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In the Fight Over How to Teach Reading, This Guru Makes a Major Retreat

Lucy Calkins, a leading literacy expert, has rewritten her curriculum to include a fuller embrace of phonics and the science of reading. Critics may not be appeased.

By Dana Goldstein  The New York Times   May 22, 2022

For decades, Lucy Calkins has determined how millions of children learn to read. An education professor, she has been a pre-eminent leader of “balanced literacy,” a loosely defined teaching philosophy.

In a classic Calkins classroom, teachers read aloud from children’s literature; students then chose “just right” books, which fit their interests and ability. The focus was more on stories — theme, character, plot — less on sounding out words.

Her curriculum, “Units of Study,” is built on a vision of children as natural readers, and it has been wildly popular and profitable. She estimates that a quarter of the country’s 67,000 elementary schools use it. At Columbia University’s Teachers College, she and her team have trained hundreds of thousands of educators.

But in recent years, parents and educators who champion the “science of reading” have fiercely criticized Professor Calkins and other supporters of balanced literacy. They cite a half-century of research that shows phonics — sound it out exercises that are purposefully sequenced — is the most effective way to teach reading, along with books that build vocabulary and depth.

With brain science steadily adding to that evidence, there is a sense — at least for many in the education establishment — that the debate over early reading instruction may be ebbing. Phonics is ascendant.

More than a dozen states have passed laws pushing phonics, and Denver and Oakland, Calif., have moved to drop Professor Calkins’s program. In one of her largest markets, New York City, a dyslexic mayor and his schools chancellor are urging principals to select other curriculums.

So after decades of resistance, Professor Calkins has made a major retreat. A rewrite of her reading curriculum, from kindergarten to second grade, includes, for the first time, daily structured phonics lessons to be used with the whole class. There are special books and assessments to track students’ progress with decoding letters.

And it swaps light reading assignments for more rigorous texts: arctic exploration, female deep sea divers in South Korea, the architecture and culture of Islam.

The curriculum, which goes on sale this summer, also includes a 20-page guide for teachers summarizing 50 years of cognitive research on reading.

“All of us are imperfect,” she said in an interview at her office, perched above Columbia’s campus. “The last two or three years, what I’ve learned from the science of reading work has been transformational.”

It may not inspire political campaign ads the way critical race theory does, but the debate over how to teach children to read — perhaps the foundational skill of all schooling — has been just as consuming for some parents, educators and policymakers. Through decades, classroom practice has lurched back and forth, with phonics going in and out of style.

Margaret Goldberg, a Bay Area literacy coach and leader in the science of reading movement, said Professor Calkins’s changes cannot repair the harm done to generations of students. Even before the pandemic widened educational inequality, only one-third of American fourth and eighth graders were reading on grade level. Black, Hispanic and low-income children have struggled most.

“So many teachers like me have believed that a professor at Teachers College, an Ivy League institution, should be up-to-date on the reading research,” she said. “The fact that she was disconnected from that research is evidence of the problem.”

How Professor Calkins ended up influencing tens of millions of children is, in one sense, the story of education in America. Unlike many developed countries, the United States lacks a national curriculum or teacher-training standards. Local policies change constantly, as governors, school boards, mayors and superintendents flow in and out of jobs.

Amid this churn, a single charismatic thinker, backed by universities and publishing houses, can wield massive power over how and what children learn.

Myth of the Natural Reader

Some children seem to turn magically into readers, without deliberate phonics coaching. That has helped fuel a mistaken belief that reading is as natural as speaking. In fact, functional magnetic resonance imaging of the brain demonstrates that humans process written language letter by letter, sound by sound. Far from being automatic, reading requires a rewiring of the brain, which is primed by evolution to recognize faces, not words.

But that finding — by cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists — is often disconnected from the work of training teachers and producing classroom materials.

Indeed, Professor Calkins, 70, is far more typical in the world of curriculum development: She is a teacher, a writer and a theorist.

After several years teaching in her 20s, she entered academia in the late-1970s, part of a circle of thinkers developing the process-oriented approach to teaching writing. Intended for adults, it emphasizes keeping a journal to find one’s voice, receiving feedback from peers and revising drafts.

