Restarting the “Science of Reading” Conversation

I tracked down “Berrinchuda,” (she says it’s a Spanish word used to describe a child having a tantrum) at home to learn more about what inspired her kitchen table experiment and the videos which have already garnered over 35,000 views. “As a clinical psychologist,” she tells me, “it never occurred to me that decoding wouldn’t be a part of reading.” As she discussed it with friends and fellow parents, she learned that “a lot of people have noticed these strange instructional techniques, but have gone along with it because they trust teachers.” But with children spending more time at home, it became obvious to her and many of her friends that something was amiss. Her daughter attends school in a reasonably well-off school district near Oakland, California, that uses Lucy Calkins’s Units of Study to teach English language arts.

This brings us to the week’s second big development. On Friday, Emily Hanford of American Public Media broke the news that Calkins is quietly conceding that materials produced and distributed by the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University, which she has led for decades, “need to be changed to align with scientific research.” Hanford, who deserves as much credit as anyone for driving the science of reading conversation over the last few years, got hold of internal TCRWP documents in which Calkins concedes that aspects of her approach “need ‘rebalancing.’” The issue is precisely the “cueing” strategies that are the subject of the “Berrinchuda” videos.

“Calkins’s published materials contain lessons and assessments that promote these cueing strategies,” Hanford reported. “Calkins’s group now says that beginning readers should focus on sounding out words and recommends that all children have access to ‘decodable’ books that contain words with spelling patterns students have been taught in phonics lessons.” [For background on Lucy Calkins, please see the Education Next article “The Lucy Calkins Project.”]

If true—and there are good reasons for skepticism—Calkins’s sudden shift could have a significant impact on how American children learn to read. Data from RAND’s American Educator Panels show that nearly one in five (18 percent) of American elementary school teachers report using the “Units of Study” curriculum; 31 percent of principals in schools serving K–5 students say they require or recommend Calkins. Even those figures understate her status as a reading practice superspreader. “Her curriculum and philosophy has had and continues to have an enormous influence on reading instruction, perhaps more so than almost any other curriculum out there,” explains RAND’s Julia Kaufman. “Any shifts to that curriculum to align it more with what we know about good reading instruction could improve reading among hundreds of thousands of children across the U.S.”

Here’s hoping. But like another famous Lucy with a habit of making promises and pulling away the football at the last moment, Calkins has a history of making earnest noises about respecting evidence or realigning her offerings to standards, but changing little. Thus news of Calkins’s change of heart has been greeted with a healthy dose of “I’ll believe it when I see it” from close observers. One insider describes the changes as “shuffling the MSV deck chairs on the Titanic to emphasize the V first,” a reference to “three cueing” strategies (Meaning, Structure, and Visual Systems) used in reading instruction; phonics falls under “V.” In other words, teachers would still be encouraged to teach children “multiple sources of information” to tackle tricky words. Calkins seemed to confirm as much in a “Dear Colleague” letter sent this week to schools who use Units of Study. She downplayed Hanford’s piece and a subsequent report in Education Week and claiming TCRWP has “long supported strong and systematic phonics instruction,” even while confirming that they plan to publish a series of decodable books and make other changes to the program. “What stays the same in our work with K–1 readers? 98 percent of it,” she wrote.

Hanford herself sounded a skeptical note in her piece, pointing out that Arkansas has a statewide rule in place preventing curriculum that uses “cueing strategies” from use in the state. Colorado has similarly kept Units of Study off its approved list of core reading curriculum. As states and districts have become increasingly sophisticated about curriculum, it doesn’t take a cynic to wonder if Calkins’s reversal isn’t less of a Damascus Road conversion than a commercial necessity.

In the end, parental demand for effective reading instruction may be the most potent long-term lever for change. That’s what makes the Berrinchuda videos so effective. They open parental demand as another front in the push for scientifically-sound practice, demystify reading instruction, and make accessible the inherent weakness in “balanced literacy.” They also demonstrate a credible alternative. In the second video, after a brief phonics lesson, we see her daughter able to successfully decode words like turkey, turtle, and yes, purple. In many balanced literacy classrooms like the one her daughter attends, “kids don’t get any [decodable books] at all,” Berrinchuda explains. “Soon after discovering decodables” and teaching her phonics at home “I noticed a change in my daughter.” She’s becoming a reader, not merely a word guesser.

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