How Professor Calkins ended up influencing tens of millions of children is, in one sense, the story of education in America. Unlike many developed countries, the United States lacks a national curriculum or teacher-training standards. Local policies change constantly, as governors, school boards, mayors and superintendents flow in and out of jobs.
Amid this churn, a single charismatic thinker, backed by universities and publishing houses, can wield massive power over how and what children learn.
Some children seem to turn magically into readers, without deliberate phonics coaching. That has helped fuel a mistaken belief that reading is as natural as speaking. In fact, functional magnetic resonance imaging of the brain demonstrates that humans process written language letter by letter, sound by sound. Far from being automatic, reading requires a rewiring of the brain, which is primed by evolution to recognize faces, not words.
But that finding — by cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists — is often disconnected from the work of training teachers and producing classroom materials.
Indeed, Professor Calkins, 70, is far more typical in the world of curriculum development: She is a teacher, a writer and a theorist.
But her influential 2001 book, “The Art of Teaching Reading,” warned about what she saw as the risks of too much sounding-it-out. She praised one teacher for avoiding “an intricate series of activities with phonics,” and argued that a simple way to build “lifelong readers” was to allow children to spend time with books they chose, regardless of content or difficulty.
For children stuck on a difficult word, Professor Calkins said little about sounding-out and recommended a word-guessing method, sometimes called three-cueing. This practice is one of the most controversial legacies of balanced literacy. It directs children’s attention away from the only reliable source of information for reading a word: letters.
Three-cueing is embedded in schools. Online, novice teachers can view thousands of how-to guides. In a 2020 video, a teacher tells children to use a picture to guess the word “car,” even though simple phonics make it decodable.
Professor Calkins said word-guessing would not be included in her revised curriculum. But in some ways, she is offering a hybrid of her old and new methods. In a sample of the new materials that she provided to The Times, teachers are told that students should first decode words using “slider power” — running their fingers under letters and sounding them out — but then check for mistakes using “picture power.”
Mark Seidenberg, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, said that while he found some of the revisions “encouraging,” he was concerned that “objectionable” concepts remain.
The top-rated comment is from someone who has taught in a NYC public school for 21 years where they use Calkin’s “Units of Study”: “The degree to which we have had to supplement them with other approaches and sources is immense. Most kids would not learn literacy with these curricula alone. There really has been a sort of cult of personality around Lucy Calkins. The professional developers she hires parrot her ideas and demeanor. Regardless of her claim that she wants to support and respect teachers, the message was always ‘Lucy knows best.'”
1. I spoke to a dozen educators and parents in Units of Study schools for this piece. Many could not be named. One thing notable in movements led by charisma is that adherents often develop more extreme views than leaders. For example… https://t.co/EgtKkryxle
— Dana Goldstein (@DanaGoldstein) May 22, 2022
We Madisonions have long tolerated disastrous reading results. To wit:2005:
What the superintendent is saying is that MMSD has closed the achievement gap associated with race now that roughly the same percentage of students in each subgroup score at the minimal level (limited achievement in reading, major misconceptions or gaps in knowledge and skills of reading). That’s far from the original goal of the board. We committed to helping all students complete the 3rd grade able to read at or beyond grade level as demonstrated by all students in all subgroups scoring at proficient or advanced reading levels on the WRCT.