Podcast episodes by APM Reports have raised questions about materials for teaching reading that are widely used in American schools. An author of those materials, Lucy Calkins, recently fired back at "phonics-centric people." Calkins was one of several powerful people and organizations to weigh in on the debate about how to teach reading in the past few weeks.
Senior education correspondent Emily Hanford's work on the science of reading has helped spark a national conversation. There's been lively discussion on social media and at education conferences. And many teachers and education officials say they are changing their approach to reading instruction.
However not everyone is happy with the direction things are going.
The week before Thanksgiving, Calkins — a professor at Columbia University and the author of materials to teach reading — posted a response to the "phonics-centric people who are calling themselves 'the science of reading.'" APM Reports raised questions about Calkins' work in the podcast At a Loss for Words released in August. Her response to the science of reading mentioned work by "journalists" but did not specifically identify reporting by APM.
Cognitive scientist Mark Seidenberg wrote a blog post responding to Calkins, taking on her assertions about a discredited approach to teaching reading called "three cueing." The name comes from the notion that readers use three different kinds of information — or "cues" — to identify words as they are reading. Seidenberg wrote: "Dr. Calkins says she disdains 3-cueing, but the method is right there in her document...The question is whether educators like Calkins understand the science well enough to use it to examine the validity of their beliefs about reading and act on its implications for instruction."
On Dec. 4, the International Literacy Association, an organization representing literacy educators and researchers, released a brief from its leadership. It was written in response to what the authors called "a resurgence of articles and reports" about students experiencing reading difficulties. The brief said that "the current emphasis on dyslexia and direct phonics instruction is far too narrow."
The ILA represents more than 300,000 members with a wide range of views, but the organization has long been associated with prominent proponents of an approach to teaching reading that dismissed the importance of explicit phonics instruction. The scientific research on reading shows that phonics instruction helps children become better readers. In fact, the ILA released another brief earlier this year that said exactly that. The new brief by the ILA did not contradict the earlier statement but the tone of the piece raised questions about whether the ILA is warning educators that people talking about the importance of phonics instruction are not to be trusted. As APM Reports has reported, the science of reading shows that children need more than phonics instruction to become skilled readers.
On Dec. 5, the professional organization that has represented teachers of English for more than 100 years, released a position statement on reading. While it acknowledged the importance of phonics, it excluded phonics instruction in an outline of the foundations for effective reading instruction. The statement supports what's known as a "whole language" approach to teaching reading by recommending that teachers immerse students in a literate environment, make sure they have good books, and give them time to read and talk about what they read. Those are important elements, but the statement did not address the question of how to teach children to read words. The statement said: "Reading instruction must focus primarily on meaning. An overemphasis on words, letters, and sounds misleads developing readers as to the purpose of literacy."
On the same day, the Reading Recovery Council of North America published a blog by Patricia Scharer, professor emerita at The Ohio State University, called "Responding to the Reading Wars." The piece specifically referred to questions raised by APM Reports about the work of Reading Recovery's founder, Marie Clay. The group sent a response to APM reacting to claims made in the story and subsequently published a version of that response, available here. It claimed that APM Reports "posed many flawed ideas about Marie Clay and the cueing systems," while reaffirming its belief in the cueing systems theory. The Reading Recovery Council of North America also wrongly claimed that a 1998 article by cognitive psychologist Marilyn Adams disproved assertions made by APM Reports. In fact, Adams was a source in the APM Reports story who helped make the case about why cueing is a flawed idea.
Finally, last week, Richard Allington, professor emeritus at the University of Tennessee, presented at a conference of the Literacy Association of Tennessee. Allington said that he is "reasonably sure that (dyslexia) doesn't (exist)." Allington is among a number of high-profile literacy experts who have long questioned the existence of dyslexia even though there is scientific evidence that the learning disability exists. Allington criticized a dyslexia screening law signed by former Tennessee governor Bill Haslam and said that if the governor had called him, he would have told him to veto the legislation and "shoot whoever made this bill." Allington's comments were recorded by someone in the audience and posted online here.
Listen to Emily Hanford and Stephen Smith discuss these events and more in the latest episode of Educate.