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What’s behind the effort to change how kids read in New Hampshire

Sarah Gibson for NHPR

New Hampshire lawmakers are considering a bill aimed at increasing literacy levels in schools across the state. The bill would eliminate a controversial reading theory commonly referred to as cueing from intervention programs for students who need additional support while learning how to read.

At a recent hearing, the bill’s sponsor Rep. Glenn Cordelli cited reporting from American Public Media’s “Sold a Story.” The podcast looks into the science behind reading and how the cueing method can make it harder for children learning to read.

The reporters behind the podcast, Emily Hanford and Christopher Peak, joined NHPR’s Morning Edition host Rick Ganley to talk about their findings. Below is a transcript of their conversation.


Rick Ganley: Emily, can you first explain what cueing is, and why did you set out to investigate this reading theory?

Emily Hanford: I've been reporting on how kids learn to read and how they're being taught in many schools for many years. And what I discovered over the years is that there's this one idea that you can find in curriculum materials and classrooms, in teacher preparation all over the country. And the idea is this, that when little kids are learning how to read, they can sound out the words, but they don't have to because they have all these other ways that they can figure out the words. And that has come to be known as cueing, which is when a little kid comes to a word that they don't know, they can sound it out, but they can also do things like look at the first letter, look at the last letter or look at the pictures, think about something that makes sense. And that is cueing, the idea that you give kids all these different strategies to figure out their words rather than teaching them how to sound out written words, and telling them to do that first and to use that as their primary strategy for figuring out unknown words.

Rick Ganley: Well, what's wrong with that method, Emily? I mean, what's the evidence that cueing doesn't work to teach kids?

Emily Hanford: Well, this is where the reporting got so interesting and dug way back into history. There's been a huge amount of research over the past 50 years by cognitive scientists and lots of other researchers all over the world. And one of the primary things they figured out, like a big 'aha,' is that sounding out the written words when we are beginning to learn how to read is critical. You have to have kids do that because that is the way that you ultimately are able to store the written form of thousands, tens of thousands of words into your mind. I want to get into the details of how we do it. People can listen to the podcast, but the bottom line is that teaching little kids when they're beginning to read that they need to sound out words is critical to becoming a good reader.

Rick Ganley: Now, Heinemann Publishing is a Portsmouth-based company that's one of the major producers of curriculum in the U.S. related to reading and literacy. Christopher, how is that involved in this controversy over cueing theory?

Christopher Peak: Heinemann is kind of the brand name for balanced literacy. That's the way that a lot of teachers around the country teach these days. That's the philosophy they ascribe to. And while that definition is a little bit loose, a lot of what schools are doing is using this cueing method to teach reading, teaching kids to look across the page for all the different sources of information, the pictures, the context, clues to figure out how to read. And Heinemann is really the most popular version of that. They have some of the best selling authors. These people like Lucy Calkins, Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell, who have some of the most popular curricula interventions and assessments that are all based on this idea.

Emily Hanford: Can I add one thing to that, Rick? I think it's important to note that our reporting did not find that there is something wrong with everything that Heinemann is selling, but Heinemann is selling materials that contain this cueing idea. Other publishers, other people, are selling that idea. But as Christopher pointed out, they really have become very influential and sort of the brand name version that includes this cueing theory.

Rick Ganley: So what's Heinemann's response to the podcast and your reporting?

Emily Hanford: We did get an interview with the former president of Heinemann, who has since left, not because of the podcast. [They left] before it went out. And we put that question to that person because what's happened is that one of the very popular, influential authors who publishes with Heinemann is Lucy Calkins. And she actually has said that she was not right about this cueing theory, and she is redoing her materials and taking it out. The other two influential Heinemann authors are Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell, who have also had this theory embedded in their materials, and they did not talk to us for the podcast. And as of the podcast, they were not taking that idea out of the materials. We asked Heinemann about that and their answer was that their authors have different ideas and believe in different things, and they believe in lots of different ideas and putting it all out there. And we pressed her on that because of all the evidence against this cueing theory that's been around for such a long time. Since the podcast came out, Heinemann has put out a statement, and they have criticized us and claimed that our story is lacking nuance and detail. And what we do know is that one of their influential authors is changing the way she's doing things. And we know from the interview with Heinemann and from things that they have done since, that our podcast is making them think about what is in their materials.

(Editor’s note: You can read Heinemann Publishing’s full statement in response to the podcast here.)

Rick Ganley: Christopher, what do we know about school districts here in New Hampshire that have used the cueing curriculum from Heinemann? What do we know about it, and is it changing at all?

Christopher Peak: Two of the biggest districts in the state, Nashua and Manchester, were using these Heinemann products. They were spending a substantial amount of money on them and they're moving away from it. Manchester already switched curricula about two years ago, and Nashua says that they're going to. They said that they were just following what the rest of the country was doing with balanced literacy. But this newly accessible research from the science of reading, they said, has convinced them that they need to make a change.

Rick Ganley: Well, this is a question for both of you. What is your practical advice for parents who want to learn more about the literacy programs that are offered in their child's school and start having those productive conversations with their school about it? Christopher, let's start with you.

Christopher Peak: I think they'd want to start off by asking, 'How do you teach reading? What's the materials that you use? How are you teaching phonics? How do you put emphasis on spelling or vocabulary? How do you cover all these different components that we know from the science of reading that teachers need to cover?' It doesn't have to be confrontational by any means, but just finding out, 'Are you checking off the boxes for all these essentials,' might be a good way to start.

Rick Ganley: Emily, how about you? Same question.

Emily Hanford: Yeah, I think that's really good advice. I will add to that that it can be difficult to figure out how your child's school is teaching reading. It can sometimes be hard to parse the language you get back from the administrators. So what I would recommend to parents as well is to find the other parents who have questions and concerns or are trying to figure it out. Do this together and find the teachers who have similar questions and concerns. Because in every school, in every school district, there are teachers who are concerned about this and want to be doing something differently. And I really think the teachers and the parents should find each other and do this together.

Jackie Harris is the Morning Edition Producer at NHPR. She first joined NHPR in 2021 as the Morning Edition Fellow.

For many radio listeners throughout New Hampshire, Rick Ganley is the first voice they hear each weekday morning, bringing them up to speed on news developments overnight and starting their day off with the latest information.

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