APM Reports to Release Three New Audio Documentaries

Emily Hanford’s investigation on a problematic approach to reading instruction among three new reports on education in America

ST. PAUL, Minn., July 23, 2019 –APM Reports, the documentary and investigative unit of American Public Media, will release three new audio documentaries that look at the latest issues in education and how students learn. The stories will air on public radio stations across the country and on APM Reports’ Educate podcast starting August 6.

Acclaimed education reporter Emily Hanford will return this season with a follow-up to her 2018 documentary Hard Words: Why aren’t kids being taught to read?which brought mainstream media attention to the importance of teacher knowledge about the science of reading. Her new documentary, “At a Loss for Words: What’s wrong with how schools teach reading” will debut August 22.  

Hard Words” sent shockwaves across the United States and around the globe by revealing what’s missing in many schools: explicit and systematic phonics instruction. “At a Loss for Words” continues the investigation by showing that the problem with reading instruction is not just what’s missing, it’s what’s present. According to Hanford’s reporting, teachers across the country are using materials and approaches based on a flawed theory of reading. The “three-cueing system” was disproven decades ago by cognitive scientists yet it remains deeply embedded in teaching practices and curriculum materials and continues to be taught in teacher preparation programs.

In the documentary, Hanford explores the history of the three-cueing system and explains the cognitive science that proves it wrong. She shows what three-cueing looks like in the classroom, documents the harm it does to children, and visits Oakland, Calif., where teachers are questioning three-cueing and administrators are wrestling with what that means about the curriculum investments the district has made.

Key reporting includes:

  • When children are taught to read using the three-cueing system, they are taught to read the way that poor readers read. In other words, the strategies that people with weak reading skills use to get by are the very strategies that many beginning readers are being taught in school.
  • In the United States, one-third of fourth graders struggle to read on a basic level and most American students are still not proficient readers by the time they get to 12th grade. Three-cueing is part of the problem.
  • Efforts to improve reading instruction are impeded by the widespread belief in three- cueing. Even if elements of effective reading instruction are put in place (e.g., good phonics instruction), substantial progress is unlikely until this wrong idea about reading is exposed and rooted out. 

In addition to Hanford’s documentary, APM Reports will also release two additional documentaries. Airing August 6, “Under a Watchful Eye: How colleges are tracking students to boost graduation” examines the growing use of analytics and data collection on students to steer them into majors they can stick with. Reporters Jill Barshay and Sasha Aslanian will recount their findings on what students gain and lose when private companies track their clicks and movements.  

Students on the Move: Keeping uprooted kids in school,” produced by Chris Julin and Tennessee Watson, explores the correlation between children living in unstable housing and poor performance in school. Launching August 14, this documentary will follow two groups of kids who frequently change addresses – homeless kids and the children of migrant farm workers – and then detail current efforts to keep these students in the classroom through high school and onto college.


About American Public Media
American Public Media® is the national programming division of Minnesota Public Radio® and reaches more than 19 million listeners via 1,000 radio stations nationwide each week. APM is one of the largest producers and distributors of public radio programming in the world, with a portfolio that includes BBC World Service, Marketplace®, and the leading classical music programs in the nation. APM offers a diverse array of podcasts featuring the best in food, culture, entertainment, business and investigative journalism. For more information on APM, visit americanpublicmedia.org.
Source: Data are copyright Nielsen Audio. Data are estimates only.

About APM Reports
APM Reports, formed in November 2015, is a collection of investigative journalists and documentary producers, editors, data reporters, researchers and digital producers dedicated to producing high-quality reporting on issues that are often hidden from public view. At the heart of every APM Reports investigation lies a critical question — about powerful institutions and people, injustice and accountability – that deserves an unflinching commitment to finding answers in the public’s best interest. Visit apmreports.org for more.