Four cheers for Emily Hanford

8 Replies

American Public Media journalist Emily Hanford has made some accessible, powerful and widely-discussed documentaries about the gap between reading science and classroom practice in the US. It’s a gap that also exists here in Australia, and elsewhere in the English-speaking world.

If you haven’t listened to her documentaries yet, please make the time to do so. You can click on the pictures below to access each one.

She started in September last year with this:

In October 2018, she followed up with this:

She also wrote a New York Times opinion piece entitled “Why are we still teaching reading the wrong way?”

My apologies to blog subscribers who missed these till now. I circulated them on social media but was too stupidly busy with my new office and sick mother to write a blog post about them.

In January this year, on National Public Radio, Emily made:

In March came this video interview called What Teachers Should Know About the Science of Reading:

Emily’s most recent, again brilliant contribution to aligning teaching with reading science in a pro-teacher, pro-equity way, is this:

I very dare you to get to the end of this documentary and not be gobsmacked by “Father of Whole Language” Ken Goodman’s extraordinary comment “My science is different”.

Goodman shows he is simply not interested in the mountain of scientific evidence contradicting his theory-and-observation-based ideas about how children learn to read, yet his ideas are still the basis of the “three-cueing system” approach to teaching reading that’s still widely used.

The game is up, the facts are out, and thanks to Emily Hanford and APM they’re in a free, accessible and easily digestible format. Please share them with every teacher, parent and other person who might be able to help get a more scientific understanding of how to teach reading into our education system.

I don’t enjoy having to spend a lot of my day undoing poor habits caused by well-meaning, hard-working teachers who were taught half-baked “my science is different” ideas at university and by “meaning-first” educational consultants. And I’m sure that (as the US Reading League people say) when teachers know better, they will do better, and so will their students.


8 responses to “Four cheers for Emily Hanford”

  1. Grade 4 Teacher says:

    Hi Alison.

    I listened to this podcast earlier this week and I too was left shaking my head (yet, not surprised) by Goodman’s remarks. As a primary school teacher, I know first hand how ingrained the 3 cueing system is in schools. Most teachers I know do their absolute best to help their children learn, yet they do not have the knowledge and/or skills to teach any other way. Even if a handful of teachers do have the passion, knowledge and skills to teach reading how it should be taught, they still need a whole-school buy in and approach to make a lasting difference.

    In my opinion, I believe the 3 cueing system remains for a mix of reasons, ranging from: leadership (all the way up to the Department of Education, which still promote aspects of this approach); unwillingness to change (perhaps due to the large sums of money spent by schools on programs like F&P); and faulty teacher education courses for new teachers (eg. Uni courses – shouldn’t they at least know better?). As a relatively new teacher (4yrs in the profession), I am saddened that I was never exposed to this knowledge and taught the skills needed to teach my students how to read effectively, earlier. I have had to invest considerable amounts of time to ‘learn this on my own’ over the last year, but I am so glad I did! I now feel like I can actually make a difference to my struggling readers, despite the fact that by Grade 4 they have so far to catch up and so many bad habits to undo.

    I am still confused as to why so many education bodies and departments continue to ignore the large body of scientific evidence (and the national reading reports from Scotland, England, USA and Australia) that all show the same thing – that synthetic phonics as a core ingredient in teaching children how to learn, and that 3 cueing is not. With the fantastic efforts of people like yourself, the message is spreading and I hope (for our students’ sake) that meaningful change happens in our school sooner rather than later.

    Keep up the great work and continue sharing articles like this.

    Grade 4 teacher

  2. alistair forge says:

    Gobsmacked!!!! He must be some kind of god to have his very own science. Kind of like having your own reality…

    As always, love your work Alison. They are some beautifully packaged background pieces that are easily digestible and will hopefully get many listens.

    The question of why so many bureaucrats and educrats and just plain old crazy cats keep keep ignoring the body of evidence around reading instruction is fascinating. I was giving someone outside of the education sector my spiel on this the other day, and he looked at me strangely, like I was spouting some sort of conspiracy theory BECAUSE what I was saying was counter to entrenched establishment ideas. Its hard for lay people to fathom just how wacky the situation is.

