the, um, the Lincoln for the comments, but what I found really interesting about that was that that would be a place where people would have an aha about one of your problems that you had all along that may have gotten you here was.
And by here, I mean, in the juvenile detention center is that you were struggling to read and no one ever paid attention to it. And there are lots of like fruit that grows from that tree. So what was it that you discovered in, um, in BBRC that was a light bulb for you? Yeah. I mean, it's, I mean, I think one of the things that happens is we know there's sort of two levels here.
So like a lot of kids who really do have learning difficulties, right? Learning disabilities, we know that a lot of them are not getting identified and getting the sort of extra help that they would need beyond what a sort of typically developing reader might need. So we know that we, we have a decent amount of evidence that shows us that there's a disproportionate number of people.
With learning differences and learning disabilities in the justice system. But what I, so I went into the juvenile justice system in Houston because there are researchers who are studying this and they're trying to better understand, um, the reading problems of the population there. And they are specifically.
Identifying kids who are way behind in reading, who may have some sort of learning disability and trying to teach some how to read. And they're trying to look at, can they teach them how to read number one? And then does that have an impact, like they're following these students for a long time. Like if you learn to read at the age of 15, can that.
Potentially change your life trajectory. Um, but I think, I think one of the, so I sat in on a whole bunch of these tutoring sessions, um, at this juvenile detention center. And first of all, one profound takeaway is just how far behind many of these kids are. I mean, some of these kids could barely read a word.
And so, yes, maybe there's a profound. Learning disability going on there. What I can even see in some of the lessons that I went to is that these kids were learning like when someone was teaching them the way that words work and the way that English spelling words, they were learning it. Are they ever going to be like really, really good readers?
Maybe not, but like kids can learn this stuff. I mean, one of the kids that I met in that, in that facility, like, I mean, he was just telling, I mean, just very basic things that he just, no one had ever taught him about. I give you the example of, um, He's like, yeah, he had this big aha moment. Like phone is like the pH makes the sound like phone and physics and it's like, he had just, he knows the word phone and he knows the word physics and he's, he's got like good oral language, but it's just, he never had been shown that kid 17.
So this kid is 17 and he's learning for the first time that P H makes a sound. Yeah. Yeah. And the thing is when he was taught that he was like, this kid was like, Oh yeah, got it. It's not like he had, it's not like, that was hard for him. It's like, but he, he really, you know, and I, you know, I think he's lived a life where he wasn't exposed to a lot, you know, there's like he didn't pick that up on his own.
But it was never taught to them. And once it was taught to him, he got in it and then
and you see a change in them once they get things like that, because they're unlocking parts of the world that they hadn't unlocked before, which it must be very frustrating. If in those 17 years prior to that, you were not able to get some very basic things like that. That has to be very frustrating. Um, but you make a point that, um, I dunno if you make this point that some of this can hide in language, the way that we think about speaking and the way that we think about reading are two different sciences.
In some ways, but we feel if somebody is articulate or if they're in, you know, if they can speak well or they can do well in language or they hear a lot of language that, that also. Ends up in them actually being better readers. And it doesn't seem like that's what the science says. Yeah. Yeah. There's a lot to this.
I mean, there's a lot of, you know, one of the things that's really been interesting to me in this work is recognizing how many people struggle with reading. Like I have a lot of adults, very accomplished adults, not adults in the justice system. Right. They're very accomplished belts out there. Who are struggling readers, um, and they have compensated and figured all kinds of all kinds of extraordinary ways to kind of get around their reading difficulties.
Um, But, but I, so yes. So one of the things that the scientific research shows us is that the process of learning to speak, learning, to talk and the process of learning to read learning your written language are different. They're not they're they're they, they learning to talk is really something that, and beings are like hardwired for.
We've been talking for a really long time as human beings. Like we got that down. Like our brains are just meant to do it, but we actually invented, um, Like written language kind of recently in human history, it's kind of new to us and our brains really. Like they're not sort of designed to do it. So what the scientific research shows is that we actually kind of have to rewire, but like the, like learning to read actually rewires your brain a little bit.
