In October, national media reported on the remarkable shift toward phonics and away from 3-Cueing now under way for noted reading curriculum leader Lucy Calkins and the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. Three decades ago, Calkins founded the project, which is now one of the top U.S. reading curriculum providers, and continues to direct it. And I can say, “I was there in 2020,” which could go down in the history of teaching reading as equivalent to Tucson's “I was there in ‘79” when the University of Arizona beat UCLA and USC back-to-back. More importantly, those double wins launched a nearly 20-year journey to the NCAA championship, in 1997.
While I hope it won’t take as long for Lucy Calkins and those who are deeply engaged in her methods to truly incorporate systematic phonics into their reading program, what I saw in October 2020 suggests it’s not a slam dunk yet. They are just starting their journey toward championship-level reading teaching.
This fall, Teachers College Reading and Writing Project held two distinctive institutes related to reading instruction: one geared to general literacy, and one focused on supporting elementary students of all grades who struggle with dyslexia. I took part in the sessions focused on kindergarten to second grade to learn about changes in TCRWP’s early literacy instruction.
Clearly, the TCRWP staff were moving away from their long-held (and inaccurate) theories of reading and leaning into the science. This appears to be the fruit of their 2019 collaboration with neuroscientists and educators at the ChildMind Institute. Working with ChildMind experts, TCRWP hosted their first Dyslexia Institute in October 2019.
Here’s the gist of what ChildMind has helped them understand:
- Reading acquisition is neurobiological and unrelated to intelligence.
- Reading is not natural like speaking, but some kids pick up reading very easily—about 5%.
- Another 35% of students do okay with“broad instruction,” not unlike how many teachers deploy the TCRWP workshops.
- The majority of students need much more explicit, structured, diagnostic and prescriptive instruction.
- Teachers should categorize the errors students make and address them by category, rather than count and log the number of errors.
- Kids with dyslexia need much more repeated, explicit instruction about how letters represent sounds in written words.
In the 2019 workshop, ChildMind Institute noted that even the kids who read rather easily with broad instruction will benefit from more explicitly taught decoding strategies.
Even after this breakthrough collaboration, though, Lucy Calkins wrote a defense of TCRWP’s longstanding methodology that left experts scratching their heads. Soon after, an expert review of TCRWP’s curricular Units of Study was published that questioned their effectiveness.
However, by this fall’s institutes, I could see some progress has been made. The first institute referred to Scarborough’s Reading Rope, an infographic that shows the importance of both word recognition and language comprehension. By depicting a rope, it reminds people that if one strand is weak, the rope is weak. So early readers need instruction in both, especially to support their growth in automatic word recognition.
From the two institutes it is clear that:
- They now understand reading (how to decode the written word) and spelling (how to encode the spoken word in writing) are connected processes in a student's brain and that they reinforce one another. A teacher can see from students’ spelling if they are trying to represent all the sounds in a word and can assess a lot about students’ phonemic and phonological awareness.
- TCRWP staff now understand why decoding is better than guessing. Decoding helps build funds of codes and eventually sight words that apply to other words in our memory banks.
A picture may enhance the story and should be studied, but the words must be learned independently from the picture. While we all watched a video of Lucy Calkins talking to a ChildMind Institute neuroscientist about decoding from words and not guessing from pictures, I could see the other half of the zoom screen fill with wide eyes and dropped jaws.
Problems of Practice
Some people were truly shocked to hear the way they had been teaching for years wasn’t effective for all students. At the same time, other teachers even smiled because they were already aware of the problem and eager to bring this information back to their schools.
In another breakthrough departure from past practice, TCRWP staff discussed assessments beyond Running Records. They talked about the place and time for different kinds of screeners that might help teachers address reading issues very early and on a continuing basis.
Yet there is still more work to be done for them to really grasp the depth of changes needed. This fall, the staff at TCRWP said they are still considering how best to fit fundamental early literacy skills into their workshop framework. They want to keep the workshop—a centerpiece of their curricular approach—and slip in phonics instruction. However, that’s somewhat like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole.
This problem was underscored during an October institutes session when I watched a ChildMind Institute tutor deliver a structured literacy lesson to a dyslexic student. It was clear this kind of direct instruction would not fit in the workshop model.
There were other problems of practice, too. I saw teachers balk at words like “fidelity” and “sequence.” We watched a teacher offer a small-group lesson that had clear problems. She did not group students who were at the same reading level, so one kid struggled much more than the others. If this problem is common, teachers need much more training, or classes need to be better arranged for easy grouping into subsets of readers at the same level.
In short, although TCRWP’s latest evolution is not a slam dunk by any means, it may be a strong start to a journey to end the Reading Wars.