Studying “Units of Study”

Lucy Calkins and her team have published the much-anticipated revisions to her popular K-2 reading curriculum. An EdWeek article asks, are the changes to the materials sufficient? A better question is, sufficient for what? 

1. Are the revisions sufficient to get the curriculum approved for adoption in states with “science of reading” laws that require instruction in areas that the previous version neglected or discounted? 

Probably.

I have not seen the revised curriculum yet. I did receive about 50 pages of what looked to be corrected proofs of the K and grade 2 curricula a few months ago, around the time of Dana Goldstein’s New York Times article. I couldn’t tell much from them because it wasn’t clear if they were final versions or how they were selected. But looking at other curricula that have been approved, it seems likely that the new materials will be acceptable because of where the bar has been set.

The lists of approved curricula vary by state, as summarized by Sarah Schwartz in another of her outstanding EdWeek articles. Most states are including comprehensive curricula such as Wonders (McGraw Hill) and Journeys (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). These curricula are the legacy of Balanced Literacy, which held that neither phonics nor whole language worked for every child, and that effective instruction should incorporate elements of both. Teachers were encouraged to use the methods that worked best for them. Publishers responded with comprehensive curricula that cater to every taste. They include at least some phonics and sight word learning and other basic skills instruction; they also include ways to help children learn to read with minimal instruction of this sort. There’s far too much in these curricula to actually teach all of it. The teacher has to create a scope and sequence out of these blocks of marble. The teacher’s manuals are cluttered with options. For teachers who are strapped for time–and who isn’t?–this is an unreasonable burden. 

The fact that these curricula include basic skills instruction is apparently sufficient to get them on many of the approval lists. That doesn’t ensure that the material is used, let alone used effectively, because these same curricula support other approaches. The same issue arises with the new Calkins curriculum. The authors were compelled to incorporate specific kinds of basic skills instruction in order to check the regulatory boxes. If you are looking for keywords like “phonics” and “orthography,” they will be there. It is essential to examine what they have created, obviously. However, it is equally important to look at what teachers are told about using this material, in the teacher’s manuals, in the workshops and webinars on how to use the new materials, in the on-line support, on social media.* 

The revised materials may well satisfy the letter of the law(s). The further question is whether buying them is ethical. The authors and publisher are offering a replacement of unknown quality for the defective product they sold for many years. Allowing them to profit from the mess they created seems very wrong to me.

2. Are the changes sufficient to maintain the allegiance of the many teachers who have been adherents of Calkins’ approach?

Probably. 

Lucy Calkins is a guru, the longtime leader of a large community of teachers and other educators. From her books, videos, and social media presence, it’s apparent that she creates strong bonds with teachers by treating them as partners and taking their concerns personally. She speaks their language rather than the language of a reading researcher or educational bureaucrat. She clearly cares about teaching and about teachers. She is dedicated to them and many are dedicated to her. 

Calkins also gained a following by filling the gap that ed schools created by failing to prepare teachers adequately for the job. Many teachers learn about reading via materials offered by figures such as Calkins and Fountas & Pinnell, authors of another popular but misguided reading program. Teachers are grateful for the seemingly authoritative guidance these people provide. They join a supportive “community of learners” who share beliefs and goals. Ceding professional training to the producers of commercial materials is a fundamental mistake in my view.

Calkins has faced the tricky challenge of modifying her approach without alienating her base. Satisfying the states’ new adoption criteria required incorporating additional basic skills instruction, including phonics (which she had previously treated as a method of last resort), and removing discredited elements such as the “3-cueing method.” These modifications entail significant departures from views she had advocated. Calkins has been preparing her adherents for this shift via position pieces and social media activities. 