Professor Calkins became a revolutionary leader in education by bringing these practices to young children at a time when penmanship, spelling and sentence structure were often a bigger focus. At Teachers College, she began training educators in New York City schools, prompting them to give children “writers’ notebooks” to chronicle their lives. For many students, her method was empowering, although critics have said it was too loose for those without strong grammatical skills.

Still, Professor Calkins and her team were widely lauded for offering teachers respect and support. At workshops on Columbia’s idyllic campus, educators were encouraged to see themselves and their students as intellectuals. Eventually, a vibrant online community developed.

Professor Calkins expanded into reading instruction, using similar principles. A goal was to help children to build a joyful identity as a reader. Even then, she said she never doubted the importance of phonics. In sample classroom schedules, she told schools to set aside time for it.

But her influential 2001 book, “The Art of Teaching Reading,” warned about what she saw as the risks of too much sounding-it-out. She praised one teacher for avoiding “an intricate series of activities with phonics,” and argued that a simple way to build “lifelong readers” was to allow children to spend time with books they chose, regardless of content or difficulty.

For children stuck on a difficult word, Professor Calkins said little about sounding-out and recommended a word-guessing method, sometimes called three-cueing. This practice is one of the most controversial legacies of balanced literacy. It directs children’s attention away from the only reliable source of information for reading a word: letters.

Three-cueing is embedded in schools. Online, novice teachers can view thousands of how-to guides. In a 2020 video, a teacher tells children to use a picture to guess the word “car,” even though simple phonics make it decodable.

Professor Calkins said word-guessing would not be included in her revised curriculum. But in some ways, she is offering a hybrid of her old and new methods. In a sample of the new materials that she provided to The Times, teachers are told that students should first decode words using “slider power” — running their fingers under letters and sounding them out — but then check for mistakes using “picture power.”

Mark Seidenberg, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, said that while he found some of the revisions “encouraging,” he was concerned that “objectionable” concepts remain.

There is little controlled research of her methods, and two recent studies come to conflicting conclusions: One, funded by Teachers College and Professor Calkins’s publisher but conducted independently, found students in her network outperform others on reading tests. Another saw no statistically significant improvements.

Some parents say no revision from Professor Calkins could earn their trust.

Diane Dragan, a mother of three dyslexic children, aged 9 to 14, has spent years pushing the Lindbergh school district in St. Louis to drop the Units of Study. She said she paid $4,500 a month for intensive tutoring, to help her children catch up on foundational skills overlooked by the curriculum.

When children don’t learn to read, she said, “They doubt their ability to do anything in life.”

When Professor Calkins was asked what changed her mind about the science of reading, she cited, without defensiveness, several experts who have criticized her work: Professor Seidenberg, author of the influential book “Language at the Speed of Sight,” and Emily Hanford, a journalist who has investigated the shortcomings of reading instruction.

She said studying learning disabilities like dyslexia also led her to accept that all children would benefit from more structured phonics.

“Dyslexia is a spectrum,” she said.

Margaret Goldberg, the literacy coach, said Professor Calkins should offer a fuller statement of regret — and send a correction to schools using her old materials.

Professor Calkins does not believe she has anything to apologize for. She pointed out that some partner schools, like P.S. 249, a high-poverty, high-performing school in Brooklyn, have embraced a separate phonics supplement she published in 2018.

And, she asked, shouldn’t the phonics-first camp apologize? “Are people asking whether they’re going to apologize for overlooking writing?” she said.

Teachers College said in a statement that among its faculty, there was no disconnect across subjects like cognitive research, curriculum development and teacher preparation. Elementary educators and literacy specialists are required to take courses, it said, that “engage with science of reading concepts such as sequenced, research-based instruction in phonics and language patterns, phonetic reading and linguistic structures.”

The Finances

Professor Calkins has described the organization she founded in 1981, the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, as a “not-for-profit think tank.” But the project is also a business, encompassing domestic and international companies. It provides training to some 700 schools across the United States and in countries like Japan, Jordan, Spain, Singapore and Brazil.

According to a 2016 contract between New York City and Teachers College, schools paid up to $2,650 for a seven-hour visit from a consultant with Professor Calkins’s group and were encouraged to purchase 20 visits a year.

