I broke up with Lucy Calkins this year. I fully severed the ties when I threw my Art of Teaching Reading book into the garbage. I threw it into the trash at school, so I couldn’t dig through the garbage and rescue it. All of my blog posts so far have been aimed at giving tips, spreading information, and helping teachers understand the Science of Reading. While I hope that this post will do that, it is a lot more personal than any other post I’ve written. Some days I feel like I’ve turned my back on a beloved family member, and other days I feel that I’ve finally left an unhealthy relationship. I know I’m not alone.
The Fairy Tale Begins
I was introduced to Calkins (figuratively) as a first-year teacher. I had just finished my master’s program and was teaching 4th grade. I knew that my writing instruction wasn’t where I needed it to be. I returned that first year to my alma mater and took a class on writing. One of our texts was The Art of Teaching Writing. When I first opened the text, a love affair with Lucy Calkins was born. I read, I highlighted, I wrote, I cried. I went through the gamut of emotions because here was a woman who spoke my language. She loved kids, she valued them and their opinions. Just read this sentence, and you’ll understand the hold she had over me. “It is not children but adults who have separated writing from art, song, and play; it is adults who have turned writing into an exercise on lined paper, into a matter of rules, lessons, and cautious behavior”(Calkins, 1994, p.59). How can you not be drawn in by the emotion in these words?
I immediately ate up everything Lucy had. I bought The Art of Teaching Reading and One on One. An ex-boyfriend of mine even bought me the Units of Study for Writing for my birthday. As a new teacher with a slim salary, I purchased the Units of Study for Reading on a credit card. I was not only indebted to Lucy, I was literally in debt for Lucy. But I didn’t care. I was jealous of teachers in New York who had access to her curriculum all the time. I planned on spending my own money to go to one of the Teacher College’s workshops, because I needed more of the passion. Here was a woman who, conventions be damned, was going to make sure kids loved to read and write. I fell, head over heels, because that was what I, too, wanted for my students.
The Honeymoon is Over
I’ve written 700 words so far and have yet to tell you the details of what Lucy Calkins preaches. I’ve had 700 words with little substance, and that comes as no surprise. When you think about what Lucy’s reading programs are asking students to do, you will find much the same. There is so much passion for and a love of reading and writing. But passion isn’t instruction, and without instruction many children will never become proficient readers. Lucy Calkins is a proponent of the reading and writing workshop. In this blog, I want to talk about the deep flaws in the reading workshop.
The reading workshop and writing workshop, according to Calkins, should each last an hour a day. Additionally, a teacher must include read-alouds, assessment, work with struggling readers, phonics and word work, book talks about the read-aloud, and centers and book clubs (Calkins, 2001, p. 43-45). While some of these additional tasks are part of the reading workshop, the timing just doesn’t make sense. How am I supposed to have an hour for reading workshop, which doesn’t actually do much to teach phonics, plus an hour to teach writing workshop, and still assess, do read-alouds, and phonics? Unless I am looking at over 3 hours a day, it simply isn’t working. Where’s the phonemic awareness? Where’s the explicit, systematic phonics instruction? It is sorely missing.
Throughout my relationship with Calkins, I taught 4th and 1st grade. In both grades, I tried implementing a reader’s workshop. I thought the shift towards authentic, real books was incredible. I would sit with the teacher’s manual on my lap and basically read it verbatim because I thought, “This is it. This is what is going to help my children become better readers.” I did not end the year in 4th or 1st grade with an entire class of readers. In fact, my scores were never great.
I should’ve been concerned when I read the words, “It is important to give our students the words that will help them read actively, but it is even more important to invite them to become active readers”(Calkins, 2001, p.15). When you first hear these words, you think “yes, that’s what I want! I want active readers.” I was tricked into believing an erroneous philosophy because the words played with my emotions. The reality is, though, that there is nothing more important than helping our children access the words. In the end, there is no reading without words. Whether you are discussing language comprehension or word recognition, accessing words is reading. In my years of teaching, the “active reading” that Calkins discusses is actually more like “fake reading” or “guessing.” My children cannot guess themselves into becoming readers.