In November 2019 she circulated a manifesto “No one gets to own the science of reading,” which coupled a vigorous defense of her approach with an ugly attack on the “hype about phonics” and “phonics-centric” advocates of “phonics at the expense of everything else.” Teachers responded with heartfelt expressions of gratitude on social media for defending their beliefs and for challenging the scientists. I responded here

Calkins’ missive didn’t make reading research or concerns about her approach disappear, and states such as Arkansas began passing “science of reading” legislation. Calkins then pivoted to acknowledging that phonics and basic print skills are important and that her curriculum needed “rebalancing.” “Postcards From a Journey” (summer, 2020) announced what seemed to be a major shift in direction, which elicited heartfelt expressions of disappointment, confusion, and denial on social media. The outpouring was such that Calkins posted a long statement to her Facebook group addressing their concerns. 

Whereas “Postcards” described modifications of the curriculum significant enough to merit an announcement, the Facebook post said “What stays the same in our work with K-1 readers? 98% of it.” Reports that the revisions would be more extensive were fake news: “While the journalists will try to persuade you otherwise (controversy gets more eyes on the page than consensus), this is actually a small shift in our thinking….”

Now the final product has arrived. Is it a serious “rebalancing” or just a minor nod in the direction of “the science of reading” to satisfy outsiders’ demands? I look at these previous events and conclude that the answer will depend not only on what is in the curriculum itself but also on what is said to teachers about it. That will be important to monitor. My principal aim in writing this post is to raise awareness of this background and draw attention to the issues that have arisen since the revision was announced. 

3. Are the changes sufficient to enable teachers to teach reading more effectively, using materials and practices that incorporate modern research on how reading works and children learn?

This is the important question, of course. The answer is that we do not know. Much depends on the quality of the materials and how they are used. Having this group develop a curriculum that includes phonics and phonemic awareness may seem a little like asking a vegetarian to write the Complete Book of Meat, but they are smart, experienced people who were highly motivated to make this revision a success.

My main concern is probably obvious by now, that the authors may have only done as much as needed to retain access to a massive marketplace in which they have a lucrative share. Doing more than that would risk alienating more of the supporters who are critical to the product’s success as well as a source of revenue (via fees for workshops, webinars, and merchandise). Have they done a good job with material they would not otherwise have included? They could have. Is this material bolted on to their previous approach or an integral component of an improved approach? We’ll have to see. 

I recommend looking especially carefully at the treatment of phonics. Documents circulated in the run-up to the publication of the new materials (“No one gets to own,” “Notes from a Journey,” the Facebook group post; handouts from an October 2021 TCRWP workshop; the 50 pages from a version of the new curriculum) described an approach to phonics and other basic skills (such as memorizing “snap words,” i.e., sight words) that was seemingly patterned on the 3-cueing method. Here’s an example of “possible prompts for coaching readers” from a handout from the October 2021 workshop:

A 3-cueing approach to phonics inherits the problems with using the approach to identify words that I described in my 2017 book. This is not an efficient way to teach, given the properties of print and language, and how children learn. As in the original use of 3-cueing, the phonics document describes a scenario in which the reader engages in a series of successive approximations to the correct response. When an error is made they are given feedback in the form of a clue (or “cue”). The process repeats if additional errors are made. The inefficiency arises from the fact that learning occurs throughout this sequence, not only when the correct answer is finally produced. An alternative is to provide sufficient instruction and practice to minimize such errors and allow the student to benefit from simple and direct feedback when they occur. 

I will end the speculation here. Let’s see what Calkins and her crew have come up with.

Final disclaimer: I think that all of the big commercial curricula are part of the literacy problem. None of them were developed using modern cognitive science research as a foundation. Patching these products to meet the new state regulations is certainly better than nothing, but not as good as designing better curricula from the ground up. The existing ones are hard to use, and teachers work around them (using other materials) as well as with them. If it were up to me, I’d declare a moratorium on purchasing any of them. Invest the money in more direct support for teachers and students, such as coaches, reading specialists, tutors in the classroom, and professional development. I am not in charge; this isn’t going to happen any time soon, and so we are forced to decide which are the best of a flawed bunch.

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* My question about how the materials will be used may be less of an issue in states that are also regulating the content areas that must be covered, such as the five identified in the National Reading Panel report. Such legislation raises other issues I will take up another time.

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