The education professors double down on a flawed approach that encourages pictures and context to read words. Heinemann — their publisher — faces harsh criticism.
Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell, two of the biggest names in literacy education, are breaking their silence in the debate over how best to teach kids to read, responding to criticism that their ideas don’t align with reading science.
Fountas, a professor at Lesley University in Massachusetts, and Pinnell, professor emeritus at Ohio State, are authors of some of the most widely used instructional materials in American elementary schools, and their approach to teaching reading has held sway for decades. But at the core of their approach is a theory about how people read words that has been disproven by cognitive scientists.
A 2019 podcast episode and story by APM Reports helped bring the discrepancy to wide public attention. Since then, Lucy Calkins of Teachers College Columbia, whose work relies on the disproven theory, has admitted she was wrong. But Fountas and Pinnell had remained largely silent until earlier this month, when they released a series of blog posts to address the controversy.
The 10-part series, posted on the website of their publisher, Heinemann, was billed as an effort to “offer clarity around mischaracterizations of our work.”
At the center of the controversy are teaching techniques that encourage children to use context, pictures and sentence structure, along with letters, to identify words. Fountas and Pinnell reiterated their allegiance to this approach in their blog. “The goal for the reader is accuracy using all sources of information simultaneously,” they wrote. “If a reader says ‘pony’ for ‘horse’ because of information from the pictures, that tells the teacher that the reader is using meaning information from the pictures, as well as the structure of the language, but is neglecting to use the visual information of the print. His response is partially correct, but the teacher needs to guide him to stop and work for accuracy.”
Mark Seidenberg, a cognitive scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who studies reading and language development, said this statement doesn’t square with what decades of scientific research has shown about how reading works. “If a child is reading ‘pony’ as ‘horse,’ these children haven’t been taught to read. And they’re already being given strategies for dealing with their failures. This is backwards. If the child were actually given better instruction in how to read the words, then it would obviate the need for using all these different kinds of strategies.”
Seidenberg said the blog posts offered nothing new. “They clarified for me that they haven’t changed at all. They illustrate they still don’t get it and that they’re still part of the problem. These folks just haven’t really benefitted much from the ongoing discussion about what are the best ways to teach kids to read so that the most kids succeed.”
Wiley Blevins, a reading specialist who has written numerous books about teaching phonics, compared Fountas and Pinnell to having their feet stuck in concrete. “I find that the best researchers, the best teachers, the best minds in education are people who are always looking and growing, who always admit that they don’t know everything. And I’m not seeing that from them,” he said. “They’re really fighting to stay cemented in what they’ve been doing for decades and ignoring new information that we have. And that’s dangerous.”
Parents and teachers have been responding to the blog posts on social media, and the discussion has been heated. Fountas, Pinnell and Heinemann apologized for a comment made by their consultant in one contentious Facebook thread. The consultant wrote that “it’s very sad that we’ve turned the entire education system upside down for 20% of the kids,” presumably referring to children with reading disabilities who tend to fare the worst when teachers prompt kids to use the strategies promoted by Fountas and Pinnell.
Seidenberg said many children, not just students with reading disabilities, are harmed when they are taught these strategies. “There’s no question that it’s making it harder for children to succeed. You get reports of children who finally do succeed at reading with this kind of one-hand-tied-behind-your back sort of approach but hate it because it was really onerous.”
Missy Purcell, a former teacher in Georgia, started using Fountas and Pinnell’s books and materials in the late 1990s. “I was a raging fan girl,” she said. It wasn’t until her own child struggled to learn to read that she questioned what she’d learned from Fountas and Pinnell. She was hopeful when the blog series began. “I thought, ‘This will be an opportunity for these people who led me astray to make this right,’” she said. “I have been sorely disappointed.”
A week after the first blog post was released, Fountas and Pinnell’s signature set of curriculum materials, Fountas & Pinnell Classroom, received a failing rating from EdReports, an influential nonprofit that reviews K-12 instructional materials. The review followed an even more negative evaluation last month of Units of Study, curriculum materials from the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project headed by Calkins, whose work on early reading instruction was influenced by Pinnell. Both reviews focused on shortcomings in how the programs teach foundational reading skills. The programs received the lowest ratings EdReports has given for K-2 curriculum in English/Language Arts. In a response to the review, Heinemann said the EdReports’ approach to evaluating curriculum was not a “great fit” for their authors’ materials.
“If you're a parent concerned about literacy, you should be asking your superintendent, your principal, your board members, ‘Why are we using a program that got the lowest possible rating?’” said Todd Collins, who serves on the school board in Palo Alto, California. His district has long used Fountas and Pinnell and Calkins materials, but — prompted by the national conversation about the science of reading — is adopting a new curriculum.
APM Reports contacted more than two dozen school districts that use Fountas & Pinnell Classroom. Only four administrators agreed to comment. They all said they would continue to use the program despite the negative review. Michael Laub, superintendent in the North Royalton City School District in Ohio, said the curriculum is a good fit in a district like his where students seem to be learning foundational skills at home from their parents. He added that his district uses a phonics program from another vendor because of “weaknesses” in the Fountas and Pinnell materials.
Fountas and Pinnell have declined multiple interview requests from APM Reports since 2019. Neither responded to requests sent earlier this month.
APM Reports also sent an interview request to a Heinemann representative, including a question about why two of their other leading authors, Calkins and Jennifer Serravallo, have admitted mistakes but Fountas and Pinnell have not. The representative responded with a statement on behalf of Vicki Boyd, the publisher’s executive vice president and general manager.
“We are thoughtful about how best to translate research into classroom practice and support teachers in their craft,” the statement said. “Heinemann employees are passionate about this work; many of us are parents, and some of us have been educators ourselves. A focus on children and on a child-centered approach to education is what moves us forward. We are committed to remaining in a learning stance.”
Heinemann deserves more scrutiny, said Michael Paff, a psychologist in New York who evaluates students struggling to learn to read. “Is there anybody at Heinemann checking these people? Is anybody editing for scientific fact? Because if so, a lot of their work wouldn’t make it out of the publishing house.”
Paff read the Fountas and Pinnell blog posts and was disappointed. “Maybe they really don’t understand reading. But that’s not an excuse. Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell can log on at any moment, and they could pull up any article in the entire world. They have no excuse.”
Chole Marie Rivera contributed reporting to this story.