To the Editor:
Re “OPINION: A call for rejecting the newest reading wars” (Nov. 18, 2022)
We are teachers who were sold the very story that journalist Emily Hanford describes in her new podcast: a myth about how students learn to crack the alphabetic code. So, we were disappointed to see the recent letter by 58 professors, authors and curriculum developers responding to Hanford’s work. Instead of taking the opportunity to adapt their message, materials and pedagogy in response to a strong body of evidence, synthesized by Hanford for a public audience, they offered an empty and disingenuous call to “reject the newest reading wars.”
But a central point of the “Sold a Story” podcast is that the research “wars” around foundational reading skills were already won and lost decades ago — and that few educators have ever heard of this research, because an entire industry of education publishers, coaches and curriculum writers have either ignored or actively resisted it, needlessly encumbering the efforts of thousands of teachers like us, our students, and their families along the way.
To those responsible, “Sold a Story” may feel like an attack. Yet Hanford’s work is better characterized as an investigation of the harms caused by one misguided literacy practice — three-cueing — and the curricula and leaders who continue to perpetuate it.
Decades of cognitive research overwhelmingly suggests that students taught to decode using systematic, explicit phonics outperform other methods, such as three-cueing. Three-cueing refers to a model of reading instruction in which learners are prompted to guess at words using pictures (meaning cues), letters (visual cues) or the context of the sentence (syntax cues) — also known as “using multiple sources of information” or “problem-solving,” all reading behaviors typified by struggling readers. Research also indicates that the three-cueing method disproportionately harms vulnerable students, including those with dyslexia and any student who can’t afford expensive private tutoring in decoding.
The recent letter did not mention the term three-cueing once, one of several ways in which the authors distort the facts and the stakes of “Sold a Story” and the broader movement toward research-aligned foundational skills instruction.
The letter makes a strawman of Hanford’s reporting, asserting that “it is irresponsible to reduce the teaching of reading to phonics instruction and nothing more.” Her work does no such thing, suggesting only that using evidence-aligned decoding instruction is low-hanging fruit, a necessary (albeit insufficient) step toward equitable access to meaningful, joyful reading.
The authors mischaracterize Hanford’s analysis of the three-cueing problem as a “fabricated phonics debate,” saying they all already know and agree that “systematic phonics is essential.” Yet Hanford produces mounds of evidence on the ways “balanced literacy” curricula like signatory Lucy Calkins’ “Units of Study” both shortchange and contradict alphabetic code instruction.
There’s nothing fabricated about this — as teachers, we have seen it with our own eyes. The signatories of the letter may not be aware of these issues because of their distance from the classroom (and in many cases, from reading research). But we hope they will listen when we say that the tools and guidance we were given were both insufficient and misleading. We were handed Fountas and Pinnell’s “Literacy Continuum” textbook in our grad school programs; we were given boxed sets of Calkins’ “Units” upon arrival in our first classrooms. And we relied on them, encouraging students to use pictures or first letters to decode words, sending them off for independent reading without us having taught them how. That isn’t because we were “naively inadequate” but because we were taught repeatedly to use these three-cueing based strategies by so-called experts, and because the phonics contained within those boxed sets was anything but systematic.
Finally, the letter hand-waves away Hanford’s critique by demanding “the rest of the story,” failing to recognize this kind of careful, deep-dive reporting on a specific aspect of teaching and learning as tribute to the complexity of our craft. It is a rarity for mainstream journalism to dig so extensively into a single slice of classroom practice; we are more accustomed to superficial drive-bys with analyses of NAEP scores and policy initiatives that stay far removed from the chalkface. But a focus on one aspect of instructional practice in no way discounts the importance of others, or of the structural inequities at play in our schools. Let’s have more in-depth reporting on other elements of literacy — on read-aloud of complex text, on language development and bilingual learning, on challenging the canon, on teaching poetry! — and on other issues, like school funding and diversifying teacher pipelines, that we know impact our students, too.
We, the undersigned, are teachers who do indeed “care deeply about doing the real work.” We care about equitable outcomes for our students, across all domains of literacy. We do not argue that Hanford’s work is perfect, nor that foundational skills instruction will be the silver bullet for educational (or even literacy) justice. But through our own collective efforts, we have learned from the research Hanford has amplified, changing the way we teach early reading and accelerating every student’s access to the alphabetic code and the wonders of literacy. We invite the 58 signatories of the recent letter — and the whole literacy community — to do the same.
More than 650 current and former teachers signed this letter, which was written by:
Bilingual intervention teacher, District of Columbia Public Schools
Grade 3-5 reading intervention teacher, WA
Former special education teacher in elementary and middle school, current administrator, New York City Department of Education
Literacy coach, Nystrom Elementary, West Contra Costa Unified School District, CA, and co-founder, Right to Read Project
High school teacher, Penn-Delco School District, PA
Grade 7-8 teacher, Ontario, Canada
Former 5th grade teacher, Gwinnett County Public Schools, GA
Co-state director, Decoding Dyslexia CA, former elementary teacher and literacy coach
Owner, Designed to Teach Tutoring Services, GA
Former elementary school teacher and reading specialist, NJ, current K-8 structured literacy dyslexia specialist, Netherlands
Kindergarten teacher, Ontario, Canada
Former Baltimore City Public Schools teacher and administrator
Executive director of multilingual services, Aldine Independent School District, TX
Kareem J. Weaver
Oakland NAACP education chair-elect, Oakland Unified School District 20-year teacher (4-5th grade, bilingual) and principal.
Maria Murray, Ph.D.
President and CEO, The Reading League
24-year veteran teacher, reading consultant and author, Know Better, Do Better
Kate Peeples, Ph.D.
Former special education teacher and current special education professor, Illinois State University
President and CEO of Neuhaus Education Center
(Disclosure: The Hechinger Report is an independent unit of Teachers College at Columbia University, where Calkins and several other signatories of the letter “A call for rejecting the newest reading wars” serve as professors.)