These researchers in Houston actually are. Looking at this, with the kids in the juvenile justice system, they're actually trying to measure some things about how their brains are changing. When they learn how to read, you can see differences between like a literate person who knows how to read in a, a child who hasn't learned how to read yet, or an illiterate adult, right?
Like their brains look different. And so, but the assumption and a lot of, um, early reading instruction, is it learning to read and learning to talk or kind of similar. Um, and that if you, if you, if you're, if you're articulate, you've got a lot of language or whatever that learning to read is going to come pretty easily to you.
And it, he is going to help you because your language, you know, the more vocabulary you have, the more. Um, the more you're going to be able to kind of like, and debt as your, as your sounding out words, you're going to be like, Oh yeah, I know what that word is. Versus a kid. Like I bring up the example in the juvenile justice system that this kid who was 15, who was being taught, how to read was being taught where it's like, Uh, smear and fleet, and it was very, you know, those are good words to learn in terms of their spelling patterns.
It was very clear that this kid had no idea what those words meant. Cause I don't think he heard those. Like they just weren't words that were in his world. If you're a kid who has heard those words, a fleet of ships or whatever, Imagine you're a first grader and you come across fleet, you have no idea what a fleet of ships is.
Fleet fleet. That doesn't mean anything to you. You're a kid who does know what a fleet of ships is. You sound out fleet, fleet fleet. Oh, you got it. And then this thing happens that the reading research shows, which is the, the key to being a good reader is making these connections between the spoken form of a word.
The written form of a word and the meaning of the word you make these connections between these three things through initially sounding it out. Oh, I know that word. I know the meaning of it. Eventually. What happens is you come across a word a few times, you sounded out, it actually gets stored in your brain as like a, as like a unit that you recognize really quickly.
It's not like a whole word or an image, but like that spelling pattern is associated with the pronunciation and meaning of the word. And when you're a good reader, You know, tens of thousands of words like that, just instantly on site. You're not sending them out as you go. You are actually accessing the phonology of the word in some ways, but you just know those words really instantly.
And that that's like the key difference between expert readers and novice readers or struggling readers is how many words do you instantly know? And when you instantly know lots and lots and lots of words, because you've sounded them out. And you've connected the meaning and the pronunciation of the word.
It frees up space in your brain and your mind for focusing on the meaning of what you're reading. Focusing on reading comprehension and that's the goal. That's what we want everyone to get to is good. Reading comprehension. In some ways, reading instruction in schools, um, sort of starts with company because we know we want the goal.
The goal is comprehension. You sort of start there, like get the kids to focus on the meaning of what they're reading and then they'll figure out what they need to know about the words. And that does work for some kids, but it does, but it's super confusing for a lot of kids and. It gets kids off to kind of a rough start in school.
Cause when you are a little kid and you go to kindergarten, Your sort of first primary task in school is learning to read, you know, as well as learning to like socialize and be with other kids. Right. But the first thing, academic tests, academic, like task of school is learning how to read. And, and when that is not working for you, when it's confusing and you don't really get it and no one's really teaching it and you're struggling.
And like the other kid, you think the other kids are getting it or you realize I don't like that starts to cause anxiety and, and, you know, and, and can really lead to. Withdrawing from school acting up in school. There's real research on this chicken or the egg question like this. We know there's a correlation between behavior issues and struggling to read, but there's an emerging body of evidence that really shows that this is the cause that when kids struggle with the basics learning to read early, but that is really, it starts this downward cycle.
Um, well, that's why we really have to get this right. And really grades there's so many, there's so much at stake here. Yeah, I've done, um, kindergarten myself and, um, and with kids multiple times in 30 years. So I've been a parent for 30 years, so I've, I've done, uh, education. I've done the beginning kindergarten, multiple times, but it seems like star words are really important in kindergarten.
Like, you know, here's your list of 50, 75, 100, depending on what. Teacher, you have how many star words you're going to need to know by the end of kindergarten. And it does feel a little different than this is how letters work. It is. I mean, when kids are given these big list of sight words, star words, snap words, there's lots of different.
