One night, while searching in the woods for food, Frankenstein’s monster discovers a leather suitcase containing three books: The Sorrows of Young Werther, Plutarch’s Lives, and Paradise Lost. Goethe is a source of “astonishment” but also alienation; the monster can sympathize with the characters, but only to a point—their lives are so unlike his own. From Plutarch he learns about public virtue. It is Milton who expands his soul. Paradise Lost “moved every feeling of wonder and awe,” the monster says. As a created being, he identifies with Adam, but Satan is “the fitter emblem of my condition, for…when I viewed the bliss of my protectors, the bitter gall of envy rose within me.”
It may move us to wonder and awe that the monster is able to read Milton at all, let alone form a complex analysis. But fate took a hand in his education when, alone and wandering in the woods, he happened upon a cottage where two children were teaching French to a visitor. Listening and looking through the window, the monster became a pupil, too. “While I improved in speech,” he explains, “I also learned the science of letters.” He learned, in other words, how to read.
It’s possible that absent those lessons and with knowledge of the alphabet alone, the monster might have puzzled over Paradise Lost long enough to figure it out for himself. As Bruce McCandliss, a cognitive neuroscientist interviewed on the recent podcast Sold a Story, puts it, some people are just naturally good at “hearing all of the individual sounds within words.” In time, with enough exposure to text, “they start to make all of these connections”—decoding and pronouncing and mastering, by intuition and practice, the contradictory and exception-ridden rules of written English (the language Sold a Story concerns). As Milton might put it, with wandering steps and slow, they make their solitary way. In common parlance, they figure it out. But the phrase “science of letters” suggests that Frankenstein’s monster was more like a member of the greater majority, the 60 percent who, as Emily Hanford, an education reporter and the host of Sold a Story, explains, require “direct and explicit instruction” in phonics to learn to read.
Phonics, in the words of the reading researcher Reid Lyon, is “nothing more than a relationship between sound structure and a print structure.” It’s breaking down the word “cat” into a spoken hard k sound, followed by the short vowel a, and finally putting the tip of your tongue on the front roof of your mouth and letting go to make that little burst of t. Phonics teaches you how to handle consonants, long and short vowels, digraphs (sh, ch), diphthongs (ow, ou), and so on—and to smoothly blend phonetic units, repeating them like the characters on Sesame Street who push letters from one side of the screen to the other until a word is born and sense breaks through sound.
In Reading in the Brain (2009)—which Hanford recommends on the Sold a Story website, writing, “I’ve never filled a book with so many sticky notes”—the cognitive neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene identifies three stages of learning to read: the pictorial, where children memorize a few words as if they were pictures (these are likely to be the child’s own name or a familiar brand logo); the phonological, where they “decode graphemes into phonemes”; and the orthographic, where “word recognition becomes fast and automatic.”
Ultimately there are two distinct neural pathways that are used in reading. The “phonological route” is used for words that are “very regular, rare, or novel.” In the beginning, of course, all words are novel. But even when we become fluent at reading and are not aware of using the phonological network, it still operates at the “nonconscious level.” The other network, the “lexical route”—in which the brain sees letters and “takes a direct route that first recovers the identity and meaning of the word and then uses the lexical information to recover its pronunciation”—is used for words that we encounter all the time or whose spellings are irregular. Without this network, we would not be able to distinguish between words like “maid” and “made,” or “board” and “bored”—a whole world of puns and double meanings would be lost.
If you are not born with the gift for phonological understanding or taught it, you can try to memorize words or rely on the lexical route. But you’ll stall out. Memorization is laborious and doesn’t take advantage of the efficiencies in how the brain maps written words for automatic retrieval. Kids who need phonics instruction and don’t get it may pore over a page of Paradise Lost till Christ returns—or Frog and Toad, or Go, Dog. Go!—and never become fluent readers. They might stumble or fake it through “easy readers,” but as texts grow more sophisticated, they will grow more frustrated and confused, spending all their energy trying to figure out what a given word is rather than what it means, skipping and skimming to get by. They are likely to feel stupid, ashamed, or angry, and to avoid books altogether. They may be diagnosed with a reading disability, when the only problem they have is that their education has failed them.
