Why Minnesotan kids lag in their reading level and what can be done to help

Hard to Read: How American Schools Fail Kids with Dyslexia
Teaching methods based on the idea of balanced literacy can actually make it harder for children to learn how to read. The podcast "Sold a Story" is 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.
Emily Hanford | APM Reports

One in three Minnesota fourth graders cannot read at a “basic” level for their grade, according to 2022 reading test results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

Reading scores dropped during the disrupted learning of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the number of kids who cannot read or read well has been growing for years.

The question is, why do so many children struggle?

In a new podcast, “Sold a Story: How Teaching Kids to Read Went So Wrong,” American Public Media reporter and producer Emily Hanford looks for answers. She digs into the idea about how children learn to read that is held sway in schools for more than a generation — even though it was proven wrong by cognitive scientists decades ago.

MPR News host Angela Davis spoke with Emily Hanford about how children are taught to read nowadays, why is the popular “balanced literacy” method failing students, how racial and income inequality impact kids learning abilities, and what are parents’ and teachers’ responses to the matter.

A photo of an author and the podcast for "Sold a Story"
Emily Hanford side by side with her educational podcast "Sold a Story"
Courtesy Photos

The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity. Click the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Why did you pursue investigating this issue and what has been the reaction from the public?

I don’t think that anyone is trying not to teach kids how to read. I don’t think this is deliberate. But it is very difficult for a parent to question it. I interviewed parents from all over the country and they knew their kids were struggling, but their schools were saying they were doing fine. There is a disconnect between what many parents see at home, and what is going on in school, and that is what I try to explain in the podcast.

I am hearing from a lot of people, especially parents and teachers. Some of them know that this has been going on for years and others seem to be shocked. Many teachers who just didn’t know what they really needed to know about how kids learn to read are now feeling remorseful and sad.

We are trying to reach the general public and help everyone understand that this issue affects you. Even if you do not currently have kids or grandkids in school. There are some adults who find it hard to read and have kept it as a secret for a lot of their life.

How are kids taught to read and what’s the best approach?

What I have found in my years of reporting is that the vast majority of elementary schools across the country describe the way they teach kids to read as “balanced literacy.” The foundational idea in a lot of reading instruction is that learning to read is a lot like learning to talk: if you immerse kids in literate environments, they will eventually figure it out. And that is not true.

Teachers know that they could teach sounding out the words but they choose to pick other strategies that might be easier for them. Because the truth is that sounding out written words in English is kind of difficult. And I think this idea that there are these other things they could teach kids to get the words just became very attractive. And what happens is that a lot of kids are not being taught how to read the words.

Why so many teachers in schools embrace the balance literacy strategy?

I think that they did not get the knowledge they needed when they were prepared to be teachers. What happens in teacher preparation programs is a foundational problem. We have a significant amount of evidence that teachers are not being taught what they need to know about reading and how it works and how to teach it to little kids.

The other thing that I identify and investigate in the podcast is the fact that there are some very popular materials, and brand name versions of balanced literacy, that schools are spending a lot of money on, and that are being sold by some people who have become really sort of gurus of literacy. Three authors, in particular, are Lucy Calkins, who is a professor at Teachers College, Columbia, and a couple of other professors, one named Irene Fountas, who teaches at Lesley University in Massachusetts and Gay Su Pinnell, who is a retired professor at Ohio State.

They started selling the balanced literacy approach very effectively back in the 90s and have really had a huge influence on how schools teach reading across the United States and in other parts of the world, too.

In your research, what did you learn from racial and income inequality?

What we saw in 2019, before the pandemic is that more than eight in ten black children in this country could not read at a basic level and now the situation is worse. Parents will go to school and say, something is not right here. And they would be blamed and told they did not read enough to their child at home. In many cases, we are blaming the families and saying they did not do enough without looking at the instruction itself. There is a very significant role for instruction and there is a lot of research that shows that if you teach kids how to read, most kids will be able to learn to do it pretty well.

Your stories

Susie from Plymouth

We live in a top-rated district here in Minnesota, our son was not identified as having a learning disability by our school, we paid for that through a private evaluation. And since then, our family has spent tens of thousands of dollars buying our way out of an illiteracy problem. And just my final statement is that it should not take the financial privilege to learn to read.

Stacy from Minnetonka

We have a child who is dyslexic, and for years, we chose to trust the school district. They told us that his extremely slow progress was adequate when it was not. He learned two new letters of the alphabet in one year and we were told that was appropriate. Unfortunately, we had to file for due process with a district to get evidence-based instruction for our son and it took a court order for that to happen.

David from St. Louis Park

The story goes back about 20 years ago, when my daughter was in second grade in a private school. We started noticing at home that she was not reading correctly. We went to the school but they said that she was reading fine. A year passes, she is in third grade now and the teacher tells me my daughter is not reading well. We were trying to tell the school there was something wrong and they were not listening.

Correction (Dec. 10, 2022): An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported how much caller Susie from Plymouth spent on remedying an illiteracy problem. The current version is correct.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.