Last year, one of the biggest figures in U.S. literacy instruction announced plans to revise her curriculum program that would mark a significant shift in how the materials guide teachers to approach early reading.
Now, the new version of the program is here. And while the materials have undergone large-scale changes, reading researchers and educators who have reviewed excerpts offer mixed reviews on their potential to shift classroom instruction.
The literacy leader in question is Lucy Calkins, the Teachers College, Columbia University professor whose well-known Units of Study for Teaching Reading are used by about 16 percent of K-2 teachers.
Critics had claimed the reading program did not align to the “science of reading,” or the body of evidence that underpins how children learn to comprehend text. Several reviews from education organizations found that it did not explicitly and systematically teach children how to decode words, and instead taught other, disproven strategies for word-reading largely based on context clues.
Calkins initially pushed back on these claims, but later pledged changes to her reading program in grades K-2. This week, the curriculum’s publisher, Heinemann, made the first few units of the program available for purchase.
Overview documents for the new units promise that the revisions “represent wholesale changes” that incorporate reading research across domains.
“[T]here are some strategies that the field—university courses, professional books, intervention programs, and yes, the last edition of Units of Study—has taught that no longer represent the latest and most current thinking,” Calkins wrote, in a statement to Education Week. “Progress is made when people are willing to rethink, and I hope that every educator out there, at every level, embraces opportunities to be a continual learner.”
David Paige, a professor of literacy education at Northern Illinois University, said that these revisions mark an inflection point for balanced literacy—the philosophy underpinning Calkins’ prior work and that of many other popular series that emphasize the context methods.
“When they change, that’s going to leave all the other folks in the camp with one of two recourses—they either choose to change with her, or they have to go find a new camp,” he said.
Nevertheless, some other educators worry that the new version doesn’t explicitly distance itself enough from disproven practices.
When asked whether the new version of the units is a corrective, Matthew Mugo Fields, the president of Heinemann, said that the units have been “highly effective.”
“We stand by the quality of the program,” he said. “Like anything else in modern life, we are continuously improving, continuously enhancing, trying to find new and better ways to do things. We are not unique in that regard.”
What’s in the new Units of Study reading program
The Units of Study for Teaching Reading aren’t, on their own, a core curriculum. They’re designed to be used in connection with the organization’s phonics and writing programs, or other, outside curricula that would cover the same ground.
Still, one of the biggest changes in the new units is their approach to how children identify words when they’re reading text. Reviews of previous versions of the program noted that it relied heavily on a method commonly known as three-cueing.
In this approach to word reading, teachers are told to use a host of strategies to help students figure out words that they don’t recognize. Children might look at the first letter and think about what word would make sense in the space, or look to the picture for context clues. Sounding the word out is just one strategy among several that they could choose from.
Researchers say the approach encourages students to take their eyes off of the letters on the page and lowers the likelihood that they will be able to transfer their knowledge of letter-sound correspondences—their phonics skills—to reading books.
In samples of the new units provided to Education Week, the materials have abandoned these cueing strategies. Instead, they offer teachers new prompts, such as encouraging students to use their “slider power” to slide through all of the sounds in a word, or tackle multisyllabic words part by part.
The materials also include a scope and sequence for the phonics skills that students should master in each unit as well as short assessments that teachers can use to periodically check on students’ progress. A series of decodable books—short practice texts that include many words with phonics patterns that students have learned—are also available for purchase. The lessons include discussion prompts designed to build vocabulary around the stories.
Melissa Spada, a 1st grade teacher at Forest Elementary School in Williamsville, N.Y., whose school piloted the new units, said that the phonological awareness and phonics additions supported her students.
“Our kids were able to read more difficult books, and they were also able to use all of that phonics knowledge in their writing. The transfer between reading and writing was really very clear,” she said.
Beyond foundational skills, the units cover strategies to build comprehension via exposure to content and lessons on text structure. Excerpts from the program provided to Education Week included nonfiction lessons on natural phenomena.
