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LITERACY IN THE NEWS

Below are news articles and curriculum reviews about the Science of Reading and Balanced Literacy, HPISD's current approach which includes Lucy Calkins Units of Study and Fountas & Pinnell. The articles are listed in chronological order and a brief summary is provided.

To read news articles about how various states are requiring training and curriculum aligned to the Science of Reading, go to the Texas and Beyond page.

APM Reports Series by Emily Hanford, award-winning APM Reports Senior Producer and Correspondent. Hanford has covered the topic of how schools teach students to read since 2017. Her groundbreaking podcast episode Hard Words, on why children aren’t being taught to read, was a winner of the inaugural Public Service award from Education Writers Association in 2019. She has a series of articles (with accompanying podcasts) that provides continuing coverage of this topic.

 

We’re teaching mediocrity in literature classrooms / Fordham Institute / Feb 2022

Since the beginning of the common school movement in the 1800s, we have valued our institutions of public education for their unifying nature, and the creation of a literate populace is an essential element of that goal. But much modern-day English instruction accomplishes neither. These middle school and high school classrooms barely resemble what you or I remember from our school years. A common approach to literary instruction, the “workshop model,” features a different novel for every student—invariably always young-adult fiction—and no collective discussion of a shared text. Its most common manifestation, Lucy Calkins’s Units of Study, permeates thousands of schools across the country, while the general model is near ubiquitous.

 

In fact, calling Calkins’s approach a “curriculum” is charitable. It centers no specific books or knowledge and is more a set of practices for the teacher to follow. Despite its popularity, distinguished professor of education Timothy Shanahan has written that there’s “not a single study that supports its use.”

 

Among the faults of the workshop model is its lack of rigorous texts. Like strength training, the mind requires tension to grow. When students self-select novels, easier books appeal, and so, like lifting a bar with no weight over and again, literacy stagnates. Shanahan writes that students need “exposure to sophisticated vocabulary, rich content, and complex language” and a workshop model does not guarantee such exposure. Like a literary buffet, one student may spend a semester with varied, rigorous literature such as Edgar Allan Poe and another with Diary of a Wimpy Kid.

 

Why So Many Kids Struggle to Learn: Teachers continue to be trained in ways that ignore the findings of cognitive science / The American Scholar (publication of Phi Beta Kappa) / Dec 2021

In a 2019 survey conducted by the publication Education Week, kindergarten through second-grade teachers and those trained in special education were asked where they had learned most of what they knew about reading instruction. Only five percent cited their preservice training. A Facebook group created in August 2019 called “Science of Reading—What I Should Have Learned in College” attracted more than 100,000 members in less than two years.

 

The scientific evidence on reading comprehension isn’t as voluminous as the data on phonics, but it’s well established that relevant knowledge and vocabulary are central to success. That evidence accords with cognitive load theory: if readers don’t have sufficient background knowledge of a topic, their working memory quickly becomes overwhelmed. There haven’t been many studies of whether building kids’ academic knowledge will boost reading comprehension, as measured by standardized tests, but the database is growing, and it’s promising.

 

Nevertheless, in ed schools—and K–12 classrooms—reading comprehension is typically reduced to a menu of “skills and strategies,” like “finding the main idea” or “making text-to-self connections,” to be practiced by students on a random variety of books they can read easily on their own.

 

Never Heard Of Lucy Calkins? Here’s Why You Should Have / Forbes / Nov 2021

Problems with the methods used by Calkins and others for teaching phonics and other foundational reading skills have been well analyzed by others (for example, here and here). Recently, an organization called EdReports, which rates curricula for their alignment to Common Core or similar standards, gave both the Units of Study and Fountas and Pinnell’s curriculum its lowest ratings. And in January 2020, an organization called Student Achievement Partners (SAP) issued a report finding that Calkins’ approach to phonics was “in direct opposition to an enormous body of settled research.”

 

But these reports focus only in part on phonics. The SAP report also gave the Units of Study low marks for complexity of the texts used and for how well the curriculum builds students’ knowledge. Similarly, EdReports found that both curricula failed to meet its standards for “text quality.”

 

 

But the basic idea is the same: What’s put in the foreground is a series of strategies rather than any particular content. The topic may be clouds one day and zebras the next.

 

Students then practice the strategies on texts that may have nothing to do with the topic used to demonstrate it. And they’re limited to books at their “individual reading level”—meaning easy enough to read on their own—which may be years below their “grade level.” The objective isn’t for students to learn anything about topics in, say, history or science. The theory is that eventually they’ll be able to use the strategies they’ve learned to acquire knowledge through their own reading.

 

The problem, as cognitive scientists have long understood, is that you need to first have some knowledge—either of the topic or of general academic vocabulary—in order to gain knowledge from written text, especially as it gets more complex. To acquire academic vocabulary, many students need coherent, systematic instruction in a series of topics that give them repeated exposure to the same concepts and words in varied contexts over a period of weeks.

