Early reading teachers and researchers are reacting with surprise, frustration, and optimism after the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, the organization that designs one of the most popular reading programs in the country, outlined a new approach to teaching children how to read.
A document circulated at the group’s professional development events, first reported on by APM Reports on Friday, calls for increased focus on ensuring children can recognize the sounds in spoken words and link those sounds to written letters—the foundational skills of reading. And it emphasizes that sounding out words is the best strategy for kids to use to figure out what those words say.
"[P]oring over the work of contemporary reading researchers has led us to believe that aspects of balanced literacy need some ‘rebalancing,’” the document reads.
While the document suggests that these ideas about how to teach reading are new and the product of recent studies, they’re in fact part of a long-established body of settled science. Decades of cognitive science research has shown that providing children with explicit instruction in speech sounds and their correspondence to written letters is the most effective way to make sure they learn how to read words.
But it’s significant to see these ideas coming from the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. The program, founded by Lucy Calkins and housed at Columbia University, has long downplayed the importance of these foundational skills in early reading instruction, and has pushed other, disproven strategies for identifying words.
In a statement to Education Week, Calkins said that the document reflects work they have done with researchers at the Child Mind Institute, a nonprofit that supports children with mental health and learning disorders.
“Those who know us well, know that we are a university-based learning community, and that the knowledge we offer is constantly evolving and expanding. The document reflects my strong belief that children will benefit when people with diverse perspectives and backgrounds sit at the same table and listen carefully to each other,” Calkins wrote.
Calkins also noted that the document has been shared at dozens of TCRWP events, including a virtual reunion for teachers this past weekend.
Mixed Signals on Cueing
The Units of Study for Teaching Reading, the TCRWP curriculum for reading instruction in grades K-5, is one of the biggest players in the early reading market. A 2019 Education Week Research Center survey found that 16 percent of K-2 and special education teachers use the Units of Study to teach reading.
But as APM Reports noted, the curriculum has faced increased scrutiny, including from reading researchers. Some states and districts have reconsidered its use.
The curriculum doesn’t include systematic, explicit teaching in phonemic awareness or phonics in the early grades, as Education Week has reported. The company started publishing a supplemental phonics program in 2018, but marketing materials for the new units imply that phonics shouldn’t play a central role in the early years classroom. “Phonics instruction needs to be lean and efficient,” the materials read. “Every minute you spend teaching phonics (or preparing phonics materials to use in your lessons) is less time spent teaching other things.”
But it’s not only that the materials sideline phonemic awareness and phonics—they also teach reading strategies that can make it harder for students to learn these skills.
Calkins’ materials promote a strategy called “three-cueing,” which suggests that students can decipher what words say by relying on three different sources of information, or cues. They can look at the letters, using a “visual” cue. But they can also rely on the context or syntax of a sentence to predict which word would fit, the theory goes. Reading researchers and educators say that this can lead to students guessing: making up words based on pictures, or what’s happening in the story, rather than reading the words by attending to the letters.
This new document seems to signal a major change in instructional theory from the organization.
It emphasizes the importance of foundational skills, recommending that students in kindergarten and the fall of 1st grade receive daily instruction in phonemic awareness, and saying that all early readers could benefit from frequent phonics practice. It recommends decodable books—those with a high proportion of letter-sound correspondences that students have already learned—be a part of young children’s “reading diets.” And it suggests regular assessments of phonemic awareness, as problems in that area can indicate reading difficulties.
Especially notable, the document seems to do an about-face on cueing. Students should not be “speculating what the word might say based on the picture,” the document reads. Instead, teachers should tell children to “respond to tricky words by first reading through the word, sound-by-sound, (or part by part) and only then, after producing a possible pronunciation, check that what she’s produced makes sense given the context,” it reads.
The statement on cueing contradicts advice Calkins was giving less than a year ago. In November 2019, Calkins released a statement pushing back on those whom she called, “the phonics-centric people who are calling themselves ‘the science of reading.’”
In that statement last year, Calkins said teachers shouldn’t encourage students to guess at words. But she did say that students could create a hypothesis based on the context of the sentence.
In a response to Calkins’ statement, reading researcher Mark Seidenberg wrote at the time, “Dr. Calkins says she disdains 3-cueing, but the method is right there in her document.”
Teachers Need ‘Fine-Grained Guidance’
The past couple of years have marked an evolution of publishers’ and reading organizations’ public positions on reading science and how it should guide instruction, spurred in large part by media coverage of best practice from Emily Hanford of APM Reports, and other outlets, including Education Week.
In July of last year, for example, the International Literacy Association published a brief emphasizing the importance of systematic, explicit phonics instruction, a clear distinction of stance from an organization that has long included members on opposing sides of the “reading wars.”
But it’s not a given that any of Calkins’ or TCRWP’s statements will change classroom practice, said Julia Kaufman, a senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation, who studies how school systems can support high-quality instruction. Past research from RAND has also found that Calkins’ materials are widely used in U.S. schools.
“I don’t think there’s any way that we can expect a shift in [TCRWP’s] philosophy and ideas to change anything unless it’s documented and really clear to teachers where they need to change,” she said.
Curriculum and implementation is complex, Kaufman added: “Teachers need specific and detailed and fine-grained guidance in order to know what they need to do in the classroom.”
In their reporting on this recent document, APM Reports noted that educators at a recent TCRWP training received supplemental curriculum materials that encouraged decoding.
The core curriculum, though, still promotes cueing. For example, a strategies chart from a sample 1st grade lesson tells students to “Think about what’s happening,” “Check the picture,” and “Think about what kind of word would fit,” as ways to solve hard words.
Unless and until TCRWP puts out a new edition of the Units of Study for Teaching Reading, with detailed teacher guidance that reflects these philosophical shifts, Kaufman said she wouldn’t expect to see much change in elementary classrooms.
Some educators were optimistic that TCRWP’s new position could lead to more widespread adoption of evidence-based instruction and higher reading achievement. “Lots of changes still to make but this is encouraging!” wrote Erin Beard, a literacy coach, on Twitter.
Others expressed frustration over a move they saw as too little, too late.
“Is she handing out refunds for all the intervention needed for the missed learning opportunity?” LaTonya M. Goffney, the superintendent of Aldine Independent School District, wrote on Twitter. “Our most vulnerable students - black, brown, poor, ELL, & special education students paid the ultimate cost!”
Sharon Contreras, the superintendent of Guilford County schools, noted that any changes would likely come at a cost for districts using Calkins’ materials.
“Millions of dollars wasted. Thousands of students cannot read proficiently. Districts spending a small fortune on new curriculum & to retrain teachers. All totally avoidable,” she wrote, on Twitter.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.
A version of this article appeared in the October 28, 2020 edition of Education Week as Lucy Calkins Says Balanced Literacy Needs ‘Rebalancing’