Calkins also highlighted increased focus on diversity and inclusion in the materials, noting that the decodable books were written and illustrated to reflect the lives and experiences of the children in U.S. classrooms.
Cultural responsiveness has been a flashpoint in the development of these new units. Publication was delayed this summer after educator focus groups suggested some edits might run afoul of new state laws limiting how teachers can discuss race, sex, and gender. The publisher and the Teachers College team began another revision process to address some of these concerns, but abandoned that rewrite after protests from other Heinemann authors, the New York Times reported in July.
When asked whether the portions flagged by focus groups made it into the final version, Fields said that representing students of different ethnicities and backgrounds was a key part of Heinemann’s equity, inclusion, and diversity guidelines. “There are families of all different types that are represented in the new units,” he said.
How significant are the changes?
The revisions in the new units demonstrate some major changes, said Paige. He participated in an external review of the program published in 2020, and viewed samples of the new material provided to Education Week.
“They’ve done a 180 on this thing,” he said. “This is quite different than the Units of Study that we reviewed a couple of years ago.”
Samples of the kindergarten materials spend a lot of time on phonemic awareness and letter-sound correspondence—and they incorporate more explicit, direct instruction that can help students learn how to blend sounds and read through words, Paige said.
Even so, he said, the materials move through letter features at a pace that might be too fast for most students.
Calkins disputed that characterization, saying that the Units of Study in Reading are designed to complement phonics instruction—not be its sole source.
But Margaret Goldberg, a school-based literacy coach in California and the co-founder of the Right to Read Project, worries that students still may have trouble getting this initial instruction from TCRWP’s other materials. A previous review of the Units of Study in Phonics, the foundational skills program from the group, found that it had only limited explicit instruction.
She also questioned whether the units featured systematic instruction in other areas—like a scope and sequence for the vocabulary words taught in each unit and grade, or the grammar skills.
Some of this comes down to a fundamental difference in approach. Many curricula promoted by science of reading advocates feature a lot of direct instruction. By contrast, Calkins’ units are built on a “workshop” model. Teachers give “mini-lessons,” and then students spend a large chunk of their time independently applying those skills, with support from their teachers.
The units still follow this workshop framework, said Melissa Johnson, the English/language arts instruction coach in the Williamsville district.
“While kids are working on their reading, a lot of what teachers are doing is coaching,” Calkins said, in a video tour of the units provided to Education Week.
Are new prompts for teachers specific enough?
The program now suggests that teachers make different kinds of coaching comments. Instead of a “huge array” of different prompts, Calkins said, the units “make very careful choices so that we get teachers making the same coaching comments repeatedly—so that kids internalize those comments and coach themselves.”
But a lot of students will need more specific guidance, said Claude Goldenberg, a professor emeritus at Stanford University who studies early literacy development in English-language learners. “This won’t be systematic and explicit enough for many kids and many teachers,” said Goldenberg, who was part of the same external review team as Paige in 2020.
Still, in Williamsville, the new materials are prompting some discussions.
“We’ve started to reevaluate how we use MSV,” said Johnson, using the acronym for meaning, structure, and visual information—the three “cues” that the units previously encouraged students to use to read words.
Educators are talking about how to use visual information—letters—as a “starting place” for students, Johnson said.
Goldberg, the California literacy coach, worries that other schools might not make the same changes.
Districts now have a choice, she said. They can keep using the previous version of the materials, or they can pay for the new ones.
And because Heinemann is promoting these updates as a revision, rather than a correction, Goldberg thinks it’s harder for schools to justify shelling out the cost.
“When you think of it as just an update—the way a publisher puts out new things all the time—then you think, ‘Do you really have to buy that?’”
A version of this article appeared in the November 23, 2022 edition of Education Week as As Revised Lucy Calkins Curriculum Launches, Educators Debate If Changes Are Sufficient