 

New Curriculum Review Gives Failing Marks to Two Popular Reading Programs: Fountas and Pinnell, Calkins’ Units of Study get low marks on EdReports / Education Week / Nov 2021

Two of the nation’s most popular early literacy programs that have been at the center of a debate over how to best teach reading both faced more new critiques in the past few weeks, receiving bottom marks on an outside evaluation of their materials.

 

EdReports—a nonprofit organization that reviews K-12 instructional materials in English/language arts, math, and science—published its evaluation of Fountas and Pinnell Classroom Tuesday, finding that the program didn’t meet expectations for text quality or alignment to standards. The release comes on the heels of the group’s negative evaluation last month of the Units of Study from the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, another popular early reading program.

 

Together, the two reports received the lowest ratings EdReports has given for K-2 curricula in English/language arts, and they’re among the three lowest for ELA in grades 3-8.

 

 

Recently, these programs have faced criticism from educators and researchers that the instructional methods they use don’t align with, or in some cases contradict, the research on how to develop strong readers. Fountas and Pinnell has pushed back against these characterizations. Lucy Calkins, the director of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, has announced an upcoming revision to the Units of Study, set to be released in summer 2022. 

Note: The publisher is expected to publish updated materials Summer 2022, which HPISD would need to purchase if they don’t want to continue to use core materials in K-8 classrooms that now even the author herself has misgivings about. 

States to Schools: Teach Reading the Right Way / Education Week / Feb 2020

The “science of reading” generally refers to the body of research that’s piled up over decades on how children learn to read. The National Reading Panel Report, in 2000, articulated what have come to be known as the “big five” essential components of effective reading instruction for young children. The federally funded panel found that most children will become better readers with explicit, systematic phonemic awareness and phonics instruction, as well as instruction in fluency, vocabulary, and reading comprehension.

 

Those findings have been reaffirmed in so many studies that they’re widely considered settled science. But many elementary schools and teacher-preparation programs still favor a balanced-literacy approach, which draws from the “whole language” movement popular in the ’90s, and is based on the idea that children learn to read if they’re given good books and the right supports and strategies. Some phonics instruction is generally included, but it’s not necessarily systematic.

 

 

But what distinguishes the newer crop of laws in the last few years is their sharpened focus. Many are spelling out the elements of research-proven reading instruction, specifying the big-five components of reading from the National Reading Panel report, or citing other foundational skills known to be important to reading, such as building students’ base of content knowledge.

 

Recent laws also put the entire pipeline of reading instruction directly in their crosshairs, imposing new requirements not only on aspiring teachers but also on district leaders, principals, and classroom teachers. Most target K-3 teachers, but some laws impose new requirements on all K-6 teachers, and some even reach into high school.

 

States are working together on this new breed of requirements. State superintendents organized a national convening last month, where they brainstormed about how to hold teacher-prep programs accountable for new teachers’ competency in reading instruction; how to press for high-quality, research-based curriculum; and how to work with districts to ensure that current teachers are skilled reading teachers.

 

Lucy Calkins Says Balanced Literacy Needs ‘Rebalancing’ / Education Week / Oct 2020

Note: The publisher is expected to publish updated materials Summer 2022, which HPISD would need to purchase if they don’t want to continue to use core materials in K-8 classrooms that now even the author herself has misgivings about. 

 

"[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.

 

 

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.

 

The Science of Reading Podcast: S1-E15: Ernesto Ortiz on principals navigating a Science of Reading adoption / March 2020

Mr. Ortiz’ career in education spanned 19 years, including roles as principal, assistant principal, and elementary teacher. He has worked in both urban and suburban districts.

 

“I'm starting my 19th year in education, and it wasn't until my 18th year that I became remotely aware of the scientific knowledge base behind reading acquisition and it wasn't until the 2018 release of Emily Hanford work Hard Words, which really opened my eyes to the scientific knowledge base that supports the reading acquisition. And I went through the stages of denial, anger, and ultimately acceptance because all the things that Emily Hanford was chronicling in terms of what strategies I thought were good to teach readers how to read actually did not align with the evidence base. And it took me some time to digest and it really prompted me to dive deeper into the theoretical frameworks and the theory behind reading acquisition.”

 

Experts say widely used reading curriculum is failing kids: A first of its kind review finds Lucy Calkins' materials don't align with the science of reading (Article links to in-depth expert review) / APM Reports / Jan 2020

In December, Calkins denied that her method for teaching reading is based on the cueing system. But reviewers found numerous instances of it in her curriculum materials. "The three-cueing system is baked into this program," said reviewer Claude Goldenberg, an emeritus professor at Stanford University.

 

Goldenberg called Calkins "dishonest" for denying that she advises teachers to use a cueing approach. "Anyone who uses her program is using [cueing], whether they call it that or they call it something else," he said.

 

 

And even students who develop vocabulary and knowledge at home could be learning more than what Units of Study provides. "All students are short-changed when knowledge-building opportunities are missed," Adams wrote. [Marilyn Adams, a prominent reading researcher who is a visiting scholar at Brown University]

 

 

But he [Bellarmine University researcher and professor David Paige] noted that one of his concerns after reviewing Units of Study is that teachers may be picking up from the curriculum materials incorrect ideas about how skilled reading develops.

