On the importance of re-examining reading instruction

Emily Hanford

Senior Producer and Correspondent, American Public Media


I’VE BEEN AN education reporter for a long time, and I’ve found there’s a pervasive set of beliefs about reading that aren’t true that have taken hold in schools. Basically, that reading is something that kids just pick up—they don’t need a lot of instruction. That as long as you read a lot to kids, they’ll be okay, it’ll come in time. For some kids, it seems like that’s the way it works. But the truth is when you get under the hood, that’s not really the way it works. And it isn’t working for a whole lot of kids.

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Parents are quite a powerful force in education. And when a lot of parents find a common story, that does lead to change.”

In schools all over this country, kids are not being taught how to read. Some kids don’t need a lot of instruction, but there’s a whole segment of kids who need a lot more instruction than they’re getting. And it’s having a huge impact on kids, families, teachers, and schools.

I think we’ve been too quick to blame all these other reasons for why kids aren’t reading. It does correlate with things like poverty and circumstances in kids’ homes, but for some reason we haven’t looked at instruction.


When it comes to reading at an early age, kids either get what they need to get going or they don’t. It’s a snowball effect. Those kids who have the basics start to get better at reading by reading, while kids who are stalled—they’re limping along, trying to figure it out. And what was a small gap at the beginning of school just grows wider and wider.

We know from all kinds of research that good instruction really matters. One of my big takeaways from reporting is that the most important factor is teacher knowledge and helping teachers really understand how kids learn to read. We get focused too quickly on specific interventions or programs when we should really be investing in teaching the teachers the fundamentals of reading instruction.

This pandemic has shaken up education and revealed the importance of school for little kids and of foundational skills. We need to get this right at the beginning. Because if we don’t, we’re going to see the effects for years and years and years.

It can be really difficult to change education—it’s such a behemoth of a system—so the only way for it to happen is if there are the right kinds of pressure points. I’m hopeful because during the pandemic, parents sat next to their little kids on Zoom and had this window into how their children were being taught. Parents are quite a powerful force in education. And when a lot of parents find a common story, that does lead to change.