About that NY Times Article: Consider ALL the facts before making up your mind about Lucy Calkins by Dr. Sam Bommarito
The author of the recent NY Times article seems to have bought into the narrative being created by the group of Science of Reading (SOR) advocates I have dubbed the “my way or the highway” group. By using an exceptionally well-done PR campaign based on a limited view of the reading process LINK and supported by using cherry-picked, often questionable research LINK, LINK, this group has convinced many folks that they have the one and only path to solving reading problems. I’ve written about this group and the limitations of their view many times. The dichotomy suggested by the NY Times article is a part of the narrative being pushed by the “my way or the highway” folks.
This excerpt, taken from a Washington Post Article LINK, gives what I think is a more accurate picture of the current situation in the teaching of literacy. The people speaking are top experts in the field of reading research. Here is the excerpt:
“Underlying that continuum is the question of whether a deficiency in phonics is at the root of virtually all reading difficulties or whether, like many medical conditions (e.g., heart disease), those difficulties have multiple etiologies, including external factors, such as impoverished school resources to support students.
There are also reasonable professional differences about what phonics instruction should look like, how much of it is necessary, for whom, under what circumstances, and how it connects with other aspects of reading. But there is no justification for characterizing these differences as a “reading war” between those who believe in phonics and those who don’t.”
It is evident that the Washington Post article takes a very different view from the New York times article.
Despite what the NY Times article seems to imply, Lucy does believe in phonics. Her most recent statement on this topic makes it clear that she is not a johnny come lately to this position. I worked extensively with a major school district three years ago whose leaders reported that the balanced literacy programs they have been using had included phonics for years. They were puzzled by the claims to the contrary. It would seem that the “my way or the highway folks” will accept nothing but their particular phonics programs as “phonics.” I view this as a marketing ploy, not a research-based application of best practices. They might not like Lucy’s version of phonics, but claiming that she does not support phonics is a total misrepresentation of the facts. It also ignores the fact that Orton-Gillingham the kind of phonics promoted by these same SOR folks has been the subject of major criticism due to some recent research results showing it does not impact the key skills readers need- see the next section for details.
For anyone considering buying into this “my way or the highway” point of view, please consider some of the following.
- The flagship of the SOR fleet was the subject of a meta-analysis that found Orton-Gillingham reading interventions do not statistically significantly improve foundational skill outcomes LINK. That study cited others with similar conclusions.
- Folks in Australia report that even after several years of intense phonics instruction, some students are still not progressing in reading LINK. Bottom line- some students need something other than an intensive synthetics phonics program to address their needs in reading. You’d never guess that from reading the Times’ article.
- Folks in England are questioning the results of over a decade of a nationally mandated intense synthetic phonics program. Reading scores seem to have gone up. Yet a large number of students are still not progressing despite the government program. Recently, critics have charged the government with purposely delaying the release of research reports that demonstrate this disturbing overall lack of progress. LINK
- Well-known researchers have concluded that “we are not there yet” in terms of having a complete science of reading. A new term, “the sciences of reading,” is becoming popular. I first saw that term in the Washington Post article I alluded to at the beginning of this post LINK. It asked if there really was one science of reading. The conclusion of the researchers interviewed for the article was that there isn’t. The article argued that we need to look at research from all the sciences. That thought has become one of my mantras. In addition, Mark Seidenberg, a strong SOR advocate and author of the book At The Speed Of Sight, has recently been quite critical of the road taken by some SOR advocates. Here is a LINK and a quote that gives what I think is the heart of his criticism:
“This narrowing of focus is prompted by a valid concern: teachers (and other educators) have to be able to understand the research to make use of it. Since most educators don’t have much background knowledge in the area, the message has to be kept simple. That is the rationale for focusing on what I called “classic rock” studies.
I think this approach is giving up too much too soon. It underutilizes the science, underestimates the teachers, and diverts attention from the need to improve professional training. The science of reading movement hasn’t even gotten to the good stuff yet. I think teachers can absorb the important findings if they are presented the right way. Good PD is clearly an important component. Improving pre-service training would have the biggest impact, but that it is not happening as yet on a broad scale.”