Right. Yeah. That's true. From school to school, it's either star Wars or something. So you just caught me and my little Midwestern farmer. I first thought that you had star Wars and I was like, yeah. And people, you know, people within the world of reading instruction. Can fight about this. Like, like whether or not you teach any kids, some words as holes, right? Because English is one of the problems with learning English is that some of our most common words are the ones that are kind of the wackiest when it comes to spelling like salmon or helped me understand the salmon, but even like things like friend and the very common words, the kids are gonna come across in, in book, in like basic kids' books.
Right. And they're complex spelling patterns. Cause there are oldest words they're from Anglo-Saxons and they pronounce things differently and they spell things differently because they actually, if we heard them speaking, you know, old English, we wouldn't even understand what the hell they were talking about.
Um, so there's like disputes about whether you should, you know, kick kids off with a few words, to like learn as holes so that they can have access to. Books. But the point is when you see these big, long list of words, kids are supposed to memorize that isn't a red flag that the undergirding assumption here in the reading and, uh, instruction, is that okay if you memorize some words that somehow gives you access to like other words that, that it's not about understanding the smallest pieces of how the sounds words are represented by letters that it's, instead that you.
Memorize some words and you learn them as holes and you like store them in your brain, sort of as pictures and the research shows. That's not what happens at all, but that good readers are really understanding very, very quickly. You're not conscious of it at all, but you're you're, you, you, you can immediately understand the difference between words where there's just like one little letter.
That's different friend and fiend, right. Friend and themed. Okay. There's only one little letter there, but you as a good reader, he is a good reader. You know that right away. Sometimes those are the same thing, a friend. And that brings in how important meaning is. Right? Right. Seen a lot of kids don't know what a fiend is, but if you are a kid, I give this example a lot with my.
I don't know if you've heard. I have a, I have a kid on zoom college over here and a zoom high school over here, zoom college professor down in the dining room. There's a lot going on, but I give the example of mine, my co my college student. Um, it's this thing that I described, w what I was talking about before, which is like how you get to know tens of thousands of words and recognize them instantly on site.
And when my son was in high school, He was reading and he, um, was reading something out loud to me and he said the word hepatoma and I was like at the tome, do you mean apitomy. So E P I T O M E. He like had this kind of flash of recognition, like, Oh yeah. I don't know if he really knew what epitome meant, but he clearly heard that word before.
Right. And he maybe even seen it when he was reading, but he had just said at Patome epitope, which is, I don't know what that is. I'll skip over that, whatever. So like, in this moment of reading out loud to me, his mom, I had sort of corrected that little instant, and he had made that connection that he needs to now know that word.
Apitomy epitome, epi, T O M E. You know, and so it's like, So that's how family background could get in. Right. It happened that he was reading out loud to me and I caught that error. I know the spelling and meaning of that word, you know, like, and this is all of the stuff about reading has such exponential and multiplicative effects.
And so there's just like, there's so much at play. What's interesting about that with the sight words or the star words or whatever you want to call them, you have a list like that. If you take it like me as a parent pile, this is serious. I have to like, you know, they're telling me by the end of the kindergarten, she's not, she should know 50 of these or 100 or one.
What that makes you do is go over that list with your kid in regular basis. And if you're. Um, my age or older what's going to happen is you're going to fall back on when they make a mistake, you're going to fall back on phonics. Right? So like, you're trying to get them to understand the whole word because that's the assignment.
But when they can't, you're going to say, well, that sounded out, which is the better thing to do, which is what you should do. Cause that's, they're older, like with their grandparents, that's for sure. What's going to happen. Yeah. So like grandparents are helping you read, um, what happened, what happened that this, so this really is a back to basics thing.
It used to be different. Um, I don't understand like where things went around. Uh, if you used to have that as like your, your knowledge base, you knew that that worked. Why deviate from it? Well, we've had real pendulums over time for hundreds of years. So like, it's not like there was a time necessarily where everyone learned phonics.
If you look back at the course of American educational history, you can see phonics was in Vogue, phonics was attacked and went away. There was more of the whole word kind of approach this whole word versus sounds. And letters. Thing has been a fight since like America. It has existed. Um, and you know, and I, I think so the, the scientific research really shows, so the scientific research on reading.
