As I’ve written about before, what launched me onto this whole insane journey into the seamy underbelly of American reading instruction was my observation of high-school students who seemed incapable of reading in a linear, left-right manner; whose eyes raced randomly around the passage; and who also misread, skipped, and guessed without seeming to realize that they were doing so. So even though I’ve touched on this topic before, it’s so severe and so under-recognized that I think it merits a discussion of its own.

Students who read this way are not simply “struggling”—they have been taught to read according to a theory that fundamentally misconstrues what reading is, and as a result, the manner in which they process text may be so fragmented and incoherent that it cannot fully be called “reading” in the normal sense of the word.

Back in 2009, and for a long time after, I could not begin to fathom what sort of instruction could produce this type of bizarrely scattered approach to text. If not for a semi-chance encounter almost a decade later, at a conference that I almost didn’t attend, I might never have understood its origins in the three-cueing system at all. I also encountered other reports of it so rarely that there were moments when I began to question whether I’d just imagined the whole thing—despite the fact that I’d witnessed it repeatedly for years. It felt a bit like I was gaslighting myself.

So it was with a shock that I read the following passage in a piece by Lyn Stone, a private reading tutor in Australia. Discussing her re-remediation of children who had already gone through the Reading Recovery program (used for several decades in Australian schools and still used in some districts in the US), Stone describes the hallmarks of these students’ reading:

When actually reading a text and coming across an unfamiliar word, their eyes would leave the word and start scanning around, again, looking for a picture clue. When they weren’t doing this wild, panic-stricken scanning, they would sometimes blurt out a word that began with the same letter as the unfamiliar word and carry on reading. 

This is a precise description of how some of my former SAT and ACT students read—teenagers without learning disabilities, from affluent families, attending good schools, and earning good grades. Although they were years past reading picture books, the habit of moving their eyes away from the words in order to search for clues was so automatic that they were unaware that they were doing it, or that there might be any other way go about things. To them, “panic-stricken scanning” was reading.

As I read further, I also couldn’t help but be struck by Stone’s description of her reaction to observing her first Reading Recovery lesson, conducted by a friend. It conveys the same astonishment, the same disorienting sense of could something this fundamentally wrong actually be happening? that I experienced upon learning that children were being taught to read by looking away from the words:

[I] sat there in shock and surprise. As part of my job as a mentor at Lindamood Bell Learning Processes, I would sit back and evaluate other clinicians, so I was used to novices making rookie mistakes. That is not what this was.

I myself have had observers suggest a slightly different approach for a problem encountered by a student and I have embraced that approach with success; a need for tweaking you might say. That is not what this was.

It was quite evident that my friend had spent many hours practising the elements in the lesson. She was no rookie. She delivered clear and precise instructions with confidence and ease. Her pacing was flawless, her manner was perfect, her equipment was organized and on hand and she really did come across as a seasoned professional. She and [the student] had an excellent rapport and she genuinely cared about him and treated him with gentle deference at all times.

But for the first time in my career, I spent my observation time holding myself back from screaming, “What are you doing?! How is that going to help this child? What on Earth are you doing?”

I have not reacted so strongly to any teaching I’ve witnessed, before or since (except other Reading Recovery sessions on YouTube).

Stone then recounts how the student, upon misreading a word was repeatedly instructed to look at the first letter of a word, then to think about “what would make sense” based on a picture cue, and then to “look for little words in the big word”—a classic three-cueing/Balanced Literacy technique. At no point did her colleague acknowledge that the student was unable to perceive the difference between the sounds the letters made and what he was saying nor, when asked, could she recognize why drawing his attention to the sequence of sounds or helping him to articulate them might be important. Eventually, she told him the word and moved on, apparently without noticing that he had learned nothing.

It’s clear that the experience haunted Stone, and I found the piece haunting as well: I’ve likewise found myself in situations where I witnessed students be subject to poor instruction but was not in a position to comment, and I had to muster all my self-restraint not to intervene.

Whenever I try to convey the ongoing experience of discovering the myriad levels of euphemism and absurdity in which American reading instruction is couched, I find myself repeatedly resorting to the metaphor of Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole and into a world where everything is topsy-turvy and everyone a bit mad.

When a system is so deeply mired in dysfunction, pathological behaviors can become normalized to the point where they are no longer recognizable as such. Indeed, they may even be celebrated. I mean this very literally, by the way. A  2014 edition of the Columbia Teachers College Reading and Writing Program Guide (which presumably has been updated in light of Lucy Calkins’s “discovery” of phonics) states that “we should celebrate” when a child substitutes “words that make sense and sound like they would in a book.”

Furthermore, the insistence on having children “cross-check” unknown words according to first letters, pictures, and other contextual information struck me as particularly evocative. In fact, that is the precise description—prescription, in fact—for what students are doing when their eyes zig-zag wildly across the page.

So there, on pages 16-19, eleven years after the fact, I finally arrived at the very root of the strangest reading I had ever encountered.

Given the devotion to Calkins’s work in many NYC-area schools, I would bet a considerable amount that every one of my students who read this way had gone through some version of Reader’s Workshop. It is difficult not to conclude that in some classrooms, children’s eyes bouncing wildly across the page is not only viewed as unproblematic but is actively encouraged.

Not coincidentally, the Guide cites Marie Clay, the developer of Reading Recovery; it also references Ken Goodman, originator of the debunked “reading is a psycholinguistic guessing game” theory (1967). Coming across these names in a contemporary document issued by an Ivy League university is… so bizarre it’s almost funny. Goodman’s hypothesis was debunked by Keith Stanovich in the 1970s (a finding that was confirmed many times after that; see linked Stanovich article for further references). Yet here is Lucy Calkins and her band of merry three-cuers, smugly and willfully oblivious to that fact. Reading their work is kind of like peering into a parallel reality: one that operates according to its own reasonably coherent logic but that also happens to be divorced from how reading actually works.

Based on the tens of thousands of people who have joined social-media groups devoted to research-backed instruction, many teachers clearly sense that something is deeply amiss with the way they were(n’t) taught to teach reading; however, surrounded by people who believe otherwise, they have until very recently managed to convince themselves that the problem was on their end. If you fall into this category, I say: it’s not you, and it never was. If you think that students are being taught in a way that encourages them to develop reading problems, then that’s probably exactly what you’re seeing.