Exclusive Spending Data: Schools Still Pouring Money Into Reading Materials That Teach Kids to Guess

The “three-cueing” approach has come under fire, but actually ridding classrooms of the lessons may prove challenging, purchase orders reveal

Eamonn Fitzmaurice / The 74

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School districts across the country are continuing to pour money into expensive reading materials criticized for leaving many children without the basic ability to sound out words, an investigation by The 74 reveals.

The approach, known as “balanced” literacy, has been dominant in U.S. classrooms for decades, but has come under fire recently amid research and reporting exposing its shortcomings. Criticism crescendoed this fall after the release of the influential Sold a Story podcast, which linked America’s “reading crisis” to schools’ use of literacy materials that teach children to guess words they don’t know based first on pictures and sentence structure — a method called “three cueing.”

But actually ridding classrooms of these approaches may prove challenging. Since Oct. 20 when the podcast launched, districts have continued to make large purchases of materials that include the problematic three-cueing tactics.

Over that time span, at least 225 districts have spent over $1.5 million on new books, trainings and curriculums linked to three cueing, according to The 74’s review of their purchase orders accessed through the data service GovSpend. Two districts — Palatine, Illinois and Conroe, Texas — each spent over $170,000 on the materials and four others spent more than $50,000.

Previous analyses have highlighted sales going to the reading materials’ primary publisher, finding some large school systems had spent $10 million or more over the last decade. But this report is the first known to zero in on individual districts’ purchasing of the key authors in question, spending decisions made during a national re-examination of literacy instruction.

Along with books and worksheets, at least nine districts indicated that they had paid for new professional development in the flawed literacy approaches and schools made at least 85 purchases of an assessment system for early readers rife with inconsistencies.

The numbers likely understate the total because school districts in many cases have not yet submitted their more recent purchase orders to the GovSpend database, a process which can take several months, GovSpend staff said. From Oct. 21 to Nov. 31, the database shows over $1.2 million in total spending on the curricular materials, and from Dec. 1 through Feb. 27, the date The 74 pulled the figures, under $350,000.

Matthew Mugo Fields, president of New Hampshire-based Heinemann, the publisher at the center of Sold a Story, said none of his company’s literacy programs are designed to prioritize guessing.

“Guessing at words in lieu of decoding is not the instructional intent of those programs,” he said.

In some cases, district officials stood by the literacy materials, saying their teachers swear by them. Others defended their purchases as one tool among many at educators’ disposal for teaching kids how to read, acknowledging that they were insufficient on their own.

Krissy Hufnagel, curriculum director for schools in Mason, Ohio, the state where balanced literacy first took root, said her district had to bolster their supply of books after losing some of the titles they sent home with families during the pandemic. She has followed along for years the debate over how best to teach literacy, she said, and “absolutely” agrees with her district’s $69,500 purchase in October of guided reading materials for first graders from the Fountas and Pinnell Classroom, one of the key curriculums whose efficacy has been cast into doubt.

“It’s just one piece of the puzzle,” Hufnagel said. “We purchased decodables, we purchased read-alouds and we purchased guided, leveled books.”

Decodable books encourage young readers to develop their skills in phonics by using words they can sound out and by excluding pictures that would give away challenging words. Schools are increasingly prioritizing phonics-based instruction thanks to a vast body of research documenting its central role in how young children can become strong readers.

Heinemann says it is working to incorporate its stand-alone phonics materials into its other existing programs. In the Oct. 21 to Feb. 27 timeframe, 13 districts’ purchase orders mentioned phonics and totaled roughly $4,300.

Timothy Shanahan, a professor emeritus at the University of Illinois Chicago studying early literacy, described the mix-and-match approach as a “bandage.” The most common curriculums that incorporate cueing — the Reading Recovery program, Lucy Calkins’s “Units of Study” and Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell’s “Leveled Literacy Intervention” — have a limited research base, he said.

“You’re actually teaching kids to read like poor readers rather than like good readers,” he said. Students may still make progress using those techniques, but their gains are “overwhelmingly” better when learning via a more structured, phonics-driven approach.

