At least 18 states are considering new laws after Sold a Story, but there is pushback.
For decades, schools all over the country taught reading based on a theory cognitive scientists had debunked by the 1990s. Despite research showing it made it harder for some kids to learn, the concept was widely accepted by most educators — until recent reporting by APM Reports.
Now, state legislators and other policymakers are trying to change reading instruction, requiring it to align with cognitive science research about how children learn to read. Several of them say they were motivated by APM’s Sold a Story podcast.
Six states passed laws to change the way reading is taught since Sold a Story was released last fall. At least a dozen other states are considering similar efforts.
The surge in activity is part of a wave of “science of reading” bills that more than half the states passed into law over the last decade — as parents, teachers, researchers and other advocates pushed legislators to make changes. But since Sold a Story, lawmakers are taking a closer look at what curriculum schools are buying and, in some states, attempting to outlaw specific teaching methods.
Three states had already effectively banned cueing, the discredited practice covered in Sold a Story. The cueing theory holds that beginning readers don’t need to learn how to sound out written words because they can rely on other “cues” to figure them out, like the pictures on a page or the context of the sentence. This year another 10 states are seeking bans, three of which have already passed.
The legislative efforts come at a time when fourth-grade reading scores in the United States have declined consistently since 2015, according to a nationwide achievement measurement conducted by the National Center for Educational Statistics.
Many parents know the struggle firsthand. Aaron Freeman grappled with why his sons were struggling to learn how to read. His youngest son, Cooper, said he felt like he was “running in the dark,” directionless and alone when he opened a book. When the Freeman family listened to the Sold a Story podcast last year, Aaron Freeman was left feeling heartbroken and enraged.
But unlike others who felt helpless to do anything, Freeman had the power to make changes because he’s a member of Indiana’s state senate. When the legislature reconvened in January, Freeman, a Republican from Indianapolis, introduced legislation to ban cueing. His bill was rolled into a broader education package that recently became law. It requires the state to publish a list of recommended curricula, compels schools to adopt programs based on the “science of reading” and disclose what they select online. It also adds extra training requirements for future educators.
But there is pushback.
Lucy Calkins, one of the authors at the center of Sold a Story, warned that some states are going too far with curricular mandates.
During a speech in March to her training organization, Calkins said that the “science of reading” has been a vehicle for the “big commercial reading programs” to sell their materials to schools. She said it’s a “threat to teachers as professionals.”
Calkins, a professor at Teachers College at Columbia University who is viewed as an influential literacy expert, previously endorsed the discredited cueing theory. She has since distanced herself from it, and recently removed practices associated with cueing from her reading curriculum.
Calkins and her publisher, Heinemann, have a financial interest in the debate. If a state rejects a reading program from its list of approved curricula, millions of dollars in sales could be at stake.
In a statement released late last year, Heinemann characterized the podcast as “promoting false and divisive claims” and said it “radically oversimplifies and misrepresents complex literacy issues.”
But many state lawmakers have disregarded the publisher’s criticism and are continuing to push changes to reading instruction.
A ‘reading reset’
Both Democrats and Republicans have been pushing efforts to base instruction on the science of reading.
For example, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, wants to spend more than $160 million over the next two years to implement the science of reading statewide. The money would buy new curricula, train educators and hire 100 literacy coaches. California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, wants to put billions into reading improvements, which includes money to create a “literacy roadmap” that will help districts choose “evidence-based literacy instruction.”
Bills in at least nine states — Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Ohio, Oregon, Texas and West Virginia — have been sponsored by members of both parties.
Indiana and West Virginia have been the most forceful in their overhaul of reading instruction. Both states now require schools to use curricula grounded in scientifically based reading research. And they prohibit schools from teaching based on the cueing model.
Among the 18 states considering “science of reading” bills this year, 10 are seeking to ban instruction based on cueing. They follow three states that put prohibitions in place prior to this year: Arkansas and Louisiana, which passed cueing bans legislatively, and Virginia, which rejected cueing-based programs administratively.
Despite criticism that cueing effectively trains children to guess at words, it’s still widely taught in American classrooms.
