The news has been spreading that Lucy Calkins, head of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project (TCRWP), has been learning about the science of reading and making changes to her guidance and widely used curricula. Throughout her career, she has often characterized phonics as ‘low-level’ work that should be minimized and has promoted top-down approaches in which teachers encourage children to read for meaning before they have the skills in place to decode words accurately.
It appears she is now changing her views as she learns about things like orthographic mapping, dyslexia, and the benefits of decodable texts. For many people who have been working for decades to bring this knowledge and evidence-informed practices into schools, this is very big news.
Some have speculated that the changes in her views may be motivated by recent scrutiny, criticism, and a trend for districts to seek out more effective alternatives. However, regardless of her motives, changes made as a result could still have a positive impact. For now, Lucy, as her followers often call her, continues to be a trusted source for large numbers of teachers and administrators. When she talks, many will listen.
Interestingly, however, Calkins does not present these changes to her views as heralding major changes to her curriculum. She has reassured her followers that the new understanding she’s gained from “poring” over the research necessitates only a ‘rebalancing’, a shift that changes perhaps 2% of the overall approach.
A key feature of the TCRWP approach to early literacy that is unlikely to change is the workshop model, in which children are encouraged to read and write independently or in small groups with only minimal guidance and support from the teacher. From the start, a teacher is encouraged to be a “guide on the side” rather than a “sage on a stage.” However, the evidence, as discussed in this seminal paper, actually supports a much more direct and explicit teaching for novices, which kindergarten and first grade beginning readers and writers surely are.
So, what kind of ‘rebalancing” is Calkins calling for? One shift involves the order of prompts that teachers are advised to give students when they encounter an unfamiliar word. Calkins previously advocated prompting students to engage in a trial and error process involving multiple strategies to figure out the word. She is now directing teachers to first “nudge” students to look at the letters, to ‘have a go’ at the word, before prompting them to use other cues, such as pictures and context in combination with the letters.
Developing readers need to turn all unfamiliar words into familiar ones that they then will recognize effortlessly, with the automaticity needed to support comprehension. Indeed, the research is clear that the way this happens is by attending to all the letters and matching them to sounds in a process of “orthographic mapping”. To support this process, we need to explicitly teach the sound symbol correspondences, the skills of segmenting and blending sounds, and strategies for reading longer, multisyllable words. We also need to support children in reading words with unusual spellings that they may encounter in a way that also promotes attention to the letters and sounds. These skills come relatively easier to some children and very hard to others. Teachers need to have a supportive, structured phonics program in place that empowers them to do more than just “nudge” children in the direction of the letters, but to give precise, accurate, phonics-based, “in the moment” teaching to decode and map the word. Once they do this, they can ensure children know the meaning of the word they have decoded and that it makes sense to them. In the absence of the knowledge and skill required, teachers may resort to giving cues to use pictures or predict what the word may be, methods that do not promote the necessary orthographic mapping process.
A role for decodable texts
Another shift involves the recognition that there is a role for some decodable texts. Calkins announced plans to issue a set of her own, and in the meantime has recommended a few titles. For substantive change to happen, teachers must do more than just include a few decodable texts in the books they give children for independent reading. They need to understand why and when these books are so helpful and how critical it is for children to be provided only with texts in which they can reliably use their growing phonics and decoding skills to read words. Teachers should choose texts that are aligned to the scope and sequence of the systematic phonics instruction, and to each student’s individual knowledge and skill. And while Calkins seems quite concerned that decodable texts may contain some words like “sod” or “jut”, that young children may not know, if teachers teach these words directly prior to reading, it can provide a wonderful opportunity to expand children’s vocabulary. Teachers can introduce their young students to the idea that we can actually learn new words through reading, a process that will continue for the rest of their lives if they become skilled readers.
In addition, Calkins announced that in addition to the Units of Study in Phonics, TCRWP is issuing a year-long phonological awareness program. It is, in fact, phoneme awareness, awareness of the smallest sounds in words (not larger units like onset-rime or syllables) that is necessary for cracking the code and learning to read. The research also supports the practice of closely integrating this explicit instruction in phoneme awareness with the way these sounds are represented in print; In other words, teaching phonemic awareness should be closely linked with the phonics instruction.
It is still unclear what the shifts in Lucy Calkins’ views might mean for teachers and students in the school districts that continue to use TCRWP. Fortunately, there are many helpful resources available to teachers in the meantime to expand their understanding of the science of reading and to learn ways of aligning their practice to the evidence.
A great example of a student reading a decodable text from our Rescue Series and learning new vocabulary (in this case the word ‘quiver’) along the way.
Miriam Fein is a speech-language pathologist and licensed reading specialist. She lives near Boston, Massachusetts, and supports students from early elementary through high school with reading, spelling, writing, and language skills. She believes in the power of evidence-informed, systematic, and compassionate teaching for all learners.