In addition to the points I’ve already made there are a number of other things to consider:
- Legislation in both Florida and Louisiana mandate retention as part of their overall attempt to solve reading problems. SOR advocates have used these programs as examples of how their brand of SOR works. The impact this mandate has had on children of color is a national scandal. P.L. Thomas, a well-known critic of SOR, has summarized the way these programs have seriously impacted children of color LINK. However, Thomas isn’t the only critic. The Florida Association of School Psychologists also has come out against this legislation LINK. A Washington Post article was also highly critical of this practice LINK.
- Many early childhood advocates are critical of the push made by some SOR advocates to use direct instruction of reading to help our younger children at the earliest stages of reading. There is research that indicates that intense direct literacy instruction at the earliest stages is counterproductive, LINK LINK LINK.
- Another offshoot of the “my way or the highway” approach is the recent rash of new state laws mandating select approaches to phonics. Unfortunately, some of those laws mandated the exclusive use of one publisher’s program over all others. Some publishers are already beginning to back off from supporting that approach. At the very least, these laws need to be rewritten so that any publisher whose materials meet the goals is allowed. The goals need to be set using all the research, not cherry-picked selections of the research. Otherwise, for the first time in the history of reading, laws are being passed that effectively promote one publisher and ban others. Proceeding that way takes away the rights of school districts to evaluate and decide what’s best. I find this a particularly chilling situation that needs to be addressed immediately.
- Another problem with the NY Times article is the misrepresentation of Balanced Literacy. The article’s characterization of what Balanced Literacy folks promote is deeply flawed. First and foremost, balanced literacy is not anti-phonics. The phonics vs. no phonics dichotomy is a spurious public relations ploy, not an accurate description of what balanced literacy is all about. As indicated earlier, my dissertation was done on the last iteration of the reading wars. I studied that era quite extensively. The term balanced literacy emerged because leaders of the time wanted to end the Meaning vs. Phonics debate by concluding that we need both. The term “balanced” in Balanced Literacy specifically refers to including BOTH meaning and phonics. Pressley was one leader who advocated for this approach. So was P.D. Pearson. Pearson is the creator of the “gradual release” model, the cornerstone of many of today’s educational practices. Pearson takes the position that there are merits to both sides (all sides?) of the Great Debate LINK. I’ve written about centrist ideas inspired by his thinking LINK.
- This is a late addition to the list. It is a point I’ve made in many of my previous blogs. Some Science of Reading folks claim huge gains in reading scores- when they really have are gains in decoding scores. Many of the testing instruments used to prove the efficacy of their programs involve reading word lists, not answering actual comprehension questions. The bottom line is that when measuring READING gains, let us make sure the instruments used are the best we have. Let’s make sure they include a properly done measure of comprehension. This point was added on June 1st, 2022
Programs promoting Balanced Literacy have worked and are working. However, reading current pronouncements found on social media, and in some of the press, one would conclude Balanced Literacy is a complete failure. When the “my way or the highway folks” encounter research showing that some balanced literacy practices are working, they employ the “discount and discredit” tactic. They point out perceived flaws in the research, claiming that it is completely wrong, bogus or that it is suspect because of who sponsored the study, etc, etc. . P.L. Thomas created a really useful guide to help teachers navigate the tricky waters created by the misdirections of some SOR advocates LINK.
Readers, please do consider how some of these SOR folks conduct their own research, They make claims of huge gains in reading scores- when in point of fact what they have are gains in decoding scores. Many of the testing instruments used to prove the efficacy of their programs involve reading word lists, not answering actual comprehension questions. Have a careful look at the information from Nell Duke about what it actually takes to measure comprehension LINK.
Some SOR advocates also make use of what I call the “circular reference ploy”. They use it to “prove” the efficacy of their methods, Read this article from Rachael Gabriel carefully and you’ll see what I mean by circular references LINK, Overall, I view the ploy of dismissing and discrediting research that shows the efficacy of competing methods as disingenuous and questionable.
