The world is full of important challenges today—challenges to the environment, the economy, to health, and to our ability to live peacefully alongside each other. Surely, the challenges in education are as serious and as urgent as any other. All of us need to work together to give children the education they deserve.
It can be tempting to cast blame rather than to focus on the real work that needs to be done to advance children’s learning. The message that has been pushed out by some phonics advocates, and that has trickled down to parents and even some educators, is an oversimplified one: If only teachers would teach phonics exclusively, then presto, all the reading problems in the world would vanish.
This argument is much too narrowly focused, ignoring other critical elements to building skilled readers. It demeans teachers, the vast majority of whom have never doubted that phonics is important to reading but also know that there is a big space between figuring out a word and becoming a powerful, joyful reader.
The important truth is that teaching children to be great readers and writers is not simple, nor is developing an informed curriculum for doing so. Studies show that the most effective way to help kids become accomplished readers is to lean on all the research that can inform instruction: the research behind fluency and motivation, comprehension instruction, knowledge development, language development, and yes, the research that supports systematic phonics.
The organization I lead, the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University, works closely with teachers to develop, pilot, and learn from ways of accelerating students’ progress as readers and writers. Because we are always working in classrooms, we never take our eyes from the challenge of supporting the full range and diversity of needs of all the unique individual learners within those classrooms.
We are in constant dialogue with other researchers who wrestle with this challenge and we also learn from researchers who do controlled studies in lab settings working with individual children and those who use brain scans. Over the past five years, for example, my colleagues and I translated research supporting educational psychologist Linnea Ehri’s theory of orthographic mapping into methods of teaching that rally emerging readers to use “slider power” to decode words from left to right.
In that time, we have embraced the value of providing children with texts aligned to phonics scope and sequence activities and have produced beautiful decodable books that are empowering kids everywhere to decode with zeal and agency.
In the past three years, we also drew from the full range of scientific research on reading instruction to create a new edition of Units of Study in K-2 Reading curriculum program. The first edition of the K-2 Units of Study in Reading was released in 2014. Curriculum is typically updated every five to 10 years to incorporate the latest research and learnings, and we were excited to embrace all that we’d learned in the last 8 years and use it to make Units of Study even better.
The new Units of Study in K-2 Reading help children build knowledge as they read across text sets on a topic; they help children work with webs of related vocabulary words; they help youngsters be more strategic and active meaning makers; they honor metacognition and support the executive function skills. Moreover, the new Units of Study go much further in helping teachers respond to the fact that children learn differently and deserve personalized responsive teaching.
The new edition of Units of Study in K-2 Reading didn’t begin with an empty slate. Instead, it is a revision of a curriculum that has already demonstrated widespread success. A study by the prestigious American Institutes for Research showed that when schools adopted the original edition of our curriculum (in combination with Units of Study in Writing and Phonics) they outperformed similar schools that did not adopt the curriculum in statistically significant ways.
The simple truth is that when it comes to developing a curriculum that will help children become great readers and writers, there is no panacea.
Then, too, the success of Units of Study is evidenced in the many schools that rely on them and are regularly recognized as Blue Ribbon recipients, rank among the best schools in each state, or are designated as schools that “beat the odds.” To date, there is no evidence that a curriculum that gives sole attention to phonics and focuses especially on kids sounding out words—as important as that work is—will, on its own, prepare kids for mastery of rigorous state standards.
The simple truth is that when it comes to developing a curriculum that will help children become great readers and writers, there is no panacea. Instead, what’s necessary is nothing less than people, working together across years in a system of continual improvement.
It takes cognitive researchers and brain scientists, poring over brain scans to see what does and does not open neural pathways in the brain. It takes the world’s best teachers, translating studies into practical methods that can be used in the hubbub of real classrooms and always being ready to adapt curriculum so that it responds to individual children’s unique needs.
It takes children’s authors writing stories and texts that awaken the hearts and minds of children, stirring curiosity and care. It takes families, who help children come to school, ready to participate in caring communities of learners. It takes communities willing to tackle poverty and inequity, providing additional supports for children who need them so that all children have opportunities to use reading and writing as ways to learn about and influence the world.
The work of developing a nation of readers has never been more urgently needed. We owe it to teachers—and children—not to get distracted, to recognize what’s true and what’s not true, and to take time to focus on what’s most important. Let’s get to it.
A version of this article appeared in the November 23, 2022 edition of Education Week as Lucy Calkins Revisits and Revises Her Reading Curriculum