The good news is that everyone, even monsters, can learn to read. The bad news, as Hanford makes clear in the six devastating episodes of Sold a Story, is that for the past thirty years, despite research that clearly established phonics as the best, the only, way to teach reading, many American schools clung to the pseudo-methods and fantasies of an educational approach known as “balanced literacy”—or as Jessica Winter recently put it in The New Yorker, “literacy by vibes.”
The consequences have been grim. According to a 2022 Department of Education assessment, 67 percent of American fourth graders are not proficient readers. “The problem is even worse when you look beyond the average and focus on specific groups of children,” Hanford says. “The most alarming statistic: 82 percent of Black fourth graders are not proficient readers.” Some of these children will never get the help they need. ProPublica recently reported that one fifth of adults in the United States struggle with reading—a “silent literacy crisis.”
Debates over the best way to teach reading, and anxiety that American schools are failing to graduate good readers, go back more than a hundred years. Hanford’s story begins more recently, in 1960s New Zealand, where Marie Clay, a doctoral candidate in education, was studying how children learn to read. At that time, New Zealand schools were using something called the “book experience” method, which was derived from the “whole word” method.* In America, the whole-word method was taught through Dick and Jane books; New Zealand had a similar series, called Janet and John. The book-experience method replaced Janet and John with so-called little books that used more difficult vocabulary. The idea, as Hanford puts it, was that “learning to read is easier for kids—and more interesting—if they start with whole stories, whole sentences—not individual words.”
Calling this a “method” seems a bit grand. It was more like hopes and prayers, and it worked about as well. Clay, who wanted to help struggling readers, observed one hundred first graders and came to the conclusion that the good readers were not using phonics to decode words but were acting as “detectives,” looking for clues and cues in context. She decided to teach poor readers to do the same. The problem was that Clay was dead wrong about what the good readers were doing. They were so skilled at phonics that they didn’t appear to be sounding words out—but they were. The program Clay developed didn’t teach poor readers the secret techniques used by good readers—it standardized and institutionalized the things that poor readers do to cover up and compensate for the fact that they can’t sound words out.
In the 1990s two Americans, Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell, launched a curricular empire of Guided Reading books, with different levels of difficulty and chock-full of pictures, along with separate assessments based on Clay’s research. Their approach has come to be known as “cueing” or “three-cueing.” The idea is that children should use context to guess at an unfamiliar word’s identity, and then ask themselves the following questions: Does my guess make sense? Does it sound right? And, finally, does it look right?
When Lucy Calkins, who had previously specialized in teaching writing, wanted to write a book about teaching reading, she turned to Pinnell for guidance. Calkins’s “balanced literacy approach,” which involves setting up classroom libraries of leveled books and using cueing to read them, became very popular. (It was mandated in most New York City elementary schools.) Among teachers, Calkins had celebrity status—a Palo Alto school board member is quoted as saying that “if Beyoncé came and gave a private concert in my district, it would not have been a bigger deal”—and they applied in droves to attend her weeklong training sessions at the Columbia Teachers College.
Hanford estimates that the Calkins curriculum is used by one in four elementary schools in the United States, but cueing as a strategy is far more pervasive—as Education Week reported in 2020, according to a 2019 national survey, “75 percent of K–2 and elementary special education teachers use the method to teach students how to read, and 65 percent of college of education professors teach it.” But the situation has rather abruptly changed: in the past year, in light of increased media coverage of American children’s abysmal reading scores and a drumbeat of attention on the plentiful research on “the science of reading,” districts across the nation, including New York City, have abandoned or pledged to abandon cueing and return to phonics-based instruction.
Attention to the issue also increased during the Covid pandemic, when parents, who usually know little of what happens inside their children’s classrooms, were able to see for themselves how reading was being taught. Hanford begins her first episode with the story of Corinne, a mother who watched her son’s kindergarten teacher read a book to the class over Zoom in the spring of 2020. In the book, two kids run away from their dad because they don’t like the sandwiches he made. The teacher held up the book to the screen. The next sentence began: “Now they think their mom and dad will…” The end of the sentence was covered with a sticky note, and the teacher asked the children to guess what it might be. She told them they could think back to what had already happened in the story, or look at the pictures sprinkled through the text. “This seemed weird to Corinne,” Hanford says, offering a naive cliffhanger typical of public radio. “Why have kids guess the word? Why not have them look at the word and try to actually read it?”
