Lucy Calkins revises and revises her approaches to reading (Opinion)

The world is full of important challenges today – challenges to the environment, the economy, health and our ability to live peacefully side by side. Certainly, the challenges in education are as serious and urgent as any other. We all need to work together to give children the education they deserve.

It can be tempting to assign blame rather than focus on the real work that needs to be done to promote children’s learning. The message pushed by some advocates of phonics, and which has reached parents and even some teachers, is a very simplified one: if only teachers teach phonics exclusively, then Presto, all the problems of reading in the world will disappear.

This argument is too narrowly focused, and ignores other crucial elements for building skilled readers. It degrades teachers, the vast majority of whom have never doubted that phonics is important for reading but who also know that there is a lot of space between discovering a word and becoming a powerful and interesting reader.

The important fact is that teaching children to be great readers and writers is not easy, nor is developing an informed curriculum to do so. Studies show that the most effective way to help children become proficient readers is to rely on all the research that can guide instruction: the research behind fluency and motivation, the education of comprehension, the development of knowledge, the development of language, and yes, the research that underpins systematic phonics.

The organization I lead, the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University, works closely with teachers to develop, experiment with, and learn from ways to accelerate student progress as readers and writers. Because we always work in classrooms, we never take our eyes off the challenge of supporting the full range and diversity of needs of all individual learners within those classrooms.

We are in constant dialogue with other researchers grappling with this challenge and also learning from researchers who conduct controlled studies in laboratory settings and work with individual children and those using brain scans. Over the past five years, for example, my colleagues and I have translated research supporting Lenya Ehri’s educational theory of spelling mapping into teaching methods that rally budding readers to use the “scroll power” to decode left-to-right words.

At that time, we have embraced the value of providing children with texts in line with the range of phonics and sequencing activities and have produced beautiful decoding books that enable children everywhere to decode with enthusiasm and effectiveness.

In the past three years, we have also drawn on a full body of scholarly research on reading education to create a new version of the K2 Reading Curriculum Program’s study units. The first edition of the study units in Kindergarten to End of Education reading was released in 2014. The curriculum is usually updated every five to ten years to include the latest research and learning, and we were excited to embrace everything we learned in the past 8 years and use it to make the study units better.

The new units of study in Kindergarten to Grade 2 reading help children build knowledge as they read text collections on a topic; They help children deal with related word networks; They help young people become more strategic and active meaning makers; They honor metacognition and support executive function skills. Furthermore, 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 version of the K-2 reading units of study did not start with a blank record. Rather, it is a review of an approach that has already demonstrated widespread success. A study by the most prestigious American Institutes of Research showed that when schools adopted the original version of our curriculum (in combination with units of study in writing and phonetics) they outperformed comparable schools. that did not adopt the curriculum in statistically significant ways.

The simple truth is that when it comes to developing a curriculum that helps kids become great readers and writers, there is no magic bullet.

Then, too, the success of the units of study is evident in the many schools that depend on them and are regularly recognized as recipients of the Blue Ribbon, among the best schools in every state, or rated as “beating the odds” schools. To date, there is no evidence that a curriculum that pays singular attention to phonics and places special emphasis on children’s pronunciation of words—despite the importance of this work—would prepare children alone to master strict state standards.

The simple truth is that when it comes to developing a curriculum that helps kids become great readers and writers, there is no magic bullet. Instead, what is essential is nothing less than people working together through years in a system of continuous improvement.

It takes cognitive researchers and brain scientists, looking at brain scans to figure out what does and doesn’t open up neural pathways in the brain. It takes the best teachers in the world, translating studies into practical methods that can be used in the bustle of real classrooms and always being ready to adapt the curriculum so that it responds to the individual needs of children.

Children’s authors take on writing stories and texts that awaken children’s hearts and minds, spark their curiosity and nurture them. It requires families, helping children to come to school, to prepare to participate in nurturing learner communities. It requires societies to be prepared to address poverty and injustice, and to provide children with the additional support they need so that all children have opportunities to use reading and writing as ways to learn and influence the world.

There has never been a more pressing need to develop a nation of readers. We owe it to teachers—and children—to not get distracted, to know what’s real and what’s not, and to make time to focus on what’s most important. Let’s go to it.

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