Editor's Note: Over the last few months, we have interviewed a number of brilliant reading researchers, teachers, and literacy advocates across the country as a part of A Novel Idea, our new podcast series about the science of reading. This is one in a series of Q&A blog posts containing exclusive thoughts that did not make it into the podcast from some of the literacy education field’s most impactful and insightful people.
Emily Hanford is a senior producer and correspondent covering education for American Public Media’s APM Reports. Hanford is well known for her series of investigative audio programs on issues of literacy instruction, including her 2019 feature “Hard Words” and her 2022 podcast series Sold a Story. Her work has earned her numerous honors, including AERA's 2017 Excellence in Media Reporting on Education Research Award, a duPont-Columbia University Award, a Casey Medal, recognition from the Educational Writers Association, and a 2022 Peabody Award nomination.
Iowa Reading Research Center (IRRC): Tell Me A Little Bit About Who You Are and What You Do.
Emily Hanford: I have been a full-time education reporter since 2008. At the same time, I was also making long-form audio documentaries, which has a lot to do with how I ended up doing what I'm doing now. [This was] right around when podcasting was started, maybe right before.
I would do two or three topics in a year, and I could cover anything really in education. I was particularly interested in education research and how the findings from research make their way into practice. I'm also really interested in how people learn and how education can promote opportunity, so a lot of the reporting that I did was focused on the older end of the spectrum—preparation for higher education and persistence through college. The very first project I did for American Public Media in 2008 was about preschool, and then I really didn't do very much about [early education] at all until I started getting interested in how people learn to read, and in reading disabilities in particular, which is where it all started. That was about five years ago. And then at this point, I [am] reporting pretty much entirely on reading—how it works, how people learn to do it, how it's taught, and the fact that there is a big disconnect between the two.
IRRC: What Was It About Early Literacy Education that Caught Your Attention?
Emily Hanford: I was doing this reporting on college students and the really large number of students who end up in “remedial” classes, particularly at community colleges, but [also] at four-year public and private colleges all over this country. There's a particularly high percentage of people who go to college thinking or being told they're ready by virtue of having gotten a high school diploma. And I was interviewing students who were ending up in these remedial reading and writing classes, and some of them really struggled with basic reading skills. So I started getting interested in that, and I started thinking that one of the things that might be going on was that there were people with reading disabilities who weren't getting identified in school and weren't getting the help they needed. They were ending up in college, and no one had really identified that they needed better instruction than they already had.
So I got really interested in dyslexia. I had never really thought about it before. I didn't know anyone with dyslexia… or at least I didn’t know that I knew anyone with it. Because everyone knows someone with dyslexia, you just might not know it. And then I started to connect some dots. Kids with dyslexia aren't getting the help they need in school, and that's a problem in and of itself. But there's something bigger going on, which is that a lot of kids aren’t being taught how to read in school. And some kids are fine. Either they are okay without [that instruction], or they get what they need at home, either through direct instruction from their parents, or from their parents’ checkbooks [when their parents] hire tutors, or other kinds of things. The canaries in the coal mine here are the kids with dyslexia. They're the ones that are most harmed, the most at-risk, when kids aren't taught how to read. But in fact, lots of kids are in trouble when schools aren't teaching them what they need to know, and that is a big equity issue.
So that got me on this whole thing that I've been on now for years: How does reading work? How do our brains learn how to do that? Why do some people learn more easily than others? Why do some people struggle so much? What is going on there? What do kids need to learn? There's a mantra in schools that I think gets in our way here, which is “every child learns differently.” And that's not really true. I'm not denying that every child is a unique individual, and that children have different needs. But our brains are actually much more similar than they are different. And when it comes to reading, we all need to learn the same things.
