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This podcast, Sold a Story, was produced by APM Reports and reprinted with permission.

There’s an idea about how children learn to read that’s held sway in schools for more than a generation – even though it was proven wrong by cognitive scientists decades ago. Teaching methods based on this idea can make it harder for children to learn how to read.

In this new American Public Media podcast, host Emily Hanford investigates the influential authors who promote this idea and the company that sells their work. It’s an exposé of how educators came to believe in something that isn’t true and are now reckoning with the consequences – children harmed, money wasted, an education system upended.

Reading Matters: See more Hechinger coverage of reading instruction

Episode 5: The Company

Teachers call books published by Heinemann their “bibles.” The company’s products are in schools all over the country. Some of those products are rooted in a debunked idea about how children learn to read. But they’ve made the company and some of its authors millions.

This podcast was produced by APM Reports and reprinted with permission.

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Letters to the Editor

7 Letters

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  1. We are educators who have devoted our lives to the cause of helping children read and write with power. We’re dismayed that at this moment in our history, when all of us should be banding together to support literacy education, the podcast “Sold a Story” fans divisiveness, creating a false sense that there is a war going on between those who believe in phonics and those who do not. Systematic phonics instruction is essential. That is a settled issue. And essential, too, is comprehension strategy instruction, knowledge building, vocabulary acquisition, language development, writing process, culturally responsive teaching, emotional well-being and attention to educational equity.

    The “Sold a Story” podcast takes the fabricated phonics debate a step further, attacking the integrity of a group of educators who have led pioneering research and helped advance our field.

    At a time when information spreads quickly and, sadly, too many important issues have become oversimplified and polarized, it is irresponsible to reduce the teaching of reading to phonics instruction and nothing more. To imply that other approaches are not just wrong, but money-making schemes, is reckless. Teachers and students will not benefit from biased storytelling and finger-pointing, especially when so much is at stake.

    You can believe in the critical importance of phonics and not agree with the incomplete story being sold in “Sold a Story,” which paints educators as naively inadequate, gives them a lot less credit than they deserve and diminishes their agency.

    We are asking for the rest of the story. The research that is being ignored, the stories of school districts and educators who have seen incredible success using comprehensive approaches to reading instruction that are conveniently left out of this narrative.

    And we are asking that those who truly care about doing the real work come together and move forward in a productive way that recognizes all the elements of effective reading instruction. Let’s stop wasting our time fighting with each other and focus on what matters most.

    Dr. Randy Bomer
    Dean, College of Education, University of North Texas

    Dr. Celia Oyler
    Vice dean for teacher education, Teachers College, Columbia University

    Dr. Laura Asceni-Moreno
    Professor of bilingual education & bilingual program coordinator, CBSE, Brooklyn College

    Katherine Bomer
    Professor of practice in the Department of Teacher Education and Administration, UNT

    Dr. Paul Thomas
    Professor of education, Furman University

    Dr. Timothy Rasinski
    Professor of literacy education, Kent State University

    Dr. Heidi Hayes Jacobs
    Founder and president, Curriculum Designers

    Mike Matthews
    President of Authentic Education

    Dr. Sam Bommarito
    National reading consultant

    Lois Bridges
    Executive director, Bring Me a Book

    Elisa Brown
    Principal, PS 249, winner, Blue Ribbon Schools Terrel H. Bell Award for Outstanding Leadership

    Sandy Brown
    Director of elementary curriculum, Denton ISD TX

    Christopher Paul Curtis
    Winner of the Newbery Medal, the Coretta Scott King Award and a National Book Award Finalist

    Georgia Heard
    Poet and author of “Awakening the Heart,” “The Revision Toolbox” and “Falling Down the Page”

    Carmen Agra Deedy
    New York Times bestselling children’s book author

    James Howe
    Award-winning author of books for children and young adults

    Sarah Weeks
    Author of the bestselling novels “Pie,” “Save Me a Seat” and “So B. It”

    Naomi Shihab Nye
    National Book Critics Circle Lifetime Achievement Award and Pushcart Award winner, chancellor emeritus, Academy of American Poets, the Poetry Foundation’s Young People’s Poet Laureate from 2019–21

    Dr. Harvey “Smokey” Daniels
    Author of “The Curious Classroom,” “Upstanders” and “Literature Circles”

    Dr. Cecilia Espinosa
    Associate professor, Early Childhood Graduate Program, Lehman College

    Michael Fisher
    The Digigogy Collaborative, and Curriculum21 Faculty

    Phil Daro
    Educational designer

    Prof. Lynne Einbender
    Bank Street College of Education faculty

    Dr. Lucy Calkins
    Richard Robinson Professor of Literacy at Teachers College, Columbia University; founding director of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project

    Leslie Zackman
    Retired superintendent, New York City

    Carl Anderson
    Educational consultant, author of “A Teacher’s Guide to Writing Conferences” and “How’s It Going? A Practical Guide to Conferring with Student Writers”

    Dr. Rachael Gabriel
    Professor of literacy education at the University of Connecticut

    Ellin Keene
    Author of “The Literacy Studio,” “Engaging Children” and “The Teacher You Want to Be”

    Ruth Swinney
    Educational consultant and author

    Dr. Daniel Friedrich
    Associate professor of curriculum, Teachers College, Columbia University

    Dr. Ofelia García
    Professor, Ph.D. program in urban education, and Ph.D. program in Hispanic and Luso-Brazilian literatures and languages, City University of New York

    Dr. Patricia Velasco
    Associate professor of bilingual education, Queens College, CUNY

    Dr. María Paula Ghiso
    Associate professor, Teachers College, Columbia University

