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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

The magic of reading: Teach first, joy later

Photo: Olia Danilevich/Pexels

In The Superstar, part of her Sold a Story podcasts, APM reporter Emily Hanford explains how a romantic view of how children learn to read -- they don't need to be taught! -- became wildly popular in U.S. schools, promoted by a Teachers College professor, Lucy Calkins. She looks at how Calkins got reading so wrong for so long.

Calkins trained in very progressive British primary schools that didn't have structured lessons. She started as a writing guru, before becoming a reading instruction "superstar."

Lucy Calkins was to writing instruction what the whole language movement was to reading instruction. The basic idea was that if kids are motivated to learn, they will. Create the right environment, give students lots of freedom to make their own choices, and they’ll develop the skills they need. Calkins was not particularly interested in teaching children the mechanics of writing. She thought focusing too much on grammar and spelling was part of the problem with writing instruction.

By the early 1980s, Calkins had joined the faculty at Teachers College Columbia and started training teachers in her methods. She wanted teachers to be coaches, but thought children would learn to write without being taught if they saw themselves as writers.

"This self-perception will give children the eyes to see, and they will notice the conventions of written language everywhere. They will learn about punctuation, spelling…and the many rhythms of written language from billboards and…labels and books. They will ask about the monogram letters on their bath towels.”
-- Lucy Calkins, The Art of Teaching Writing

Calkins' view that children “will ask about the monogram letters on their bath towels” is a "revealing detail," writes Hanford. Raised in a well-to-do family of high achievers, Calkins believed that learning is "a natural process. Kind of magical. And that a teacher’s job is to unlock a child’s potential. To observe and nurture. To help children fall in love with reading and writing."

But it's hard to love reading, if you can't read. As students get older and there are fewer pictures, slow readers get more and more frustrated. It's easier to page through a graphic novel or watch a video.

Hanford's reporting on the "science of reading" helped change Calkin's mind, she told The New York Times earlier this year. She's revised her widely used Units of Study to focus on phonemic awareness and phonics rather than guessing the meaning from pictures and context clues.

"But the research showing those (cueing) strategies were a bad idea has been around for decades," says Hanford. "Why didn’t she know about it?"

Calkins defends her work in Education Week. She claims that phonics advocates say it's the only thing teachers need to teach, which is not what anyone says. And it's complicated.

"The important truth is that teaching children to be great readers and writers is not simple, nor is developing an informed curriculum for doing so," she writes.

The newly revised Units of Study is getting "mixed reviews," reports Sarah Schwartz on EdWeek. It's light on explicit instruction, say critics.

Calkins’ units still rely on a “workshop” model, writes Schwartz. "Teachers give 'mini-lessons,' and then students spend a large chunk of their time independently applying those skills, with support from their teachers."

“This won’t be systematic and explicit enough for many kids and many teachers,” said Claude Goldenberg, a professor emeritus at Stanford who studies early literacy development in English-language learners.

I'm an online reading tutor for a district that uses Units of Study, but also wants students to learn to sound out words. I'd love to rewrite the Units of Study "decodable texts" to use words that beginners can decode. We have poems that include unnecessarily hard-to-read words as well. Why?

The first grader I've been tutoring has gone from guessing based on the first letter or the picture to sounding out words. He's starting to read a bit faster. Like every other kid I've tutored, he "makes meaning" just fine. It's reading the words that's a challenge.

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