Turns Out Teaching Kids to Read IS Rocket Science

balanced literacy differentiation phonics professional development reading instruction teacher experience Jul 11, 2023
woman is surrounded by thought bubbles that say: love of reading, differentiation, phonemic awareness, comprehension, vocabulary, phonics, fluency, and a picture of two students

10/10/23 Edit: Since I originally wrote this post, there have been some changes at Columbia University's Teachers College Reading and Writing Project.  The project has changed names and leadership.  It's now called Advancing Literacy and is run by Mary Ehrenworth. Lucy Calkins now has a group called Mossflower Reading and Writing Project that is no longer connected to Columbia. 

Last month, my cousin alerted me to a podcast episode from New York Times’s The Daily. Right away, I knew I would take issue with this episode because it was titled “She Taught Millions of Kids the Wrong Way to Read.1”  The “she” in that title referred to Lucy Calkins–a pretty famous person in the world of literacy instruction.  

Calkins is the Founding Director of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project (TCRWP) at Columbia University. The project’s mission has always been to be a think-tank for literacy instruction and provide teachers with professional development. However, they’ve also published curriculum materials for teachers with embedded coaching for the teachers within the pages. (Full disclosure: I’ve twice attended TCRWP’s Reading Summer Institute in NYC. It was–hands down–the best professional development of my entire career so far. So it’s safe to say I’m a Lucy Calkins fan.)

What really gets my goat 

I found many things problematic with the podcast from The Daily, and I don’t recommend you listen unless you want to be misinformed about reading instruction. These reporters use “balanced literacy” and “whole language” synonymously. They are NOT the same. In response to this and other recent reporting, Jennifer Serravallo wrote this post with a glossary of terms misrepresented in the media (and linked to this glossary compiled by the International Literacy Association). 

The biggest issue with this podcast episode and many similar publications and podcasts: it perpetuates the myth that there is only one “right” way to teach kids to read. As I mentioned in my earlier post about systematic phonics vs. whole language, these things are polarities, and you can’t meet the needs of all kids if you stick to just one. You have to pull from a lot of different teaching methods and strategies. 

Not as simple as the media leads you to believe

If teaching children to read was easy, we would have figured it out by now, but we haven’t. Humans first invented written communication over 5000 years ago, and scientists have been arguing over the most effective methods to teach how to read the written word for more than 400 years. 

One of the biggest disconnects is that many researchers don’t step foot into a classroom. Now that neuroscientists are sharing their research on what the brain does when learning how to read, it is helpful, but it doesn’t necessarily fully translate into how a teacher needs to instruct in the classroom.

These studies don’t consider all the potential barriers a child may face. Is the child suffering from some trauma? Is the student hungry? Do they have sensory needs that impede their ability to focus? Is the child a multi-lingual learner? Are they highly distracted in the classroom?

We’ve heard a lot in the US lately that kids are failing reading assessments because, as a system, we didn’t focus on phonics enough. I completely understand that if you have a child with dyslexia or any other struggles with reading, this issue is significant to you. We can now say with a pretty high level of certainty that students with dyslexia will need more phonics because of what we are learning about how their brains differ from those without dyslexia. 

However, a recent study in England shows what happens when we overcorrect and focus more on phonics than reading comprehension and reading for enjoyment. Their research shows that kids failed at reading comprehension assessments when they moved to focus more on synthetic phonics (which we in the US call systematic phonics2 or structured literacy). The researchers found very little evidence supporting the synthetic phonics method.

Once more, for the people in the back

Just like most things in education—reading instruction should not be one-size-fits-all. The kids who take off running and devour books don’t need to spend the same time on phonics as those who greatly struggle to read anything independently. The point is that we are responsive to the learners in front of us.

If I went to the hospital for a minor sprained ankle–I wouldn’t expect the doctor to use a plaster cast to help treat my sprain. However, I also wouldn’t expect a doctor to tell me to “go home, ice, and elevate my foot” if I had a broken leg. Teaching children is the same way. Giving all kids systematic phonics/structured literacy instruction might be overkill for some, but for others, that is the proper “treatment” for them to learn how to read. It’s about ensuring every student gets what they specifically need.

Teacher experience makes a difference

There is a lot of responsibility on the teacher to differentiate for students. You have to know your stuff by understanding how to assess students properly, determine what they need most, and how to support their learning best. The teacher must also learn to juggle this differentiation for 20-30 students.  

I have never seen “the perfect literacy curriculum” from a publisher. I honestly don’t believe it does or will ever exist. There are many reasons why, but the biggest one is that the curriculum writers have no idea who the kids are in the seats in front of you.  

In an ideal world, you could utilize whatever curriculum as a starting point but ultimately make instructional decisions and adaptations based on the students in your class. However, many factors can prevent this responsiveness to students: mandates, time, and a teacher’s understanding of all aspects of reading instruction (phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension).

So what’s a teacher to do?

As I mentioned in my Classroom Sink or Swim post, you can’t possibly graduate from your teacher preparation program and know all there is to know about teaching kids to read. You have to get some job-embedded professional development, seek out courses, read professional texts, and get the support of your peers with more experience than you.  

All of the above can be easier said than done. There are many demands for your time and attention as an elementary school teacher. You don’t just teach reading, either. You need to support a wide variety of learners in several other subjects. It’s one of THE most complex parts of the job. 

Teachers’ need for accessible professional development in literacy instruction is why I’ve recently started Elm Tree Education Consulting. My mission is to provide ongoing professional development for teachers in places without the resources to provide that support. My vision is to create something that is equal parts consultation, coaching, collaboration, and community. 

What thoughts do you have on reading instruction?

Please share them on Facebook or contact page.

 1 An interesting tidbit is that the podcast episode is now titled “The Fight Over Phonics.” I wish I knew how that change occurred, but I assume some folks also took issue with the original clickbait title.

 2 I want to clear something else up. Some call systematic phonics instruction the “Science of Reading,” but that’s another misnomer. Science of Reading technically refers to a body of research, not an approach to teaching reading. It’s just taken off in the media and the marketing of curricula to call it the “Science of Reading.” 

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