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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Are reading wars over? ‘Balanced literacy’ is a loser

Teachers were trained to teach students how to guess words they couldn’t read.

The reading wars are over, writes Dana Goldstein in the New York Times. Lucy Calkins, the influential leader of the “balanced literacy” camp has retreated, acknowledging that her “wildly popular and profitable” curriculum does not reflect the research on how children learn to read.

A rewrite of her reading curriculum, from kindergarten to second grade, includes, for the first time, daily structured phonics lessons to be used with the whole class. There are special books and assessments to track students’ progress with decoding letters.

A professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College, Calkins and her team have trained hundreds of thousands of educators.

The training and the “Units of Study” curriculum encourage teachers to see students as “natural readers” who will learn if they’re allowed to choose engaging books, writes Goldstein. “The focus was more on stories — theme, character, plot — less on sounding out words.”

. . . a half-century of research . . . shows phonics — sound it out exercises that are purposefully sequenced — is the most effective way to teach reading, along with books that build vocabulary and depth.

. . . 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.

Now 70, Calkins taught for several years in her 20s, then entered academia. Her initial focus was teaching writing, but she expanded into reading, writes Goldstein.

In a 2001 book, The Art of Teaching Reading, she warned that too much sounding out of words could turn children off to reading. She recommended a guessing strategy called three-cueing that became ubiquitous in schools. “In a 2020 video, a teacher tells children to use a picture to guess the word ‘car,’ even though simple phonics make it decodable,” writes Goldstein.

I’ve been an online reading tutor for more than a year now. The school district uses Calkins’ “Units of Study” with a lot of supplementary phonics materials. We volunteers were told not to accept guesses. The kids, who are in kindergarten through second grade, are supposed to sound out the word.

I’ve worked with a lot of kids who are very good guessers. But that won’t get them very far when the books don’t have picture any more.

We have only a few “decodable” stories, such as Nat’s Cat, Dan the Tan Man, Get the Pets and The Bee and the Flea. I fill in with fun stories that are easy to “read” because they’re so repetitive or have pictures that provide all the information (“the cow is in the car”).

In our last reading of Get the Pets, I noticed something new. On the final page, when the pets (chickens) are at the pan in the pen, there’s a snake crawling over the wall in back. My tutee, a kindergartener, speculated that the snake might have scared the chickens into running away, requiring Tom and Tam to get the net to get the pets. “Good point,” I said.

Is there a sequel contemplated? “Take the snake?”

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