Reviews | The debate over the best way to teach reading

For the editor:

Re “She helped transform the reading lessons. Now She’s Backtracking” (front page, May 22):

As an educator for over 30 years, I have seen the pendulum swing from learning a whole language, to phonics, to “balanced literacy” and back again. Educators have come to depend on neatly wrapped boxes, but we need to reflect and evolve, just as we encourage our students to do.

Learning to read is complex. It’s the educator’s job to combine rote skill-based learning with Lucy Calkins and her team’s beautiful program, ‘Units of Study’, allowing children to take ownership of the process. When children choose books that interest them, they are likely to come back to them again and again, which helps children want to read.

“Study Units” teach important lessons – for reading and for life. Empathy, so essential in today’s world, is taught in a positive and thoughtful way through the chosen books and lessons. Phonetics alone cannot do this.

I urge teachers to build rote phonics-rich classrooms with components from other styles and methods that work for them. Inquiry and active learning combined with direct instruction can develop productive, positive, reflective learners and future leaders.

Lori Ash
Englewood, New Jersey

For the editor:

Lucy Calkins’ statement that “over the past two or three years, what I have learned about the science of reading work has been transformational” is utterly infuriating. Didn’t she know that the National Reading Panel submitted its findings to Congress over 20 years ago and found that phonics-based instruction was the most effective in teaching children to read? Subsequent research confirmed this, and a large body of research has been developed detailing how the human brain learns to read.

Meanwhile, balanced literacy methods have harmed millions of children. It is the responsibility of all teacher education programs, including Columbia University Teachers College, to teach and disseminate instructional practices soundly grounded in scientific research.

Mary Toglia
Newtown Square, Pennsylvania.
The author is a certified school psychologist.

For the editor:

As a former teacher, principal, and instructional superintendent of the New York City school system, I urge cities and states to take a common-sense approach to teaching reading and writing. Well-meaning parents and ill-informed policy makers should not jump to either or/or curriculum. Both a phonics program and a balanced literacy program are crucial for success in reading and writing.

For children in pre-kindergarten, kindergarten, first and second grades, the emphasis should be on phonics, but should not exclude exposure to a solid literacy program, which introduces children to the love of reading. By the third grade, children should have reached a proficiency level in reading and writing, and therefore the balanced literacy program should take priority.

In this class and all subsequent classes, students should be able to understand, analyze, and respond to literature and text both verbally and in writing. Reading and writing should not be limited to stories and novels. Reading and writing can be taught through subjects such as social studies and science.

If Lucy Calkins’ new program addresses and accomplishes all of the above, it will be worthwhile and will benefit students today and those of generations to come.

Athena Galitsis
Beechhurst, NY

For the editor:

The decades-long debate about how to teach reading has flared up again. What these and previous deliberations fail to take into account is a hard, unchanging reality that is present before a child even sets foot in the classroom: 90% of the brain develops during the first five years.

It is heartbreaking that two out of three American children lack critical literacy benchmarks in fourth and eighth grades. And no reading instruction – phonics-based or otherwise – will work if it is built on an inadequate foundation of early literacy. If this foundation is not laid within the first five years, everything attempted in the classroom will fail, with devastating consequences for the future of our children and our society.

How to teach reading? Start at birth. Provide parents with consistent support and tools from day one. Help them create a rich and robust home literacy environment that includes lots of books. Make sure children arrive at kindergarten strong and ready for what lies ahead.

Only when we stop ignoring the first five years can we meaningfully turn to the debate about how to teach reading.

Young ginger
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
The writer is the founder and CEO of Book Harvest, which provides books and literacy support to children and families.

For the editor:

I was disturbed to see that the pendulum continues to swing between phonetics and the emphasis on meaning in reading.

As a special education resource teacher in the 1970s who traveled to different schools, I can tell you that the majority of children labeled “learning disabled” were actually “teachers with disabilities” because their learning styles were at odds with the dominant teaching style of their school. When will educators learn that there is no better way to teach reading?

Many children learn best by being read to and having the opportunity to read books that interest them. Others need the systematic approach to phonetics. Most require some combination. It’s time to recognize that students are more likely to succeed when their different learning styles are taken into account.

Margaret Altschul
Encino, California.

For the editor:

I have worked with the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project for over 35 years, first as a first grade teacher, and for the past 22 years as a public school principal very successful from New York. The work of Lucy Calkins and the Reading and Writing Project has evolved over this time, and I appreciate that evolution. Labeling it as a “retreat” is inaccurate.

Professor Calkins and his team have been advocating for the teaching of phonics for many years, and I know of no school working with Professor Calkins that does not incorporate the teaching of phonics into its literacy program. But research suggests that phonics alone is not the answer, and a program that balances this with teaching comprehension strategies, developing vocabulary and developing a love of reading is essential.

The American Institute of Research spent years in a careful and objective study of 229 schools and found that schools using the Reading and Writing Project program outperformed similar schools using other programs.

This time of Covid is difficult for schools and educators in a country where large numbers of children live in poverty and have suffered recent trauma. Reigniting the “reading wars” will do nothing to help educators meet the many challenges we face, including recruiting and retaining exceptional teachers who can effectively teach a wide range of readers.

Elizabeth Phillips

For the editor:

I attended Lucy Calkins’ classes and worked with her consultants in my class, and also taught a phonics lesson every day. Different children learn in different ways. His program added a breath of fresh air to Dick and Jane’s stuffy routines. Reading and writing has become an interesting, fun and effective experience.

Kathleen McCormack
New York
The writer is a former teacher.

For the editor:

As science evolves, so does the theory and research that informs educators. Children need to learn to read, and it seems clear that the tools needed to learn to read include phonics. However, phonetics is only a tool, a way to release meaning, to participate in the experience that a book offers or to obtain information about something interesting.

Phonics is not the holy grail of reading, but rather a means to an end. Lucy Calkins shouldn’t be pilloried for doing what we should all do: change our minds as we grow and learn, just as we hope our students will.

Lee Galda Pellegrini
Bloomington, Minn.
The writer is Emeritus Professor of Children’s and Young Adult Literature at the University of Minnesota.

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