So [my interests] went from college to dyslexia to core instruction to digging even deeper into core instruction. And the thing that's kept me going for a few years now is [that] many teachers don't know what they need to know about how to teach kids to read. And in fact, often they have learned an idea about reading that isn't right. They learn it when they're in college or their teacher preparation program. They learn it in professional development on the job. They learn it from the materials they get, either a curriculum they're given by the district, or some amalgamation of things—little bits and pieces from the teacher down the hall, from Google, Teachers Pay Teachers. There's actually this idea about reading and how it works—it's kind of in the water. And the idea is that little kids, when they're learning how to read, don't have to sound out the written words, because there are lots of other things they can do to figure out the words and make their way through the text. And it turns out that it's really not a good idea, because some kids are sticking with those strategies and not being taught what they need to know to sound out words. And it turns out that [sounding out words] is really the most effective, efficient way to become a good, proficient reader.
IRRC: Why Has the Push for Evidence-Based Instruction Gained So Much Traction Recently?
Emily Hanford: First off, I think that there's been a problem [with the way some students are taught to read] for a long time that's been kind of hiding in plain sight. A lot of parents have gotten active and motivated and organized about this over the past decade or so, particularly the parents of the kids who struggle the most, the kids with dyslexia. That advocacy has been enabled by the fact that there's a huge amount of research on this. We actually know a lot about reading and how it works. And then there are a number of people in schools who have been like, “we got a problem over here.” A lot of times those are people in special ed., because they see the kids who are needing the interventions and extra services, but there’s been some general education teachers, too, who feel like they’ve been kind of crying into the wind.
And then social media and journalism, including mine and many other people’s, have come along and connected some of the dots on all of this. So a lot of people are either seeing something they didn't see before, or they're seeing their story. They're like, “Oh yeah, that's it, that’s me.” Parents and kids and teachers are seeing themselves in these stories.
The shocking thing is, we should have known this was a problem, we should have been acknowledging this a while ago. Human knowledge has accrued to such that we should have been able to call this problem out, and it has been called out at various points. It just hasn’t been reckoned with. And now it is being reckoned with, I think, and I'm really interested to see how the story ends.
IRRC: What Advice Would You Give to Educators Who Are Just Beginning to Learn About the Science of Reading?
Emily Hanford: First of all, thank goodness for teachers. Really. This is hard. A lot of teachers are listening to a podcast or reading an article over the weekend, and then on Monday they have 25 six-year-olds that they have to teach, and that is hard. So I guess what I would say is: stay open. You’re on the right path. Find the other people who are in the same position you're in, and then find the people who are a little bit ahead of you. Find some teachers who've been through this; find the people who were in your situation a couple of years ago and can tell you, “Here’s what I did. Here's what worked. Here's what didn't work. Here's who I talked to. Here's what I read.”
And speak up. You know, the theme in my emails from teachers for years was fear: fear of speaking up, fear of doing anything differently. [Teachers were] closing the door and doing this stuff in secret. But a lot of people are starting to speak up now. Other people are talking about it. So especially as school districts are making decisions, bringing in new curriculum, getting rid of stuff, speak up and say, “Okay, what you're doing here is helping, what you're doing here is not.” Figure out what you need, who you need to tell that you need that, who to go to if that person doesn’t listen to you—and figure out who else you’ve got with you. So many parents and teachers have felt alone on this, and I think people aren't alone anymore. So find your people, the people you can do this with.
And legislators, school committee members, superintendents, please listen to the teachers. Listen to each other's needs.
IRRC: Is There Anything Else You’d Like to Say?
Emily Hanford: I feel like I'm learning every day from teachers who are sending me those emails, and some days I think, oh gosh, I wish I had an answer for you, and other days I just think, okay, I'm learning a lot from these questions. But I think it's an exciting moment. It’s an important moment. Teachers are learning things, and they're implementing small changes, and they're telling me it's making a difference, and I like that. They're like, “You know what I'm seeing? I'm seeing kids that improve. I'm seeing my kids doing better.” This isn't a magic bullet. It's hard work, and it's not fixing everything overnight, but kids are responding. [We’re] changing instruction, and kids are responding. And that's just awesome. It's really great.