Has, um, been around, know the sort of abundance of research, sort of like, like the 1970s or so. And we've had phonics for a long time. And so it's like when people are fighting about phonics versus whole word, no one really knew how people actually learn to write. So it was all kind of guesses then, but what the science, the big takeaway from the scientific research is the.
Critical importance of understand of sound like when you it's, when you're starting to learn to read is not about it's, it's really starts with sound. It's about understanding how all the words, you know, how to say all the words, meaning of when people are talking to you, how those are represented. On the page with letters.
Um, and so phonics could be one part of that, but like before, like phonics, doesn't get you everywhere. You need to understand some things. The other things about the English language morphology and etymology, like the history of the English language, like something like phone, right? Like why is that P H O N?
Well, that's a Greek word. That comes from the Greek and you, you can like teach kids that and like that, that can help them understand other things like physics. You know, a lot of the scientific words we use use Greek spelling patterns, PA you know, because the Greeks did a whole lot of scientific stuff.
They discovered a lot of things scientifically anyway. Right. So I think that's what the scientific research really shows is the absolute critical importance of understanding. The sounds and language at the lowest level of like the phonemes and words. And that's really critical kids don't have good phonemic awareness when they don't.
Um, when it's hard for them to really sort of understand all of the distinct sounds that are in a word. Um, it can be really hard for them to, for example, learn phonics. Like if you teach, try to teach a kid phonics, like you go to the letters with them, then really having an understanding of the sounds themselves.
A lot of times that instruction is not going to deliver much for you. Um, So anyway, I mean, how we got away from this phonics is that there were people who really strongly believed that, that wasn't necessary, that people do learn by whole word, um, that, that as long as you focus on the meaning that kids can sort of figure stuff out through context.
And that became a very popular way to teach. And phonics was seen as sort of traditional and conservative and worksheets and kids sitting in rows and. It isn't, it doesn't have to be that way. In fact, there's a lot of very exciting classrooms that are doing direct teaching because what's more exciting when you're a little kid, honestly, that learning how to read.
I mean, anyone who's had children and remembers anything about being a little kid. That's so super exciting when you're learning how to read. Um, no. The part about equity in them, um, is, is this idea that once you stop believing that a kid is capable of something, it changes everything you do after that.
So what you're going to investigate after that? Does it matter if you don't believe already that the kid can learn? Um, and if you believe something that is powerful and scientific, like these studies around, well, you know, the kids come in knowing 30, a million, less words than the other kids. So, I mean, that's just a self fulfilling prophecy after that.
I mean, if you come in kindergarten knowing 30 million lessons words. Wow. Um, The science and the research around that I'm really unimpressed with, or that study came from how it was conducted, how it was done, but it becomes urban legend. And I think it does create a powerful reason for not thinking that you should do anything, any different for a certain kids, because I mean, there it's, you can't help that they're coming in knowing fewer words already.
I mean, what would you say about. That research, that science and how it, um, how it might change the way you think about the kids. You're trying to teach reading to. Well, the study that you're referring to has been questioned, but there's a lot of research that shows that there are different. Like some kids come into school knowing a lot more words than others.
And, um, and knowing a lot of words really can be a boost and help as I was talking about before, like the more words, you know, in oral language, the sort of quicker you're going to be able to kind of have that moment of recognition. When you sound it out and read it in written language. So that really makes a big difference, but here's the key thing.
The best thing you can do for a child who might be. Has not had the opportunity to be around tons of language who does not have parents home every night to read books to them, maybe like, right. The best thing you can do is teach them how to read the words on the page, because that is going to be the way that they can teach themselves.
Like that is the most powerful thing you can do for a kid who does not have an advantage. On the sort of language, comprehension side of things. They're never going to gain that advantage unless you teach them how to read. That's their best hope. Because what the research shows is that one should understand the basics of their written language.
Most of what they understand about reading and most of the words that they know, they teach themselves through reading through, through the context, through being able to sound out the words, try to identify them, figure out the words that they don't know. No. Um, and so, you know, that's why we need to, there's this kind of idea that.
But somehow just like focusing on the, the decoding skills and like helping kids read the words that that is some sort of lower level something and like we're cheating ropes. Right. Unless you know that stuff, you can't do the other stuff. So that's, it's, it's not rote. It's a found it's the, it's the foundation.
