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From podcasts to progress: How stories are reviving the science of reading

Learning Differences Programme / Partner story

Photo by: Evgeny Atamanenko on Shutterstock

In 2017, journalist Emily Hanford began investigating how children are taught to read. The stories that followed would spark a movement that is bringing the science of reading to schools across the US – and improving the life prospects of millions of children.

“Scientific research has shown how children learn to read and how they should be taught,” Emily says in a 2018 article, ‘Hard Words’. “But many educators don’t know the science and, in some cases, actively resist it. As a result, millions of kids are being set up to fail – people who struggle with reading are more likely to drop out of high school, to end up in the criminal justice system, and to live in poverty.”

Year-to-year, more than 60 per cent of American children in the fourth grade (ages 9–10) are not proficient readers. The problem was made worse by the disruption in education during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Emily set out to understand the statistics, investigating the approaches that could be causing them and the alternatives that give hope for change. Her conversations with students, parents, educators, and researchers all point to a scientific way forward.

During the 20th century, two competing theories for reading instruction emerged. The ‘whole language’ approach states that children learn to read intuitively, just like they learn to talk. If a child struggles with a word, they are encouraged to guess, based on cues from the word’s context – such as its first letter or a picture on the page.

However, the second approach, known as the “Science of Reading” encompasses five essential skills for successful reading. ‘Phonics’ is one of these components; it is when learners make a connection between the letters on the page and the sounds they represent. Children decode a word by sounding out each of its elements, enabling them to understand new words based on spelling and sound groups that they have already learned.

Research has found that understanding phonics helps all children become better readers. But it is especially important for children with learning differences such as dyslexia, who find it harder to understand how letters and sounds correlate.

Emily’s journalism has championed science-based reading instruction and challenged the establishments that still publish and promote whole language resources. Her stories have all been produced by American Public Media (APM), which distributes award-winning public radio programmes and podcasts, with the mission of amplifying voices to inform, include, and inspire.

Two other not-for-profit organisations have built on the momentum, to call for policy change that strengthens early reading instruction for students with learning differences. ExcelinEd provides comprehensive state policy solutions to ensure that students have the foundational reading skills needed to learn, graduate, and succeed. The Hunt Institute seeks to inspire and inform elected officials and policy makers about key issues in education, resulting in strategic action for greater educational outcomes and student success. It also leads the Path Forward initiative, which brings states together to align teacher preparation programmes and policies with the science of reading.

As a result of these organisations’ efforts (and others’) since 2019, 25 US states and the District of Columbia have passed laws requiring schools to follow research-based practices in reading instruction – and to follow approaches that are most important for students with dyslexia. New York City and nine additional states introduced similar policies in 2023. ExcelinEd tracks these developments on its Early Literacy Matters website.

In addition, in 2022, one of the most influential reading programmes in the country revised its curriculum to align more strongly with research-based practices. Most importantly, after falling behind significantly during the pandemic, the majority of students in grades K–3 (ages 5–9) nationwide are making significant progress to read on grade level—with Black and Hispanic students making the largest improvements.

Emily’s mission continues. Her October 2022 podcast series Sold a Story has been downloaded more than 3.5 million times. Its passionate arguments attracted praise in an opinion piece in the New York Times, and its impact is far-reaching. “School districts are dropping textbooks, state legislatures are going so far as to ban teaching methods, and everyone is talking about the science of reading,” a follow-up podcast observes.

The impact is not just felt at a state or policy level. Since the release of Sold a Story, APM has been inundated with messages from listeners who feel their challenges have been heard and recognised at last.

“I finally feel understood,” writes Jenny from New Jersey, whose son has struggled with reading and writing. “Hearing from the parents on your first episode made me feel seen and inspired to reteach my son.”

Oak is supporting American Public Media, ExcelinEd, and The Hunt Institute as part of our Learning Differences Programme (LDP). We believe that together we can build a world in which schools unlock the creativity and power of every young person and equip them to shape more just and equitable communities. We partner with and invest in not-for-profit organisations that improve education for all students, particularly those with learning differences who experience further marginalisation due to racism and poverty. For further context on early literacy, you can explore our study with Education First to research efforts to improve K-3 literacy, with special attention to students with learning differences. You can access the final report here. Read the full collection of APM’s reports on reading here.