In reality, Professor Calkins said, most schools paid less. In total, the district paid $31 million between 2016 and 2022 for services from the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project.

The project has about 165 partner schools across the city, which may now be under pressure to reconsider the program.

“Lucy Calkins’s work, if you will, has not been as impactful as we had expected,” the schools chancellor, David C. Banks, said in March.

Teachers College would not detail its revenue from Professor Calkins’s activities but said her contribution to its bottom line was “modest.” A review of school contracts across the country showed that much of Professor Calkins’s work outside New York City was funneled through her businesses. That structure, she said, allowed her to pay competitive salaries to her 75-person staff. She and her co-authors also earn royalties for her books, published by Heinemann, a division of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Heinemann declined to share sales figures for the Units of Study. But schools that purchased the old curriculum within the last three years can fully deduct that cost from the list price of the revised units, which would mean they would spend $186 per classroom.

That deal, Professor Calkins said, will allow schools to afford her more science-based approach. Her organization will also push the new methods at training sessions, which are a significant expenditure for schools. Purchasing student books that accompany the curriculum costs hundreds to thousands of dollars more.

“Certainly, I am not about the money of this,” Professor Calkins said. “We’re trying to get the word out as best we possibly can.”

Classroom practice is notoriously slow to evolve, even with revised curriculum. And some of Professor Calkins’s methods are sure to remain divisive. She still believes in peer collaboration during phonics lessons, and in silent reading for kindergartners who are primarily looking at pictures. Critics see those activities as a waste of precious classroom minutes.

But because Professor Calkins has been so trusted by educators, her shift on the science of reading could drive real change, despite what some see as a long delay.

The question for Professor Calkins and schools nationwide is whether her new curriculum will show better results for students. Research points to a broad set of skills necessary to become a literate person — including phonics, vocabulary and knowledge of current events, history, art, sports and nature.

The stakes are high, said Tracy White Weeden, president of the Neuhaus Education Center, a nonprofit that trains educators in reading strategies.

“We have schools,” she said, “that have not benefited from understanding how to do the most important thing we do — ensure students leave literate.”

Dana Goldstein is a national correspondent, writing about how education policies impact families, students and teachers across the country. She is the author of “The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession.” 

A version of this article appears in print on May 22, 2022, Section A, Page 1 of the New York edition with the headline: She Helped Transform Reading Lessons. Now She’s Backtracking..

Kirsten Noyes contributed research.

Reader Comments

MJ  NY

I’ve been teaching for 32 years and the only constant is trends that swing wildly and children that get hurt. All Phonics, Whole Language, Units of Study, Old Math, New Math, No Child Left Behind, Common Core, Next Generation Learning Standards, Rigor, Shifting the Paradigm- blah, blah, blah. Every new boss comes along and changes everything, gives teachers little training in their new chosen curriculum and expects it to be taught well by day one. Three years later a new boss rolls around, trashes what the old boss decided, brings in a new curriculum, and it continues ad nauseum.

Explicit phonics works best but doesn’t work for all. Reading books every day is necessary. Phonics in every grade is necessary. Exposure to experiences, vocabulary, science, math and social studies are necessary. Writing every day is necessary. Extra recess, time spent outside and using your imagination are necessary. Using successful veteran teachers to mentor, guide and train new teachers is necessary. Academic talking heads aren’t necessary. Trusting and empowering great teachers is!

15 Replies1508 Recommend

Slim  Branchburg,NJ

There is an educational industrial complex which constantly tinkers with the classroom to sell more products. Academics looking to make their mark are all part of it. Elementary education has been made overly complex with an insane amount of material, mostly purchased from textbook publishers. Teachers are barraged constantly with new methods, seminars, training. Each year States change curriculum requirements, textbook publishers revamp to some new academic guru’s nonsense, while young teachers in college are taught only the latest trends. In retrospect, it is amazing how much was accomplished with a simple chalkboard, pencils and paper. What kids need is attention. In fact, it’s what most parents want. All these programs are sold because politicians want better test scores with less effort. There is no magic program for teaching kids. Spend time with them, be patient, identify their needs, and communicate. Of course, this means actually funding education (i.e pay teachers) not just throwing programs at the problem.