It's almost like, it feels like almost like discounting the alphabet, probably like we can't be just teaching kids the letters, you know, it's like, we'll try and survive a day without the alphabet. Right. Um, go ahead, David. Just counting how fascinating written languages, like it's really interesting. Like there are people who spend their lives studying this.
It's not like the alphabet is some, like, that's what kind of, one of the greatest inventions we had, we came up with. As human beings and the idea that, okay, we're going to kind of like expect that children mostly discover that stuff for themselves, rather than just being taught it by a knowledgeable teacher so that they can have that grounding and then go and do all the stuff that we want kids to be able to do, which is pick books, any book they want off the shelves and read it, discover things like, you know, like that's what we want, but kids are limited in their ability to get there.
If they don't have those, those. Basic skills and they're their foundational skills. They're fundamental skills. They're not bad. Well, their liberatory skills. I mean, I didn't have the best time in school. People notice who've listened to me for a long time. I didn't have a disastrous, um, K-12 education, but.
The one thing that I'm really happy about is that I took tiller to reading it opened doors. And there were times in which in, regardless of where I was sitting in my circumstances at home, I would be reading something and it would just sing for some reason, a language, which is saying James Baldwin, you know, um, at some point, um, in my teens, I started reading people that I would just really disagree with, but the writing was so good.
Um, I can't remember how old I was when I discovered like Georgia. Well, wow. This guy is crazy smart. You know, eventually I figured out it's not that he's smart. It's actually that he's super gifted, did with language and with the writing. And if I wasn't reading that, I wouldn't be able to get those deeper kind of connections out of life and opened like a ton of doors.
Um, I have a very tactical question from tonight. She said she liked to hear your thoughts on various, uh, reading. Leveling programs like step DIBELS, DRA, and F and P. Fontas and Pinellas. Yeah. Um, well, uh, let's see. Um, I don't know. It's not good for me, you know, I think, I think that this is an issue we need to look at in our schools, how we're assessing, how kids are doing in reading a lot of assessments that are based on this sort of big, broad idea that like, just figure out what level kids are on.
Um, I think a lot, a lot of the research shows they're really not precise enough to tell you what really might be going on if a kid is struggling. Um, and I think the leveling system, um, has a number of different problems with it, but from sort of the, the science chance of reading approach, I mean, a lot of these leveling systems, for example, reliant, as I've talked about in our reporting, Rely on kids at those lowest levels to be reading these sort of patterned books, which are really more about kind of learning words as holes and guessing words from the context and the pictures.
And they often have words in them that we wouldn't really expect a kindergartner to be able to read like, Hmm. You know, Caterpillar or octopus or butterfly or something like pretty long words, complex words, but kids are actually tested on sort of really their ability to know what that word is from the context, which shows that this is the assumption is that this is how reading skill develops that you get good at sort of.
Understanding the context. So I think those are, there's a lot of people who are, you know, think that that stuff is really problematic, especially at the early levels. And we know that a lot of kids get stuck at those early levels. I mean, I've had teachers talk to me about English language learners, for example, who like, you know, when you said, like you turn the page and say, this is the.
Butterfly, the kid doesn't know the word butterfly. He looks at the picture and they say the word in Spanish, or they don't, or they look at a rooster and they don't. And they say that, you know, here is the chicken and the teacher said, no, no, no, that's a rooster. There's another, the word rooster, you know?
Um, so kids can get kind of get stuck at these early levels. And they're not really, it's not really telling us that much about their reading skill. It's telling us about their ability to guess at words, which isn't, how reading skill. Develops when you're hitting me right in the gut right now, my favorite book to have read to all of my kids was the very hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle.
My favorite it's a staple of everybody's kind of life. And I think I liked it cause it was so easy to read to the kids. But I think also a part of it was because it had pictures that went along with the reading. So. Well, that's good. You shouldn't feel bad about that. That's a great book to be reading to kids.
Absolutely. It's just the question. It's really the question of what you're using for instruction and especially what you're using for assessment. So it's a different thing to read something, something like that to kids. That's a beautiful book. The pictures are wonderful. Pictures should 100% be there. Um, pictures can help kids get absorbed in the story.
