Let's Digress

Podcast Review: Sold a Story by Emily Hanford

I happened upon a new podcast last week. I heard about it while watching an interview between John Lovell and Liz Wheeler on his podcast that she had causally mentioned in their discussion.

The podcast is called “Sold a Story” by Emily Hanford. It’s a 6-part series that dives into how kids are taught to read in the public school system and many private schools.


The use of phonics has been the gold standard for learning how to read for pretty much forever. The process of learning what letters represent, what sounds they make, connecting those sounds into words, and sounding those words out into coherent meaning. But that isn’t what’s being taught in many schools, and disproportionately in minority areas, it seems.

What is being taught is from the mind of Marie Clay, who was the trailblazer behind the idea of throwing phonics out the window and teaching children to become readers by “three-cueing.” This method of learning ignores phonics altogether and instructs children to decipher unknown words by using context clues from the text or pictures, memorizing what words look like as a whole, or guessing what kind of word might make sense in that spot.

Two popular curricula are used to teach this method. One is “Units of Study for Teaching Reading” by Lucy Calkins and the other is “Leveled Literacy Intervention” by Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell.

Interestingly, there was a 2019 Education Week study that discovered “Leveled Literacy Intervention” was used by 43% of K-2 early reading and special education teachers, and “Units of Study” was used by 16%. Additionally, Hanford revealed that their publisher, Heinemann, has brought in over $233 million in the past decade just from the 100 largest school districts alone. Imagine how much more business they have across the remaining 13,000 smaller districts.

A combined 59% of the schools studied weren’t actually teaching phonics. According to Hanford, the use of phonics in the schools that use these curricula is actively discouraged. Instead, students are told to guess the meaning based on the greater context of what they’re reading, guess what it is based on pictures if pictures are provided, or memorize what a word looks like. None of those options result in understanding how to read or what’s being read and it’s been shown that this method of reading is how poor readers naturally read.

Aside from the problematic way of teaching how to read, it was incredibly political. When George W. Bush implemented No Child Left Behind in the early 2000s, which focused heavily on the science of reading and phonics, numerous school districts, teachers unions, and even more individual teachers outright refused to teach phonics and instead went with Calkins, Fountas, and Pinnell because phonics was by the big bad George W. Bush. In one of the many interviews during the podcast, a teacher flatly admitted to intentionally not teaching phonics, even though she knew it was a better method and better for kids, solely because she disliked that particular president.

These teaching methods are still active in the public and private school systems and like many other problematic things in the school systems, it didn’t come to light until kids were sent home during covid and parents were able to see firsthand what their kids were being taught—or not taught.

Hanford did an amazing job with this series. My only real quibble is that she assigned most of the blame to Clay, Calkins, Fountas, Pinnell, and their publisher, Heinemann. Don’t get me wrong, they certainly have a sizable amount of blame to shoulder, but I don’t think Hanford went far enough to point out fault. I think there’s a great deal of blame that should also be heaped onto the teacher’s unions, school boards, and the Department of Education.

It’s a terrible curriculum and has been proven time and time again to have adverse outcomes on kids. Yes, the creators should have to own up to their creations and the life struggles they have facilitated, but the teacher’s unions, school boards, and the Department of Education also need to answer why they are still intentionally teaching it in the first place.

I strongly dislike when I hear government officials, schools, and teachers refer to children and students as “their kids.” They’re not their kids. They’re my kids. Well, a couple of them are mine at least. One of the many reasons I know they’re mine is because good parents don’t intentionally set their children up for failure like the public and private school systems seem to do time and time again. This dumpster fire of curriculum is just another example of it.

It goes to show that at the end of the day, the responsibility of teaching children how to read still lies with their parents.

Questions? Comments? Concerns? Opinions? Comment below or shoot an email to Adam@LetsDigress.com!



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