26 Replies1397 Recommend

Fay  Glen Rock

It is tragic that Lucy Calkins has had so much influence on the teaching of reading. An alphabet is a code that makes words easy to decipher. Once a child can read words without thinking, they can concentrate on the content. When my daughter struggled to read in first grade, I realized that she wasn’t being taught phonics. I taught her the vowel sounds, she then figured out the consonants easily. Within two weeks she was reading.

Soon after, I found out that many parents were paying tutors to teach her classmates to read. My son picked reading up from the phonics on Sesame Street. Both are avid readers and excellent writers. You don’t need a PhD to know that Calkins has made life difficult for many people and has no remorse. Columbia University Teachers College is more interested in setting new trends in education than supporting teaching methods that work.

8 Replies945 Recommend

Carol P  New Jersey

I studied under Lucy Calkins at Teachers College in 1990-91. The choice of the word ‘guru’ in the headline is appropriate. She WAS the English education department, showing up with two of her books for the first class declaring that this was the only way to teach reading and writing. It was a clique.

If you bought into everything that she said, you were in the clique. If you even dared to raise a question about whether there were different methods, you were ostracized. As prospective teachers (many, including myself, with the goal to teach middle or high school), we were told that lesson plans were too “teacher centered” and to “cover over the windows of our classroom doors with paper” and follow her methods even if principals disagreed. My cooperating teacher during my student teaching phase in an NYC middle school taught me most of what I know, and after 28 years in the profession, I’d like to believe that I am a good teacher despite, not because of, Calkins. While her thinking seems evolved over the years, it still seems very much like a cult-like, “my way or the highway” approach.

Also notable is criticism from Black scholars such as Lisa Delpit (her book “Other Peoples’ Children” is worthwhile reading for a different perspective on the subject) who argue that students of color are most in need of explicit instruction in phonics and grammar in order to ‘crack the code’ of standard English in order to succeed. In short, none of this surprises me. . .

6 Replies856 Recommend

M  NYC

I have taught in a public elementary school in NYC for 21 years. Our school purchased the Units of Study in both writing and reading quite a long time ago. The degree to which we have had to supplement them with other approaches and sources is immense. Most kids would not learn literacy with these curricula alone.

There really has been a sort of cult of personality around Lucy Calkins. The professional developers she hires parrot her ideas and demeanor. Regardless of her claim that she wants to support and respect teachers, the message was always “Lucy knows best.”

10 Replies848 Recommend

Laurie  Ontario

This article confirms what I’ve always suspected – people shaping the curriculum don’t have much experience in the classroom.

Lucy Calkins worked “several years” in the classroom and then went on to academia. “Several years” is not enough time to be bestowed title “literacy expert” and then being allowed to tell others how to teach with such far reaching effect.

I work in the school system, and I’ve had this discussion with many teaching friends who are “old school” and they’ve always maintained that phonics works best. We’ve noted that kids that go into their classrooms in grade 1 consistently come out reading at the end of the year. Kids that go into classrooms run by younger teachers who follow the Calkin’s method, do not reach the same level.

3 Replies632 Recommend

Enlynn Rock Virginia

I started teaching reading to six and seven years old’s a few years after the Calkin’s method was beginning to take hold, at least in more “progressive” schools. While I and my colleagues found much to appreciate in the teaching method, most of us quickly realized there still needed to be on-going phonics instruction as well, particularly for students with various reading difficulties. What most of us really appreciated was the emphasis on loving and choosing books at a level that engaged interest and elicited multiple strategies of reading skills from the students – and teachers. Good teachers know that there is no one size fits all approach.

Brian N.  St. Louis

We treat reading like we treat everything else in this country: we look for magic pills.

Living in St. Louis, as mentioned in the article, I can tell you my kids learned to read and became advanced readers at an early age because my wife and I read to our kids every night, and then we let the kids read to us. We started around ages four or five, and we focused on sounding out words. By the time they were in first or second grade, they were reading at a fourth-grade level. Purely anecdotal? Yes it is, but it works, and it always has worked.  6 Replies  492 Recommend

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