Understand the meaning of the story. The question is, are you asking kids to rely on a picture to identify a specific word? Instead of sounding that word out and trying to figure out, like, what is that word? So what you'll hear from a lot of teachers where they're using assessment systems and instructional systems that are using those pattern books at the early grades, is that when these little kids who don't read very much yet are reading along and they come forward, they don't know, rather than looking at the word and sending it out, they look up, they look at the picture.
They look around the room to their SAP word wall, their star word wall, right. They look at the pick of the teacher, like help me rather than when you're actually trying to teach a child to read, which is different than being a father and reading a book at home and having fun with the kid. Right. And they're learning all kinds of things from that.
Um, and that's great, but if you're instructing a child, what you want when a kid comes to a word he, or she doesn't know is that kid to get hyperfocused on that word, sound that word out. Maybe they're gonna make a mistake. They come up with a pronunciation. That's not quite right. You can help them amend that for them.
The pictures are good for understanding, sort of what's going on in the story. Um, anyway, you just mentioned. And who learned English as a second language. So when you look at like Rosetta stone and Duolingo and these others, the way that they teach you, for instance, if you want to learn Spanish is with pictures and a word.
Right. They don't teach you how to like sound out words or they don't, they're not teaching you the letter values. They're showing you a picture and they're saying, you know, comi eat either a person eating, you know? Um, well, well, you have to understand when you're learning a second language, second alphabetic language, for example, as you already know the alphabet.
Right. Okay. So it's learning a second language is different than learning a first language, learning something like Spanish is actually quite different than learning something like English. Cause there's really one to one correspondence between letters and sounds too. Um, and when you're learning a second language, you're actually, um, so you already do know the alphabet and you already do.
No, a lot of things about the way that sounds work in, uh, in words generally. And you're starting to learn how that system works in the new language, but your primary thing when you're already a speaker and reader of one language and you're learning another one is the vocabulary you're actually trying to do what all these kids naturally do between the ages of zero and five, right.
Or there's just me learning the meaning of tons of words. And that's what you, when, when you're learning a second language, you've got. That's really the primary thing. You're like really working on the language, comprehension and dealing with the orthography part, the written part of it. You've actually got already got a lot of the stuff you need to do that part, start to know what the words now know how to say them.
You can start, especially with something like Spanish, it becomes very easy to learn how to spell those words. Like when we talk about, it's easier to learn a language when you're young, is it the same way with reading that? Like, if you don't, if you haven't like really picked it up, you know, like adults learning how to read better.
Is not going to work as well as a kid learning to read. Is it the same? We certainly know that there's a lot of research that learning all kinds of things works better when we're younger, right? Like our brains are just more open and able to do that. I think there's a, there's a lot of research that shows that a struggling reader can be taught and can improve in reading it any stage, but it does become harder.
The older you become, it becomes harder just at the top level of the task itself. But it, it also becomes harder to think about schools. Like when you say having a, a first grader who's struggling with reading is very different than having an eighth grader. Who's struggling with reading in terms of just the practical.
Situation like a first grader, who's struggling with reading. That's still the primary thing that's going on in first grade. So you start to, you know, put resources that, that kid get that kid extra help in eighth grade. There's no time in the day for learning how to read, but you're going to pull that kid from, you can pull that kid from science class you're going to, but you know, it's so much more complicated.
Plus eighth grade teachers aren't necessarily, you know, prepared to teach kids how to read unfortunately many first grade teachers. Aren't either. That's part of the problem. No, I want to get to, um, one last story that I know you'll have information for us on, but before I do that, I just want to quickly show this, which is not going to be a big surprise to you.
But this is like who doesn't really, I read books in America. That's kind of a breakdown of, you know, like the reading patterns, but look at this, you know, who doesn't read. Books in America. Yeah. Pretty sizable group of people. And I could see how this can create a cognitive elite. Right. Yeah. Um, and, and, and then, and some stratification across social economics across geography, across race.