    Dr. Cecelia Traugh
    Dean, Bank Street Graduate School of Education

    Dr. Phyllis Harrington
    Superintendent, Oceanside Union Free SD

    Dr. Kara Hollins
    Lecturer, preservice elementary inclusive program in the Department of Curriculum and Teaching at Teachers College, Columbia University

    Dr. Mary Howard
    Expert in literacy, author of “Good to Great Teaching,” “RTI from All Sides” and “Moving Forward with RTI”

    Bena Kallick
    Co-Director, The Institute for Habits of Mind

    Penny Kittle
    Teacher, author, advocate

    Laura Kotch
    Retired NYC deputy chancellor

    Jonathan Kozol
    Author, National Book Award winner

    Dr. Heidi Mills
    Distinguished professor emerita at the University of South Carolina, educational consultant

    Dr. Cara Furman
    Associate professor of literacy education, University of Maine–Farmington

    Dr. Douglas Reeves
    Author and founder of Creative Leadership Solutions

    Donna Santman
    Education consultant, author of “Shades of Meaning”

    Maurice Sykes
    Author, former executive director of the Early Childhood Leadership institute at the University of the District of Columbia

    Dr. Dick Allington
    Professor emeritus, reading education, University of Tennessee

    Dr. Amy Tondreau
    Assistant professor, elementary education, University of Maryland

    Dr. Mary Ehrenworth
    Senior deputy director, Teachers College Reading and Writing Project

    Marc Tucker
    Founder and CEO emeritus of the National Center on Education and the Economy

    Patricia Vitale-Reilly
    Educational consultant, author

    Prof. Molly Welsh Kruger
    Bank Street College of Education faculty, Reading & Literacy Program

    Dr. Marjorie Siegel
    Professor emerita, Teachers College, Columbia University

    Anita Silvey
    Author of “Children’s Books and Their Creators” and “100 Best Books for Children”

    Dr. Kylene Beers
    Author of “When Kids Can’t Read/What Teachers Can Do;” co-editor of “Adolescent Literacy: Turning Promise into Practice”

    Dr. Connie Briggs
    Professor emeritus, Texas Woman’s University

    Dr. Erika Dawes
    Professor, chair of Language and Literacy Department, Lesley University

    Dr. Mary K. Lose
    Professor, Department of Reading and Language Arts, and director of the Reading Recovery Center of Michigan at Oakland University

  2. Thank you, Randy, for speaking up for us, the hundreds of other Heinemann authors and school leaders who have been working to advance kids’ learning for decades. The Science of Reading people have smeared and belittled our work in their militant quest for, what? Revenge?

  3. Sold a Story does not say that schools should “reduce the teaching of reading to phonics instruction and nothing more.” The podcast says that decades of scientific research have shown that methods that rely on the cueing theory make it harder for some children to learn to read. We stand by our reporting.

    Catherine Winter
    Senior Editor
    APM Reports

  4. SOR does NOT predicate phonics only. What SOR does is RESTORE the role of phonics as one of the 5 pillars or early (and beyond) literacy to their essential role within literacy instruction as presented in Scarborough’s Rope: the lower strand (phonemic awareness, phonics, automaticity, and fluency) and upper strand (background knowledge, vocabulary, language structures, verbal reasoning, literary knowledge) have to be addressed in order for students to become successful readers.
    Those of us that push for restoring a SOR-based approach to literacy aren’t the ones that spent the last FOURTY YEARS predicating on the primacy of guessing and memorising as the SOLE skills needed to learn how to read.

  5. To Randy Bomer and Harvey Daniels, if you really want your hard work to matter, you’ll open your minds. The method you’re using is clearly flawed. Rudolf Flesch wrote a whole book about it in 1955 and, although the methods have changed, it’s clear that these methods are still being used today. We owe it to young students and honestly, to everyone who has ever been taught or will be taught to read, to take more time and thought to listen to Emily Hanford and so many others. There really is a literacy war, and it’s because too many minds are closed to the very real problems in the teaching of reading in America.

  6. Some characteristics of bad science:
    1. There is nothing more to be learned. All relevant questions are settled.
    2. A low bar for reaching certainty.
    3. Seeking simple, clear, narrow, answers to complex phenomena.
    4. Makes no room for equivocation, nuance, special circumstances, “ands, ors, or buts,” etc.
    5. Ignoring or dismissing any research that calls established conclusions into question.
    6. Critiquing the fallibility of others’ work rather than arguing one’s case dispassionately with evidence.
    7. Cherry-picking evidence and spinning results to support a preferred conclusion.
    8. Demonizing experts who disagree or come to different conclusions.
    9. Promoting conspiracy theories.
    10. Appeals to “common sense.”
    11. Promotional subjectivity (preacher/prosecutor/politician) rather than skeptical objectivity (scientist).
    12. Conflating basic and applied research.
    13. Seeking binaries rather than conditionals or continua.
    14. Bolstering ones research/conclusions by creating crises or exaggerating problems.

    Where does the “bad science” shoe best fit?

  7. Sold a Story never said that schools should “reduce the teaching of reading to phonics instruction”; that statement is a straw man. By saying that, the groups that failed to utilize the over 50 years of research evidence, exacerbate the very war they are saying should be avoided. Emily Hanford’s reporting simply reported clearly documented evidence that by using the cueing system approach, programs were making it difficult for children to learn a critical component of learning to read (word recognition) which is necessary but not not sufficient. Hanford, as good investigative reporters must do, shined a light on the publishers and others whose misinformation resulted in damage to children and also confused the noble educators who have always wanted to teach their students to read.

    Linda Diamond
    Co-author “Teaching Reading Sourcebook”

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