In Minnesota, state Sen. Zach Duckworth said he’s perplexed as to why educators have shifted away from teaching students to sound out words. He said Sold a Story spurred him to introduce a cueing ban. Calling the podcast “eye-opening,” the Republican said it showed that educators deemphasized phonics instruction.
“When I say to people, ‘We need to teach our kids to sound out words,’ they look at me like, ‘Well, of course, isn’t that what we're doing?’” Duckworth said on a recent Minnesota legislative broadcast. “The thought was much like how kids learn to talk: If we simply immerse them in words and books, they’ll pick it up naturally. The science of reading has shown it doesn’t work that way.”
Duckworth’s two bills would create a “reading reset” fund for schools to overhaul their instruction. Both chambers of Minnesota’s legislature passed a bill budgeting nearly $70 million for a similar purpose.
Several states are also attempting to cut support for Reading Recovery, a controversial intervention program based on cueing that has received millions of dollars from state governments since the 1990s. For example, Kentucky diverted money from a training center for Reading Recovery teachers to a new research center.
Some local school leaders are also overhauling reading instruction without any prompting from state lawmakers. New York City; Santa Barbara, California; Katy, Texas; Evanston and Skokie, Illinois; and Loudoun County, Virginia, are all planning to phase out programs that had been based on the cueing model.
School superintendent: Packaged reading programs ‘not teaching’
But other educators are working to slow down efforts to overhaul reading instruction. They’re worried requiring a certain type of teaching will limit lesson planning. They argue teachers should decide what approach works best.
“There’s no need for the heavy hand of the state government to single out any specific instructional practices,” said Scott DiMauro, the president of the Ohio Education Association.
DiMauro and the leader of another Ohio-based teachers union spoke out against a proposal that would ban cueing. The Ohio House of Representatives passed the proposal; the Senate has yet to take action.
Others are pushing back in states that passed laws in prior years, requiring teachers’ pre-service training or classroom instruction to follow established scientific research.
In Connecticut, more than half the state’s school superintendents are seeking waivers to be excluded from the state’s new reading requirement. Several testified at a recent legislative hearing that their current approach is working for most students and they don’t want to pay for a “canned, one-size-fits-all” curricula.
“A packaged program will likely come with teachers’ manuals, and the ones I’ve experienced really encourages reading from the book. And that is not teaching,” said Anna Cutaia, the superintendent in Milford. “A teacher’s manual is not building teacher capacity. It’s just actually ensuring one type of instruction for all children.”
Many of the superintendents seeking waivers want to use a reading program authored by Calkins. Her program did not make Connecticut’s approved list, even after she revised it to better align with scientific research on reading. Calkins has supported the superintendents’ efforts.
“Imagine in this country — with local control of education — that states are passing laws, brushing all that aside, for expensive commercial reading programs,” Calkins said during the March speech. “And as far as I can see, the only data behind those commercial reading programs is, at best, data showing that the programs can get kids reading nonsense words and lists of words in isolation faster. So of course, there’s been an uproar, with people saying no.”
Heinemann released updated versions of some of its best-selling materials, including Calkins’ reading curriculum, and says it’s planning to incorporate more phonics into other programs. In October, the company issued a statement saying its goal was “marrying the best scientific research and evidence-based instructional approaches with the expertise of classroom-based knowledge from our authors.”
Mark Seidenberg, a cognitive scientist who recently retired from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said educational publishers have been aiming to serve their customers, rather than follow the science. At a legislative hearing in Wisconsin, he said many publishers included all kinds of strategies for teaching reading, including ineffective ones, so that their materials “wouldn’t offend people.”
But Seidenberg also warned that efforts to overhaul reading instruction might be getting ahead of the marketplace. School districts looking for an alternative curriculum don’t have a wide selection of research-backed programs to choose from, he said. He also said the comprehensive programs recommended by many states usually include far too much information. That means teachers are burdened with figuring out what’s important.
“The problem is we need new materials,” Seidenberg said. “None of them are really great.”
Seidenberg told Wisconsin lawmakers that bills to align reading instruction with research findings were really “kind of the last resort” following “several decades of resistance from the education establishment” — including education schools where future teachers are trained. “One would’ve liked it to have emerged from within” the teaching profession, he said, but “that hasn’t happened.”
Additional reporting by Emily Hanford and Eliza Billingham.