Fountas and Pinnell’s guided reading program is troubling for many reasons. Their assessments have been demonstrated to be worthless. Students test all over the place, because their understanding depends not on their ability to decode words but rather on how much they already know about the subject of a given book. Most shockingly, Hanford reports that the interventions they offer for struggling readers lead to worse outcomes than no intervention at all.
As for cueing itself, it is almost sublime in its absurdity. Here is Fountas defending it in 2021:
If a reader says “pony” for “horse,” because of information from the pictures, that tells the teacher that the reader is using meaning information from the pictures. His response is partially correct, but the teacher needs to guide him to stop and work for accuracy.
It is good that a child can look at a picture and categorize an animal as belonging to the genus Equus, that he knows the large creature with a long mane is not a sheep or a goat. But it is hardly a radical position to note that looking at the letters h-o-r-s-e and saying the word “pony” is not partially accurate. It is wrong. “Pony” and “horse” are different words, much as “mother” and “child” are different words, as are “trumpet” and “trombone,” “bagel” and “baguette,” “same” and “different,” “correct” and “incorrect.” Ultimately, the examples become less comical. Hanford: “A middle school teacher gave me the example of a kid who thought that in 1939 Poland invited the Germans into their country. That’s a lot different from what really happened. The Germans invaded Poland.”
Sold a Story is a distressing and enraging piece of reporting. It unfolds like a true-crime narrative, but its fascination has much to do with the power of cult thinking. Early on, Hanford says that after she began publishing stories on “the science of reading,” she heard from many teachers who had never been offered an alternative to balanced literacy and “had no idea they weren’t teaching kids how to read.” But what did they think was going on? How did so many people convince themselves that “pony” and “horse” are the same word, or, at least, close enough? How did they convince themselves that the role of the teacher was to help the student slam her head against the wall rather than showing her how to open the door?
For a long time progressive pedagogy, which is opposed to anything “rote,” had smeared phonics as fusty, top-down, and old-fashioned. Partisan politics was also a factor in the reading wars. George W. Bush was a phonics booster—he was reading The Pet Goat at a school to bring attention to his $5 billion Reading First initiative when the planes flew into the World Trade Center—and many teachers could not stomach being on his side of any issue. (Phonics had been a plank in the 2000 Republican Party platform.) At one point, Marie Clay herself had a meeting with a congressional staffer who told her that her Reading Recovery program would not qualify for funding under the initiative. According to the staffer, “Dame Clay looked at me with steely eyes and said: ‘We will not change a thing in our program. But we will modify our description of Reading Recovery to comply with the law.’”
Fountas and Pinnell warned teachers to be wary of the data on phonics and encouraged them to lobby legislators. (Pinnell likened Clay to Isaac Newton, saying that cueing, like gravity, was an idea ahead of its time.) The death knell of Bush’s program came in 2005, when the Reading Recovery Council of North America—an advocacy group dedicated to Clay’s pedagogy—accused the Department of Education of a “misinformation campaign,” claiming that its programs were being maligned and unfairly excluded from grants. As Hanford explains, an investigation by the inspector general found that the grant review process was biased in favor of phonics instruction and that “some consultants who reviewed Reading First grant proposals had professional ties to commercial reading programs.” The idea that some instruction is worth funding and some is not had no traction, and eventually Congress cut all funding for Reading First.
“Fountas says that asking a child to just sound out a word is simplistic and analogous to telling the child not to think,” says Hanford. But of course the opposite is true: without being able to sound out the words, thinking in any meaningful sense is not possible at all. That’s assuming you want children to think about the text in front of them. As Sold a Story amply demonstrates, for Fountas, Pinnell, and Calkins, reading was an opportunity for self-expression rather than a practice of comprehending text. And it involved a degree of performance. One Calkins lesson told kindergarten teachers to show their students photographs of “avid readers” and then ask them to go into different parts of the room to “practice avid reading.” The children would scatter with their books. The teacher would then check in with each child and call the class to attention to say this: “Everywhere I look, you are reading avidly. I don’t need those photographs of strangers to see avid reading. No way! It’s right here in front of me!”
