My curriculum not the reason kids can’t read

Your Feb. 29 cover story, "When Kids Can't Read," references Springfield public schools and my curriculum, Units of Study.

I applaud Springfield for attending to the individual differences among children as readers. It is fundamentally important to recognize that children are all different. Assessments from reading specialists and individualized support for those who need it are foundational parts of a successful education strategy. Some children will need help segmenting and blending sounds as they read, while others need more opportunities to read nonfiction texts and to develop world knowledge and vocabulary.

Springfield's programs such as Real Men Read and Compass for Kids similarly show that the district is making sound, research-based decisions that will move readers forward. The Real Men Read program provides valuable mentorship, allowing children to grow up seeing themselves as readers and thinking, "Reading is something cool people do." And Springfield's decision to supplement classroom learning with after-school and summer programs to support readers is wise. Kids need time to practice reading. These efforts make a real difference. These programs matter.

click to enlarge My curriculum not the reason kids can’t read
Lucy Calkins
But I am sorry that, while Springfield is doing so many things right, the cover story contains inaccuracies about "balanced literacy" and about my curriculum, Units of Study, that may indeed ultimately hurt students.

Balanced literacy works.

My curriculum, Units of Study in Reading, Writing and Phonics, is a curriculum that has been continually developed and refined for 40 years, informed by classroom-based research, by rich assessments of students and by scholarship. The approach would never have been adopted in approximately 25% of the nation's schools if it didn't yield results. It is the curriculum in a huge number of Blue Ribbon and Beat the Odds schools. The data overwhelmingly indicate that schools partnering with us demonstrate meaningful improvements in student performance and that improvements only deepen over time.

Although there were inaccuracies in the story, the article was not wrong in saying that some whole language educators used to teach phonics through immersion, hoping children would learn their ABCs through immersion, just as they learn oral language. It is true that studies have shown that most children benefit from explicit, structured instruction in phonics.

The errors in the article come from the author confusing balanced literacy with whole language, and more specifically, from confusing Units of Study (and me) with a belief that children grow best from laissez-faire, natural instruction. I have always been a strong proponent of explicit phonics instruction, and in general, of direct, explicit instruction. Anyone who knows my work knows I have written literally thousands of minilessons in which kids are taught through the teacher naming, then demonstrating, then guiding kids to practice a skill or strategy.

I never bypassed phonics instruction in my approach to teaching reading. My very first book on teaching reading, which predates this latest "science of reading" debate by nearly 20 years, devoted three chapters to early reading and one of those three was to phonics. I have written 22 books on phonics, well over 2,800 pages. And I have written hundreds of decodable books, including the series Jump Rope Readers, which are regarded by many as best-in-class.

False claims of a dramatic new reading crisis have whipped the public into a frenzy, leading whole states to mandate totally untested statewide reforms in reading. Let's instead pause, check the facts (yes, reading scores dipped during COVID, but over the 20 years prior, they have been slowly, steadily improving) and look with more care at exactly what has and has not worked for America's young readers.

I know that podcasts, blogs and social media posts have made me a scapegoat for the imperfections of early literacy education, and so I understand why your newspaper echoed those claims. But that narrative is filled with untruths and brims with blaming and shaming, a toxic brew that will not help our country, nor serve Springfield's children.

Promises of a magic bullet are tempting. Some states are mandating a short list of required programs, each costing millions of dollars, and knowledgeable educators in those states are howling with protest. This is playing out in Connecticut right now – districts like Wilton, Cheshire and Greenwich are prime examples. Rushing to purchase a whole-district basal that channels all students to read the same snippets of books despite wide differences in students' reading levels is not apt to be a panacea. Many of those programs have been evaluated as culturally harmful, and none of them have been implemented in a district like Springfield with strong results. Some come labeled 'Science of Reading,' but the science of reading is neither a curriculum nor a method for teaching children. And in any case, it alone will not take a K-12 system to rich, cross-disciplinary standards-based work. In a too hasty effort to translate ideology to curriculum, children suffer.

It is clear there are some wise, informed educators at the helm of Springfield. Those educators need the opportunity to do a school-by-school audit to determine what the needs are in Springfield. It may be that the district needs to adopt a more tightly controlled phonics program, or to offer teachers more professional development in phonics. But as Elfrieda Hiebert's analysis of kids who do not do well on the National Assessment of Educational Progress shows, it is just as likely that Springfield's upper-grade students need more access to engaging, accessible nonfiction.

Reform in literacy will require additional funding. District 186 is underfunded. It sounds as if Springfield may be ready to invest in early literacy, and that is heartening. When spent thoughtfully, funds could make a huge difference in classrooms across Springfield.

Lucy Calkins is the founding director of both Mossflower Reading and Writing Project (formerly the Reading and Writing Project) and of Teachers College Reading and Writing Project.

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