In a major shift, the controversial figure in the fight over how to teach reading now says that beginning readers should focus on sounding out words, according to a document obtained by APM Reports.
The author of an influential and widely used curriculum for teaching reading is beginning to change her views.
The group headed by Lucy Calkins, a leading figure in the long-running fight over how best to teach children to read, is admitting that its materials need to be changed to align with scientific research. In an internal document obtained by APM Reports, the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University, where Calkins has served as founding director for more than 30 years, says it has been poring over the work of reading researchers and has determined that aspects of its approach need “rebalancing.”
Calkins’ changing views could shift the way millions of children are taught to read. Her curriculum is the third most widely used core reading program in the nation, according to a 2019 Education Week survey. In addition, her group at Columbia works with teachers in at least 30 countries, including Mexico, Singapore and Japan.
The shift comes amid a national debate about how schools teach reading, prompted in part by APM Reports’ coverage of the topic in the past three years. A spokesperson for Teachers College didn’t respond to a request for comment on Friday.
The United States has long struggled with teaching kids to read; 65 percent of fourth graders read at a level considered basic or below, according to the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress. Reading scientists say part of the problem is that popular curriculum materials, including those written by Calkins, rely on a disproven theory about how people read. That theory says people use meaning and sentence structure to predict words as they read when, in fact, decades of cognitive science research show that skilled reading requires an ability to decode, matching the sounds in words with the letters used to spell them.
The disproven theory, explained in a 2019 APM Reports podcast episode and story, is sometimes referred to as “cueing.” It has led to instructional strategies that prompt beginning readers to guess words using pictures and context instead of first sounding them out. Calkins’ published materials contain lessons and assessments that promote these cueing strategies. Experts say cueing teaches children the habits of struggling readers and can impede the brain’s ability to effectively process and remember written words.
In the statement obtained by APM Reports, Calkins’ group now says that beginning readers should focus on sounding out words and recommends that all children have access to “decodable” books that contain words with spelling patterns students have been taught in phonics lessons. Calkins, who once minimized the importance of phonics instruction, started selling a phonics program in 2018. But that program retained the cueing strategies. In a statement last November, Calkins lashed out at her critics, calling them “phonics-centric people” and denying that her materials promote cueing.
The new statement seems to mark a shift in her organization’s understanding of the scientific research. In addition to acknowledging problems with cueing, the statement says Calkins’ group has recently become convinced that instruction that benefits students with dyslexia also benefits all students, something reading scientists have long known.
Calkins’ work has drawn fire from experts for years, but the criticism didn’t seem to dent the popularity of her products. Now, in a series of high-profile moves, educators, policymakers and parents have begun turning away from her materials.
The Arkansas Division of Secondary and Elementary Education announced in October 2019 that any curriculum that utilizes cueing strategies won’t be approved for use in the state, meaning that Calkins’ materials and another popular program, Fountas and Pinnell Classroom, are effectively banned. Colorado released a list of approved core reading curriculum, and Calkins’ programs weren’t on the list. A group outside St. Louis sent a letter signed by 216 parents, students and taxpayers to the school board asking that Calkins, and Fountas and Pinnell be dropped. The Oakland Unified School District, whose use of Calkins’ products was highlighted in the 2019 APM Reports story, announced it was forming a committee to consider adopting new curriculum. And Student Achievement Partners, a nonprofit consulting group, published a review that concluded Calkins’ curriculum materials are “unlikely to lead to literacy success for all of America’s public schoolchildren.”
The new statement from Calkins’ group doesn’t directly address these developments and doesn’t say whether previously published lessons that contain flawed ideas will be revised or withdrawn. Educators attending a recent training institute hosted by Calkins’ group were provided with a copy of the statement and a variety of documents to supplement the existing curriculum. The materials include revised reading strategies that encourage children to use decoding instead of guessing and recommendations on where to buy decodable books. The statement says this will not be the group’s “last word on this important subject.”
Update (Oct. 21): Five days after APM Reports published this story, Lucy Calkins posted a response on Facebook. The response confirms that her group at Columbia University is making changes to its curriculum.
Calkins wrote that her group, the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, is adding a yearlong phonological awareness curriculum and will be releasing a set of decodable books. In addition, she confirmed that her group has “refined and amended” its thinking about the way teachers should prompt beginning readers who come to words they don’t know. In her Facebook post, Calkins characterized the changes as “a small shift.” But the group is moving away from the cueing system that has been foundational to its instructional approach for beginning readers.