Reading & Literacy

Reading Workshop ‘Unlikely to Lead to Literacy Success,’ Researchers Say

By Sarah Schwartz — January 16, 2020 7 min read
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A new player has moved into the curriculum review market: Nonprofit consulting group Student Achievement Partners announced this week that it is going to start evaluating literacy curricula against reading research.

The group released its first report on Thursday: an evaluation of the Units of Study for Teaching Reading in grades K-5, a workshop style program designed by Lucy Calkins and published through the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project.

The seven literacy researchers who reviewed the program gave it a negative evaluation, writing that it was “unlikely to lead to literacy success for all of America’s public schoolchildren.”

Children who come to school “already reading or primed to read” could likely stay on track with the program, the researchers write. “However, children who need additional practice opportunities in a specific area of reading or language development likely would not.”

They found that Units of Study doesn’t provide enough systematic, explicit instruction in foundational reading skills, and that there weren’t consistent opportunities for students to experience complex text and build background knowledge. “The ‘make your own adventure’ design left reviewers skeptical that crucial aspects of reading acquisition would get the time and attention required to enable all students to become secure in their reading ability,” the researchers write.

In an emailed statement to Education Week, Calkins responded to the critiques in the report. “The Teachers College Reading and Writing Project has always been a learning community. We’ll learn from this review as we have learned from everything else,” she wrote.

Calkins also said that the program develops other skills that the review didn’t evaluate. “Teachers in our schools work to help students become passionate, critical, life-long readers, and writers who develop confident voices,” she wrote. “We applaud our schools for creating communities that increase equity as well as achievement.”

Student Achievement Partners’ new project comes amid a recent push for evidence-based early reading instruction. Recent reporting, including from Education Week, has identified the ways in which some popular instructional practices and early literacy curricula don’t align with the science around best practices. Still, it can be difficult for schools and districts to evaluate whether materials are supported by validated research.

There are organizations that independently rate curricula. The most-well known of these is EdReports, a nonprofit that enlists teams of teacher reviewers to examine math, English/language arts, and science materials. The group also recently took on foundational skills programs, which cover the basics of early reading and writing.

But EdReports evaluates how well materials meet the Common Core State Standards. Looking at alignment to the research base is a “different lens,” said Meredith Liben, the senior fellow for strategic initiatives at Student Achievement Partners.

It’s significant that the organization has determined a need for reviews that look beyond the common core. Student Achievement Partners’ founders were lead writers of the standards. But there are factors that the standards alone can’t capture, said David Liben, an adviser to the group.

For example, he said, the common core says that programs need to teach vocabulary. But there are lots of different ways to go about doing that in a classroom, and not all of those practices are research-based. That’s the kind of information Student Achievement Partners is seeking to clarify with its reviews.

Units of Study is one of the most popular early reading programs in the country. According to an Education Week Research Center survey, 16 percent of teachers have used the materials in their classrooms. The new report notes some of the features that have made the curriculum popular with teachers, including the value it places on learning to love reading as a lifelong habit, and the respect for teachers conveyed in the lessons.

Its popularity is one of the reasons Student Achievement Partners chose to review Units of Study, according to Meredith Liben. Calkins’ approach is the “balanced literacy prototype,” she said.

Eventually, Student Achievement Partners plans to review examples of several different types of reading programs: a basal reader, a knowledge-building curriculum, and a hybrid, “innovative” model. The goal is to give curriculum decision makers a better idea about the differences between programs—so they can make informed choices when selecting materials, but also so that they can “backfill” the gaps that may exist in the materials they’re already using, Meredith Liben said.

Lack of Systematic Instruction

The Units of Study’s workshop model takes a constructivist approach to education, prioritizing student choice and independent learning. Teachers demonstrate the skills and habits that good readers have, and then students practice them on their own in books of their choice, with teachers acting as guides.

As Education Week has reported, the K-2 lessons emphasize students developing their identities as readers and exploring print, with comparatively little focus on learning how to decode words.

Recently, Calkins has pushed back against critics. In November, she released a statement in response to “the phonics-centric people who are calling themselves ‘the science of reading.’”

“I want to point out that no one interest group gets to own science,” Calkins wrote, in the statement.

But the seven reading researchers who evaluated the program said that much of its content doesn’t align to evidence-based best practice. There’s not enough explicit instruction in foundational skills, they write, and the focus on student choice of leveled books doesn’t provide sufficient opportunity for children to grapple with complex text and build their knowledge.

“Mapping the print system to our oral speech system is what’s fundamental in learning to read,” said Claude Goldenberg, a professor emeritus at Stanford University and an author of the report. But in the Units of Study, “there’s no systematic building up of how you teach kids to understand and apply the alphabetic principle.”

Goldenberg, who is an expert on reading development for English language learners, said the lack of systematic instruction is a special concern for this group. And while Units of Study includes general guidance on supports for English learners in its introductory materials, individual lessons don’t include guidance for differentiation for this group. The lack of explicit supports for ELLs, along with “inflated claims” about the program’s alignment to the research base on supporting ELL literacy development, were surprising and concerning, Goldenberg said.

In response to critiques of the program’s support for ELLs, Calkins cited TCRWP’s own analysis of state achievement data in “core” schools, which have been using the program for an average of 10 years. English learners in these schools outperformed English learners citywide by 13.5 percentage points, Calkins said.

The program also uses the three-cueing system, a strategy that can encourage students to use pictures and sentence structure to figure out what words say. Teaching these cues “is in direct opposition to an enormous body of settled research,” the report’s authors write.

Looking beyond foundational skills, the researchers evaluated the program’s text complexity and ability to build vocabulary and background knowledge.

In grades K-2, when students are just learning to decode words, they’re relying on read-alouds for most of their exposure to complex, knowledge-building texts, writes Lily Wong Fillmore, a professor emerita at the University of California, Berkeley and one of the report’s authors. These read-alouds should be well above grade level, she says, to maximize students’ learning opportunities. But she found that for the most part, the read-alouds suggested in Units of Study are only at or slightly above grade level.

In general throughout K-5, students are encouraged to stick to independent reading books that are at their grade level. There’s no research to support this practice, said Timothy Shanahan, a professor emeritus at the University of Illinois Chicago, and an author on the report. And it limits students’ exposure to challenges like complex sentences and advanced vocabulary.

It’s also hard to know how well students’ independent reading books meet standards of text complexity, Shanahan said. That’s because teachers are instructed to draw on their own classroom libraries, and students pick the books they want to read.

“The chance that a youngster or a teacher would create a series of texts that would be an adequate challenge or support—it could happen, but it’s rather a chancey proposition,” Shanahan said.

Students who have already developed foundational reading skills and have a lot of prior exposure to books might be successful in Units of Study, said Shanahan. But the students who need more support are likely to struggle.

“Kids are going to have to figure out a lot of things for themselves,” he said.

Image: Getty

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.