    • alison says:

      Hi Alistair, I agree! People look at you kind of weirdly and you can tell they’re thinking “that can’t be right”, and “something so fundamental, being done by well-intentioned people, can’t possibly be being done so poorly”. Also, many people I know are politically progressive, committed trade unionists etc, so when articles in the Australian, Kevin Donnelly, the Centre for Independent Studies and others with whom they (and I!!) typically disagree say we need more phonics in schools, they immediately assume it’s right-wing teacher-bashing rubbish, and it’s very hard to get past that and explain that teacher education about reading and spelling jumped the shark in the 1980s and is now mostly based on ideas that scientists have long shown are not correct. Sigh. Thanks for the feedback and let’s just keep on keeping on, eventually enough teachers will listen and get into the AEU and change their policy, and that’s when (I think) we will see real change for the better system-wide. Can’t wait! Putting myself out of business! Alison

  3. M A Barlow says:

    Your comment is awaiting moderation.
    Hi, firstly many thanks for these clips and articles. So much to know and something to recommend to all our newly qualified teachers to set them on the path of understanding why this issue is so important.
    There is a question of age…..I can’t seem to get a straight answer to this from SSP advocates because it may ‘undermine’ the principles of Early Childhood education.

    At what age can we begin explicit direct instruction? I personally begin SSP in my YR (Reception Class). The year group birthdays go from Sept to August with oldest being five in September all the way to Summer borns who have until Aug 31st to turn five.

    SSP is extremely successful with this age group IMHO. It sets them on the road to greater fluency and by the end of year 1 (the year following Reception) they are more than ready for their Phonics screening check.

    In the Uk however, there is a lot of debate surrounding DI and the teaching of phonics to children still inside the EYFS (Early Years Foundation Stage- Birth to Five). Developmental Psychology in particular stressing ‘readiness’. My experience is that they are more than ready if SSP is introduced slowly and in small chunks to start with. By the end of the year they are happily doing 20 -30 mins…..

    In an area of economic deprivation with children needing spoken language skills and a mixture of children including those who speak English as a second language, it seems to me that there is more urgency to start SSP not less. As biological secondary knowledge, it needs to be taught and knowing the code at least enables decoding….meaning can catch up later for those bilingual learners. That is- there is no reason to not teach them SSP.

    At what age would you recommend? I think it’s too important to leave until ‘Ready’.

    Thanks in advance for your advice.

    M A Barlow

    • alison says:

      Hi Marie, being a speech pathologist I work from sound to print, and am aware that many five and six-year-olds and even some older kids are still learning the full English consonant sound repertoire, which is a biologically primary skill, though it seems to me that many kids would never learn either /th/ if they didn’t have to deal with them in print, and these sounds would have long dropped out of the language if they hadn’t still been around in 1755 when Samuel Johnson put the anchor down on English spelling. So I incline to the view that we tend to teach reading and spelling a bit too early, and that it would be better to use that time to teach foreign languages to young children, since that’s when they have all the supercharged language-learning cognitive equipment, much of which is later repurposed (see for example

      • M A Barlow says:

        Thanks Alison, I will have a look at the link. What I believe is problematic is many of our children come to Reception aged 4 -5 and lack language, vocabulary and general Prime area skills. This shouldn’t mean that we delay the teaching of SSP however as by 6 they are doing the Screening check and by 6 -7 they are doing reading comprehension SATs. The gap is wide and if we delay it widens further.
        I am assured that children catch up….evidence does not back this up. The lowest 20% at 5 (not achieving a Good Level of Development GLD) at the end of foundation stage, these tend to be the same children who do not achieve in their SATs at 7 then 11 and further on at 16.
        There are no longitudinal studies where SSP is what is explicitly taught. They may say they teach phonics but where is the measure of the quality of what is explicitly taught at 4-5?
        Thanks for your time. I am aware that I may have to override my confirmation bias on this issue but am finding it difficult in spite of so called research. Fade out may be due to so called ‘balanced literacy’ taught early having diminishing returns by 7??

        • alison says:

          Hi Marie, I should have said that I agree that whatever age children start being taught about our writing system, it should be taught using systematic, explicit, synthetic phonics. The discussion about when to start is a bit hypothetical – children start school when they start school, and neither of us decide that. So in practical terms I think you’re spot on. Re longitudinal studies, I think the Clackmannanshire study is very persuasive:

  4. M A Barlow says:

    Many thanks, Alison. You’ve been really helpful.

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