Also, consider that the NY Times article failed to take into account the importance of the AIR’s research That research looked at an elaborate control group of something like 160 control groups. It matched schools and clearly demonstrated the efficacy of Calkin’s methods. Some SOR folks attempt to dismiss those studies because of who funded the studies. But if those are to be dismissed should we not also be dismissing most of the research from SOR because of how it is funded? We seem to be applying double standards here. Let me make it clear that I am not talking about all SOR researchers. I am talking about the “my way or the highway” crew. Mark Seidenberg’s remarks, cited earlier, make it clear that there are those in the SOR community that are critical about how some of their members are proceeding in terms of how they talk about the research. Rachael Gabriel has said that in some cases they actually weaponize the research.
I’ll repeat my mantra. Look at ALL the research before drawing conclusions. I think you will find ample evidence that there are balanced literacy programs that work. How else do you explain PS 249 becoming a blue ribbon school this week? Remember that to be called balanced literacy the programs need to include elements of both phonics and meaning. So when evaluating balanced literacy programs, no strawmen examples, please!
Lest readers not familiar with my overall position think I’m saying not to use any SOR, let me assure you that I do advocate for using reading instruction based on scientific research, including that being done by SOR. For years I’ve been calling on folks to find common ground and common sense LINK. I’m saying to use what we have learned from SOR and what we have learned from other approaches. Experts in reading research have warned against treating things as a dichotomy, an “us/them” never-ending battle (see item 24 of the RRQ Executive Summary LINK). Unfortunately, that seems to be exactly what we’ve done for the five decades I’ve been in education. The net result of bouncing back and forth between extremes has been what some have called the “swinging pendulum.” At some points, it’s been mainly phonics-based. We seem headed back in that direction right now. At some point, it’s been mostly meaning-based. For instance, when I did my dissertation around the last iteration of the reading wars, many educators said we didn’t need phonics. I’ll point out that we’ve tried both these extremes (all phonics/no phonics) more than once over the years. And each time we get to the extreme, things go badly for some children. We then swing back to the other extreme. I’ve been advocating for the last four years that, for the first time in the history of reading, we try the middle, using the best ideas (research-informed ideas!) from ALL sides.
In my view, that is exactly what Lucy Calkins is doing right now. She is not retreating or capitulating in a phonics vs. no phonics war. Today, there isn’t a phonics vs. no phonics war. That war characterized the last iteration of the reading wars, not this one. Today one would be hard-pressed to find more than a handful of educators who say phonics isn’t necessary. Instead, what Lucy is doing is adapting the how and why of her current phonics approaches (and yes, she has been doing phonics for quite a while now) to be more in line with what best serves dyslexic children. I, for one, view this as a rather gutsy act. She is doing what I recommend all educators do when they find there are some children for whom their preferred approach isn’t getting all the desired results. What one does in such circumstances is to use ideas (research-based ideas!) from other approaches. I call this creating a Reading Evolution LINK.
Things are not yet where we want them in the world of reading instruction. That fact cannot be laid at the feet of Balanced Literacy. There are viable alternate explanations about what is wrong LINK. What is needed to fix things is for folks from all sides to be willing to learn from each other.
In conclusion, please consider all the research and all the history before drawing any conclusions about Lucy and the overall workshop approach. I have three decades of experience working in Title 1 programs, both urban and rural. Several of those programs won national awards for how they improved reading scores. My own experience with Calkin’s workshop has been positive and includes a 4-year success story in an urban district. I know first-hand that a properly implemented workshop program can and does include significant phonics instruction and can and does work in urban and rural settings. Thanks to all for considering these remarks.
(By the way, I’m not the only one criticizing the NY Times article. Please do have a look at what Paul Thomas said about it LINK.)
Dr. Sam Bommarito, aka the centrist using ideas from all sides to inform his teaching.
Copyright 2022 by Dr. Sam Bommarito. Views/interpretations expressed here are solely the view of this author and do not necessarily reflect the views of any other person or organization.
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IMPORTANT NOTE: Because of the important issues raised by the NT Times article, I am delaying the publication of blogs around the work of Laura Robb and Rita Wirtz. I appreciate their patience in this. Those blogs will be posted soon.