I mean, like, I mean, one of the things, you know, rural, um, high school or less. Lower income. Um, men are reading a lot less. So if you're a city woman who earns more than 30 K and you have some college or more, yeah, yeah. So the question that I have is around like this, uh, well, the cognitively part is a good way to enter this last part that I wanted to ask you about, um, is just that in Minnesota, we love to Pat ourselves on the back that we're not the South.
Um, and we say things like. At least we're not Mississippi. That's kind of, we almost should have a tee shirt in Minnesota that says, at least we're not Mississippi. And when it comes to reading, maybe we would want to be Mississippi. Cause they kind of cleaned our clock recently in terms of growth with their students.
What happened in Mississippi? What's what's the story there. Well, I mean, no one knows for sure, to be able to do a cause and effect thing between rises and NAPE scores and something they're doing is a, you know, a tricky business, but, uh, you know, Mississippi, it also when you're already at the bottom, right?
Like it's usually we, we know in education, right. That you, that bringing up that sort of there's low hanging fruit and that can, um, You can, sometimes you can get some good bang for you with that. But I will say this, I mean, Mississippi is putting a lot of attention on this issue and they are really trying to teach their teachers about the scientific research.
And not only are they doing that, they're really trying to work in the schools of education. They're really trying to work among the instructors. They're actually teaching the science of reading to the instructors because they don't know what either. Um, and so, you know, that's an issue, it's really a multifaceted thing.
Like they're doing a lot of different things, policy wise with the, in terms of teacher preparation and knowledge. Um, and they're fairly small state, right? So when you, when you press on a lot of different points there they're really working together. They've had some laws at the state level, they've had some.
Big groups of people in higher education, who've gotten on board with this. Um, so they're, they're a possible model and will be really interesting to see what happens over the next few years. You know, I think what's happening to it right now with COVID and kids. Education is going to forever. Be this asterisk in, uh, you know what I mean?
Who knows how we're progress may get stalled big time. And we're going to see longterm consequences for lots of kids, all those kids who, um, who need to be taught, how to read and, and maybe weren't getting taught enough before, but now that they're not in school at all, uh, how are we going to make up for that?
What are we going to do about that? Didn't even ask you about that. COVID which, you know, could be a whole nother discussion that if everything that you just told me held true before COVID, uh, it makes during COVID look a lot worse to me, but, um, final question for you. If, if this was my issue, if I really cared about this and I wanted to take this up and be Valiant about it and say like, this is the thing that I think is the thing.
I'm going to stick on this. Is there a political play to this? Is there a policy play to this? Is there something that happens on high that it, you know, comes downstream and you have like trickled down change? Or is this really a slow burn? Bottom up only some people are going to get it. Well, you just brought up the system question of bottom up versus top down.
Right? I think, I think any all change, especially in education or whatever, it's like some dance between these two things. Right? Cause a lot of times top-down change. There's sort of this action reaction thing that goes on unintended consequences, blunt force, you know, doesn't really work, but then, you know, so bottom up is really important, but bottom up can be very unsustainable.
I mean, I hear from teachers all the time where like I'm the only one in my school. In my building. I'm the only one in my system who knows this stuff. I need help. I need different training. I do need different materials. So they sort of need help from the top too. So it's always just like kind of dance between the two things.
I mean, I don't know what I've come away with so far as a reporter, is that the most important element in all of this is teacher knowledge. So, so you can talk about the assessments and the curriculum and all that stuff is really important, but it's. I think when teachers really understand something about how kids learn to read, it allows them to see what's not right in the assessments that they're using, what else they need, what more they need to understand about their kids.
It helps them see, what's sort of wrong about some of the pattern books that they're using to teach kids how to read. Um, so I really think the teacher knowledge part is the most important. And so. Things that can come from the bottom up. And the top down that really focused on the teacher knowledge seemed to me to be the most, uh, have the most potential or, um, real change here because I think one other just quick element on this, I think all of this conversation about reading has sort of been, um, The, the conversation have sort of come off, come off as kind of like anti teacher, like when the, when the policy people or the research people are the technocrats, come in and talk about the science of reading.
It's sort of like teacher versus them. And I think what's really important to understand here is that there's lots of teachers who are. Do who know about this stuff and are advocating for it, her having their eyes opened to this stuff. And like I said earlier, teachers want to teach their kids how to read and they haven't been given what they need.