 

"Teachers have not received the best training in how to teach reading," Paige said. As a result, when they get into the classroom, "they really don't understand what to do. So they quite often rely on a curriculum to guide them. And unfortunately, so much of [Units of Study] is flawed."

 

At a Loss for Words: How a flawed idea is teaching millions of kids to be poor readers / APM Reports / August 2019

For decades, schools have taught children the strategies of struggling readers, using a theory about reading that cognitive scientists have repeatedly debunked. And many teachers and parents don't know there's anything wrong with it.

 

 

[Parent Molly Woodworth] was stunned. "I thought, 'Oh my God, those are my strategies.' Those are the things I taught myself to look like a good reader, not the things that good readers do," she said. "These kids were being taught my dirty little secrets."

 

She went to the teacher and expressed her concerns. The teacher told her she was teaching reading the way the curriculum told her to.

 

Woodworth had stumbled on to American education's own little secret about reading: Elementary schools across the country are teaching children to be poor readers — and educators may not even know it.

 

For decades, reading instruction in American schools has been rooted in a flawed theory about how reading works, a theory that was debunked decades ago by cognitive scientists, yet remains deeply embedded in teaching practices and curriculum materials. As a result, the strategies that struggling readers use to get by — memorizing words, using context to guess words, skipping words they don't know — are the strategies that many beginning readers are taught in school. This makes it harder for many kids to learn how to read, and children who don't get off to a good start in reading find it difficult to ever master the process.

 

 

The fact that a disproven theory about how reading works is still driving the way many children are taught to read is part of the problem. School districts spend hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars on curriculum materials that include this theory. Teachers are taught the theory in their teacher preparation programs and on the job. As long as this disproven theory remains part of American education, many kids will likely struggle to learn how to read.

 

 

According to the lesson plan, this lesson teaches children to "know and apply grade-level phonics and word analysis skills in decoding words."

 

But the children were not taught to decode words in this lesson. They were taught to guess words using pictures and patterns — hallmarks of the three-cueing system.

 

The author of Units of Study for Teaching Reading, Lucy Calkins, often refers to cueing in her published work. She uses the term MSV — the meaning, structure and visual idea that originally came from Clay in New Zealand.

 

Then there is Fountas and Pinnell Literacy, started by Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell, teachers who learned the MSV concept from Clay in the 1980s.

 

Fountas and Pinnell have written several books about teaching reading, including a best-seller about a widely used instructional approach called "Guided Reading." They also created a reading assessment system that uses what are called "leveled books." Children start with predictable books like "In the Garden" and move up levels as they're able to "read" the words. But many of the words in those books — butterfly, caterpillar — are words that beginning readers haven't been taught to decode yet. One purpose of the books is to teach children that when they get to a word they don't know, they can use context to figure it out.

 

When put into practice in the classroom, these approaches can cause problems for children when they are learning to read.

 

 

[Teacher and literacy coach Margaret Goldberg] realized lots of her students couldn't actually read the words in their books; instead, they were memorizing sentence patterns and using the pictures to guess. One little boy exclaimed, "I can read this book with my eyes shut!"

 

"Oh no," Goldberg thought. "That is not reading."

 

 

But [Soraya Sajous-Brooks, an elementary school early literacy coach] has come to understand that cueing sends the message to kids that they don't need to sound out words. Her students would get phonics instruction in one part of the day. Then they'd go to reader's workshop and be taught that when they come to a word they don't know, they have lots of strategies. They can sound it out. They can also check the first letter, look at the picture, think of a word that makes sense.

 

Teaching cueing and phonics doesn't work, Sajous-Brooks said. "One negates the other."

 

 

To be clear, there's nothing wrong with pictures. They're great to look at and talk about, and they can help a child comprehend the meaning of a story. Context — including a picture if there is one — helps us understand what we're reading all the time. But if a child is being taught to use context to identify words, she's being taught to read like a poor reader.

 

Many educators don't know this because the cognitive science research has not made its way into many schools and schools of education.

 

[Teacher Andrea Ruiz] didn't know about this research until the Oakland pilot project. "I didn't really know anything about how kids learn to read when I started teaching," she said. It was a relief when she came to Oakland and the curriculum spelled out that kids use meaning, structure and visual cues to figure out words. "Because I came from not having anything, I was like, 'Oh, there's a way we should teach this,'" she said.

 

I heard this from other educators. Cueing was appealing because they didn't know what else to do.

 

"When I got into the classroom and someone told me to use this practice, I didn't question it," said Stacey Cherny, a former teacher who's now principal of an elementary school in Pennsylvania. She says many teachers aren't taught what they need to know about the structure of the English language to be able to teach phonics well. She says phonics can be intimidating; three cueing isn't.

 

Another reason cueing holds on is that it seems to work for some children. But researchers estimate there's a percentage of kids — perhaps about 40 percent — who will learn to read no matter how they're taught. According to [SUNY psychology professor and author David Kilpatrick], children who learn to read with cueing are succeeding in spite of the instruction, not because of it.

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