To Promote Equity, Choose a Reading Program that Relies on the Science

by Sudipti Kumar | Director of Research, Dave Hamilton | Director of Programs

The debate on how best to teach reading is not new.

In fact, it may be among the most controversial topics in education, dating back to centuries ago when those who advocated a whole language approach (teaching children to learn using context cues) faced off against those who promoted phonics instruction and the importance of understanding the letter-sound connection. Although virtually everyone who teaches reading now agrees that phonemic awareness is a critical component in teaching children how to read, it is fascinating that there are still popular programs being used that have not prioritized phonics instruction in the early grades.

In recent years, a widely used reading and writing program, pioneered by Lucy Calkins and her colleagues at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University, has come under fire for not using practices that are evidence-based by many different sources. Most recently, a study conducted by Student Achievement Partners (SAP) in early 2020 found that Calkins’ Units of Study, which is the third most widely used set of core materials to teach reading in the United States, is “deeply flawed”.

According to the Student Achievement Partners report conducted by seven literacy experts, “following the course of Units of Study would be unlikely to lead to literacy success for all of America’s public schoolchildren, given the research. Almost every expert noted that many activities designed to practice deepening reading ability were designated as optional, as was text selection itself. The ‘make your own adventure’ design left reviewers skeptical that crucial aspects of reading acquisition would get the time and attention required to enable all students to become secure in their reading ability.” This critique is in addition to the National Council on Teacher Quality rating these materials as “not acceptable” in a national review of textbooks used in teacher preparation courses across the nation.

In “three cueing”, the student is using guesswork to deduce the right word. In a phonics-based approach, the student is learning how to read the word itself.

The program promotes the use of a concept called “three cueing”, which encourages children to look at pictures and use contextual clues to identify words as they are reading. As a practical (and oversimplified) example, in Calkins’ readers workshop, a student may be reading a text and come to a word he or she doesn’t know like “butterfly”. The student sees a photo of a butterfly on the page and the fact that the sentence is talking about an insect with beautiful colors and therefore deduces that the word in question is “butterfly”. Alternatively, with a phonics-based approach that prioritizes a student’s ability to decode, he or she may break the word into parts, sound out each part based on his or her knowledge of letter-sound relationships, and then put the word back together. In the former, the student is using guesswork to deduce the right word. In the latter, the student is learning how to read the word itself.

What isn’t changing in the materials and why not?

Notably, a few months ago, Calkins and her colleagues shifted course and noted, in an internal document, that their program needs “rebalancing”. According to Calkins herself, changes to the curriculum are following. Schools who are still using the Units of Study curriculum (and plan to do so in the future) may do well to consider – when will those changes come to be? How strong will those new materials be in promoting evidence-based practices in teaching reading, particularly when a program has not responded to critique and criticism for years? Equally important to think about, and perhaps most poignantly, what isn’t changing in the materials and why not?

These are all vitally important questions for schools to grapple with, particularly as it pertains to the importance of literacy as a lever for equity. As the SAP report pointed out, Units of Study may do well for flourishing readers who come to school already “primed to read” but not for those who need additional practice opportunities. Kareem Weaver, member of the Oakland NAACP Education Committee, recently wrote in a blog post, “The NAACP considers reading proficiency to be a civil rights issue because The Information Age requires literacy to participate fully in a society that pushes nonreaders, systematically, to its margins.” Given this, one text that may be helpful to review before reflecting on a school’s chosen literacy program is Dr. Gholdy Muhammad’s Cultivating Genius: An Equity Framework for Culturally and Historically Responsive Literacy. In it, she writes that, “before getting to literacy skill development such as decoding, fluency, comprehension, writing, or any other content learning standards, students must authentically see themselves in the learning”. With that backdrop, a school can consider both the importance of the types of texts being chosen to support students in literacy as well as ensuring that the reading program that is used adheres to the incredibly large evidence base.

There isn’t a dearth of reading and writing programs out there, and selecting an approach that focuses on evidence-based practices in teaching reading may very well be one of the most important ways to promote equity in the younger grades.