Most Americans have likely never heard of Lucy Calkins, but their children's teachers probably have. Calkins, a professor of education at Columbia University, has created one of the nation's most widely used reading instruction programs, and, according to a groundbreaking new report, the program is deeply flawed.
Calkins' Units of Study series, which thousands of American teachers are using to teach children to read, "would be unlikely to lead to literacy success for all of America's public schoolchildren," the report concluded. "Children who arrive at school already reading or primed to read ... may integrate seamlessly into the routines of the Units of Study model and maintain a successful reading trajectory. However, children who need additional practice opportunities in a specific area of reading or language development likely would not."
The report was released by the nonprofit educational consulting group Student Achievement Partners (SAP). The group asked prominent reading researchers to review Calkins' Units of Study, more commonly known as "reading workshop." It appears to be the first time a group of reading researchers has reviewed a curriculum and determined whether the lessons reflect more than 40 years of scientific research on how reading skill develops.
"As far as I know, [this review] is new and different and necessary," said Sue Pimentel, a founding partner of SAP.
The United States has a serious reading problem. Recent test scores show more than a third of the nation's fourth-graders can't read at a basic level. That's despite the fact that scientists have discovered so much about how the brain learns to read and what children need to be taught. "I think there's frustration out there," Pimentel said. "It was time to take a close look. Is there a mismatch happening between what the research is saying and what publishers are producing?"
Calkins' Units of Study is the third most widely used set of core materials to teach reading, according to a survey by Education Week. But, as APM Reports has shown, the Units of Study lessons and materials frequently assert an idea about how people read that has been proven wrong by cognitive scientists. The idea, known as three cueing, encourages children to look at pictures and use contextual clues to identify words as they are reading. Scientific research shows that skilled readers do not use cues to read words and that instructing children to use these cues teaches them the habits of struggling readers.
The SAP reviewers identified cueing as a major flaw in Calkins' program.
"The program strongly recommends use of the three-cueing system as a valid procedure for assessing and diagnosing a student's reading needs," noted David Paige, an associate professor at Bellarmine University and one of seven researchers who conducted the review. "This is in direct opposition to an enormous body of settled research and even runs contrary to the Units of Study foundational skills materials that support the teaching of phonics."
In 2018, Calkins developed a Units of Study for teaching phonics. Before that, her instructional materials had largely ignored phonics.
Calkins did not respond to an interview request from APM Reports. She sent a statement through her publisher, Heinemann, in which she said that she and her team will "learn from this review as we have learned from everything else."
Research shows that beginning readers who focus on letter-sound relationships increase activity in the area of the brain best wired for reading and that phonics instruction improves children's reading success.
Paige reviewed the new phonics curriculum and other Units of Study materials and found they don't provide children with the kind of explicit instruction and practice time that research has shown is needed for all students to develop good reading skills. "The materials are contradictory," Paige said in an interview. "The materials do talk about phonics, they do teach some phonics, but then it's all just contradicted with the infusion of this [cueing] stuff throughout the curriculum."
In December, Calkins denied that her method for teaching reading is based on the cueing system. But reviewers found numerous instances of it in her curriculum materials. "The three-cueing system is baked into this program," said reviewer Claude Goldenberg, an emeritus professor at Stanford University.
Goldenberg called Calkins "dishonest" for denying that she advises teachers to use a cueing approach. "Anyone who uses her program is using [cueing], whether they call it that or they call it something else," he said.
Reviewers were also asked to look at how well Calkins' materials cover other essential aspects of reading proficiency such as building vocabulary and knowledge. Calkins has long maintained that her approach supports the development of oral language and reading comprehension skills.
However, the reviewers found her materials lacking in these areas too.
Reviewers concluded that the program's approach to knowledge-building and language development is "too unsystematic to ensure that all students would encounter adequate challenge or receive sufficient supports for successful progress, particularly in grades K-2."
For students who come from homes where they're exposed to sophisticated oral language and who acquire knowledge from well-educated parents, the lack of explicit instruction in these areas might not be a problem. But other students may be left behind, according to reviewer Marilyn Adams, a prominent reading researcher who is a visiting scholar at Brown University. "Students who enter school having had fewer opportunities to grow academic knowledge and vocabulary depend critically on such opportunities to catch up and move forward," Adams wrote.
And even students who develop vocabulary and knowledge at home could be learning more than what Units of Study provides. "All students are short-changed when knowledge-building opportunities are missed," Adams wrote.
Reviewer Tim Shanahan, an emeritus professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago, agreed. "One suspects that students who are already on or above grade level in reading may do fine [in Units of Study] ... though they may not learn as much as they possibly could."
Reviewers did have positive things to say about Units of Study. They noted that the lessons are engaging and "beautifully crafted," and that the materials are organized "above all on the value of loving to read and the encouragement of reading and writing as lifelong habits."
"That's really important," Paige said. "Kids have to see a value in being able to read, and if they don't see a value, then they learn it as just something that they can do."
Research shows that motivation matters. But in interviews, reviewers noted that an assumption that seems to underlie Units of Study is that if children are motivated to read, they will learn how to do it. This doesn't align with scientific evidence that shows reading skill does not develop naturally through exposure to text. Children have to learn how written language works, and for most children, this requires explicit instruction.
In her statement, Calkins cited an analysis by her organization at Columbia, the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, that showed students in New York City schools that have been using her materials and professional development for an average of 10 years outperformed students in other New York City Schools by 30 percentage points on the 2019 state reading test. She declined, through a representative, to provide a list of those schools.
It's important to note that curriculum is only one part of what leads to better reading outcomes for students, and that it's unlikely any one curriculum would lead to success for all students. "The most important tool in the classroom is a really knowledgeable teacher," Paige said.
But he noted that one of his concerns after reviewing Units of Study is that teachers may be picking up from the curriculum materials incorrect ideas about how skilled reading develops.
"Teachers have not received the best training in how to teach reading," Paige said. As a result, when they get into the classroom, "they really don't understand what to do. So they quite often rely on a curriculum to guide them. And unfortunately, so much of [Units of Study] is flawed."