Vicky Wieben is a parent who said she’s seen the harms of three cueing first hand. When her son struggled to read in the early grades, their school in an affluent suburban district outside Des Moines, Iowa, sent home books from the Reading Recovery program along with laminated instructions for the parents. The sheet told her to prompt her son to look at the picture when he didn’t know a word, then use the surrounding words for context and, if none of that worked, see if he could sound it out using the letters, she said.

“Anything that took any kind of sounding out … he would just be silent,” Wieben said. His teacher joked that the child’s imagined stories were better than the books themselves. But the mother knew that was a red flag. “He would make up what he was seeing in the picture and hope that that was good enough,” she said.

Her son, now a seventh grader, still has “holes and gaps” even in elementary school content, she said, and tested at a third-grade level in sixth grade.

Millions of other youngsters have had similar struggles. In 2022, national exams showed two-thirds of U.S. fourth graders were below proficient in reading, the age by which educators hope young people will have finished learning to read and begun reading to learn. Scores dipped after the pandemic, but even before COVID, only 35% of learners notched at or above proficient.

In an effort to turn things around, more than half of states have passed measures promoting the “science of reading,” an approach that, compared to balanced literacy, places a greater emphasis on sounding out words.

Sara Hunton, curriculum coordinator for Portales schools in New Mexico, said her district had to purchase “supplemental materials” after the state’s 2019 law because the Leveled Literacy Intervention program they use isn’t on the state’s approved list.

Researchers like Shanahan emphasize that the debates are “not black and white,” and that studies show young learners need not just phonics instruction, but also lessons in vocabulary and access to challenging reading material, among other things.

In 2022, Lucy Calkins, a professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College once revered for her literacy program, updated her Units of Study curriculum to give students more direct instruction in phonics. Fields, Heinemann’s president, said the Fountas and Pinnell Classroom is going through a similar update process and will be including more decodable books in its next iteration. Fields did not specify any elements of either program that the authors are removing and distanced their instruction from the three-cueing method.

“We don’t use, nor have we ever used, the term ‘three cueing,’ to refer to what it is that we do,” he said.

Michelle Faust, a literacy coach working in Lexington, South Carolina, was skeptical of the new Units of Study. Over a decade ago, she was trained in the Calkins approach, but soon saw its weaknesses in the classroom. Yet, she was pleasantly surprised with the updates.

“My kindergarten teachers have been working with the new Units [of Study] this year — and they are science of reading people — and they are happy with the revisions,” she said. “Lucy has taken the Sold a Story podcast to heart and revised accordingly.”

Updated or not, Terri Marculitis, director of curriculum and instruction for Middleborough Public Schools in Massachusetts, said her district will never again purchase materials from Fountas and Pinnell Classroom. The school system bought materials until last school year, she said, and the results were “poor at best.”

“We have students in high school who have significant gaps in foundational literacy,” she said. She attributes those holes to the flawed curriculum “100%.”

Fields did not respond directly when asked whether Heinemann’s sales had changed in the wake of Sold a Story, but said the company has had to have “clarifying conversations” with several school district customers in recent months.

Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell declined The 74’s request for an interview. Lucy Calkins sent a written statement.

“Our new publications are informed by the science of reading research, new research on comprehension and by ongoing classroom-based research,” she said. The professor, whose LLC through which districts hire her team for training is reportedly worth nearly $23 million, added that she holds monthly office hours to help educators implement her materials on the ground.

Emily Hanford, the American Public Media reporter who created the blockbuster Sold a Story series, said she’s not surprised schools are continuing to purchase the materials her podcast warned against. Yes, reading instruction needs to change, she said. Yes, schools need to do better. But “no one changes a culture quickly,” Hanford said.

“There are people who have been using these materials for a long time. … These ideas have been entrenched in American education for decades now, so things aren’t going to necessarily change quickly.”

See the full list of district purchase orders marked Oct. 21 though Feb. 27:

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