Much of the power of Sold a Story is in such moments that dramatize scenes of instruction. This one in particular has haunted me. It’s wonderful when a toddler pretends to read or memorizes a book and “reads” it out loud, but it is quite a different thing for a teacher to tell a four- or five-year-old that she is reading when the child knows that she is not. (Most kindergartners do not yet know how to read.) What does that do to a child? Does it make them feel empowered and proud? Does it confuse them as to the meaning of “avidly”? Or does it make them feel anxious and fraudulent, like they can’t trust the adults around them to tell them what’s real and what isn’t?
It wasn’t just money that was behind cueing and balanced literacy, though districts threw plenty of it around. (Pinnell, Fountas, and Calkins all became very wealthy. Pinnell bought a Maserati. Fountas owns or co-owns at least eight properties. The value of Calkins’s LLC, as of last year, was $23 million.) The thing driving it all was a fantasy. That fantasy, or maybe we should call it a delusion, was, Hanford says, that kids could skip ahead to the “good part” of reading—the part where they would “curl up in a cozy nook” and contemplate big questions of story and meaning. In other words, the balanced-literacy advocates liked the part in Frankenstein where the monster is awed and expanded by Paradise Lost. They were less interested in the science of letters that allows him to decipher the marks on the page. But learning how to read, as Hanford says, is the good part. She talks to a little girl whose father sought outside phonics instruction after he observed what her school was doing with cueing. “It was like the best thing ever,” the girl whispers, in awe at the world that is opening to her.
Sold a Story got its hooks into me and did not let go. The thing that has most preoccupied me in the days since I listened to it is the bizarre and pernicious ideology at the heart of cueing—the idea that a good way to know what a sentence says is to assume it echoes your preconceived ideas about the world. Thinking back to the book about the kids running away from the bad sandwich, the next word could have been, as Hanford suggests, “scold”; it could have been “find.” It turns out to be “miss”: the kids think their mom and dad will miss them. But it could have been anything. The only way to know for sure is to read it.
Certainly we all do an amount of cueing when we encounter new ideas. We test what we learn against what we already know and expect of the world. Could it be that this election was stolen? one might think, in the eleventh hour of scrolling. Is it plausible, based on everything else I know to be true, that a ring of pedophiles is operating beneath this pizza restaurant? But leaving aside the fact that we can make interpretations and judgments only if we are reading the words correctly—it’s a pizza restaurant, not a pizza rest stop—the glory of reading, the reason for reading at all, is to encounter the new. To be surprised by where a sentence lands, to trip over an unexpected adjective, to be thrown out of the dullness of habit into a new and unfamiliar place. That’s the whole point—that of all the possible words that could come next, this one does. That of all the possible worlds, the writer—someone who is not you, who has thoughts and ways of expressing those thoughts that you could never have—imagined this one.
For thirty years, very young children have gone to school and been told that reading is an exercise in seeking confirmation of what they already know—these children who are at the beginning of knowing anything at all. It’s as if we’ve been training them to be algorithms, honing their ability to make predictions rather than their capacity to enter the minds of others. Listening to Sold a Story, one can only conclude that a kind of crime has been committed, a vast impoverishment. It leaves me less surprised that our world is rife with misinformation.
There is one more text in the suitcase that Frankenstein’s monster discovers. He finds pages from the journal of Victor Frankenstein, his creator:
Everything is related in them which bears reference to my accursed origin; the whole detail of that series of disgusting circumstances which produced it is set in view; the minutest description of my odious and loathsome person is given, in language which painted your own horrors and rendered mine indelible. I sickened as I read.
To read is not always to enter a cozy little nook. Sometimes we read to enter the horrors of history and of our own lives. The monster might have been happier if he had never read a single word. But then he would not know where he came from, or where he was going.
In his forthcoming book The Science of Reading (University of Chicago Press, 2023), Adrian Johns notes that the whole-word method came into vogue in the US around 1910, inspired by philosophers such as John Dewey and by experiments that measured how fast people read whole words versus individual letters, as well as concerns that reading words correctly “in the mechanical sense” was of little value if readers weren’t also attentive to context. ↩