Um, and so, yeah, I don't think this is an anti teacher thing at all. If there are teachers all over the country who just are clamoring for this stuff, like they want this information. Now you're going to hit on one of my issues that I keep going back to, but there's a difference between teachers and the professional associations that claim to represent them and the political war chest that's assembled by the associations that are meant to, um, support teachers, um, are represent teachers oftentimes are on a very strong anti intellectual streak.
They are on a very like old school trade unionism streak, which is not good for the profession. And by that, I mean this, like if you find a battle in any state to lower the stakes of what it takes to become a teacher or to lower the testing of teachers or the Praxis or what it takes to become a teacher, or if you do anything that looks like it's making teachers learn more, do more, whatever.
The first group of people who are going to show up to battle you on that are not going to be teachers, but the representatives of teachers. The political representatives, teachers. I know that's not what you're here to talk about, but I just want to put that in, in the end that if there was a bottom up approach, it seems to me that unions, all these people that we said in the beginning should have lunch with each other, the social scientists, the colleges of ed, um, the teachers, even who I just said, teachers union representatives, because they have part of the bottom up part.
Like if they were all sitting at a common table and said, America is going to be a reading country, We are going to be a reading country. We're going to put aside all this other stuff about teacher evaluation and, you know, charters and whatever, all the like stuff that doesn't really touch much. And we're going to go for this one issue that we, none of us should disagree on that we should all read.
I think they can do a lot, um, you know, together, but we're not world right now. I will say that parents and teachers who want to learn some really good things about the basics of the science of reading can find a lot of it in the American Federation of teachers magazine over the years, their magazine has published some great stuff and I would.
Point people there. And there was a Louisa motes wrote an article. I think it was first came out in 1999 called um, teaching reading is rocket science and that was a big one and she just updated it this year. There's an updated version of that article and it's really full of references and citations and good explanations of a lot of the stuff that I've been talking about today.
And people will check it out. So what, and you guys should check it out and you should email them and ask them, when are you going to put on red meat? And store in the state Capitol saying DEMEC, we're gonna read, um, and have read Fred, be about reading. Um, then I'll will all that information will be fantastic.
Um, Emily, I'm so happy that you came on today. This has been like one of my most anticipated, um, talks to have you like always, uh, um, are breaking something that makes me think, you know, Or whatnot. I really appreciate this. Um, I can see the heat people watch and got a lot out of it and the comments look great.
Um, for everybody watching, you can find Emily. Um, we have put her Twitter handle going across the screen, um, for throughout the show. We've also put links in the comments too. Get to, um, Emily she's a senior correspondent at American public media. She's been a journalist for 25 years. For 12 years, she's been focusing on education and more recently she's been focusing on the science of reading.
Um, and if you Google her and you start looking at all of her stories, you will find a lot of twists and turns to go different directions. It's not just a single story. It's a story that keeps kind of blossoming and opening up new territory. So if you're intellectually curious at all, This is a great place to go.
I have a shirt that I'm not wearing today meant to wear it that says the revolution will be literate, which is my favorite thing to tell people like, um, I had an activist, a community activist years ago. Well, we were talking about education. He stunned me because he made something stunningly simple to me.
That's germane to this conversation. We were talking about Paul and race and racism and white supremacy and all these different things. And at some point he just said, Chris, if we could just get our kids reading and to read, um, a lot of everything else that we talk about, uh, wouldn't be as much of a problem.
I remember thinking to myself, well, that's kind of a weird thing to like, just pull out of thin air. And over time, it hit me like, um, the most elegant, simple things sometimes, really is the truth. And in this case, if you open up the word of letters are the worlds of letters and words for kids, you can make a lot of change in the world.
So, yeah. Yeah. Thank you for having me. Thank you so much for everybody you're watching. Uh, I appreciate you guys all watching it every day. Tomorrow is freedom Friday again. So we have another freedom Friday, but I will have a very big announcement on tomorrow show. I don't want to over tease it. But, um, I have an announcement that I'll make tomorrow on freedom Friday.
So I hope that you guys will join.