I want to spend a few sentences on the writing workshop before moving on. Put simply, I don’t know where I stand. I will not pretend to speak with authority on a topic I’m uncertain of. Since I left the classroom, I haven’t had to think much about the writing workshop. I still think giving children choice and letting them spend lots of time writing is a good idea. Beyond that, however, I have a lot to learn. A bunch of people in the SOR community have suggested “The Writing Revolution.”
A Bad Goodbye
Let’s talk about phonics with Lucy Calkins, or the lack thereof. This was the deciding factor in my decision to abandon her practices. I found another copy of The Art of Teaching Reading at my school, and decided to look through it to make sure I wasn’t misquoting ideas or thoughts. I couldn’t bring myself to read all 500+ pages, but I did reread the phonics section. She begins by talking, for several pages in fact, about a kindergarten class that started the year with children exploring their names. Children are recognizing letters in their names, but she never talks about the teacher actually teaching letter names or sounds to students. She says things like “One child noticed that the c was almost like the o, only with a piece missing”(Calkins, 2001, p.198). Did they just show up to school with alphabet knowledge? I never read where the teacher explicitly taught letter-sound knowledge and letter formation. In fact, it seemed that the teacher was not concerned with letter formation. She said that she “did not correct their backward and lopsided letters because the class was learning the gist of words and letters rather than perfecting the formation of any one letter”(Calkins, 2001, p.200). I kept reading and reading, waiting for the part where she explains how to teach phonics in kindergarten. In the end, I realized, there was no real explicit phonics instruction. Instead, the work in Lucy’s book asked students to explore and investigate letters and words. It’s a pretty idea, but will not produce the results we desperately need to send children to first grade.
If the lack of explicit letter-sound knowledge in kindergarten concerns you, you should probably sit down while I talk about first grade. There was a lot of discussion about teaching high-frequency words in context and using a word wall. That kind of rhetoric I’m used to hearing from the balanced literacy community. The main issue, however, is this idea of “Power Words.” Power Words, according to Lucy, are when you know a word that can help you read and spell other words like it. In the text, Lucy discusses the word bike, and how it can be used to spell the words like, hike, and Mike (Calkins, p.217). While I was reading these pages, my eyes got bigger and bigger and I wanted to scream JUST TEACH THEM THE PHONICS THAT GOES WITH THESE WORDS!!!! Why would I just teach my kids -ike in 5 words, and not take the time to teach them i-e that will help them to read and spell hundreds of words? Yes, that can be a strategy that you use, but for goodness sake please don’t make it the only one. I read nothing about a sequence of skills taught or even an explicit lesson on a phonics skill. The bottom line is, the reading workshop, as laid out by Lucy Calkins and others in the balanced literacy community, simply does not support explicit, systematic phonics instruction. In 2019, Lucy did release a Unit of Study for Phonics. After two decades where thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of students were shuffled through school without actually learning how to read, it feels like too little, too late.
Hindsight is 20/20
In 2000, the National Reading Panel came out with its report on the components children need to become proficient readers. Their big findings were that children needed phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, comprehension, and fluency work. I knew about this report when I was a Lucy follower, and yet it still didn’t click. I thought that I was “doing” phonics and vocabulary when I mentioned a certain spelling pattern or pointed out a particular vocabulary word. It wasn’t until much, much later that I realized incidental teaching isn’t going to produce the results I want. I still have as much passion as I ever did for teaching children to read and write, and a love for reading will always be the goal. The truth is, however, that we are churning out too many children who are dispassionate about reading because their teachers never gave them the tools to actually read.
When I think about Lucy now, I alternate between anger and sadness. I’m angry at myself for believing in her practices for so long, even though the data never supported what I was doing. I thought if I stayed the course, the results would eventually work in my favor. And I’m saddened because I do think Lucy Calkins loves kids and wants them to become better readers. I just think she needs to admit her ideas are flawed and move forward for the sake of children. While writing this post, I went on Amazon to look at some Art of Teaching Reading reviews. To my surprise, the book is out of print and cannot even be purchased on the Heinemann website. It seems as though there may be some quiet backtracking on the Calkins front. Now, if only we could say the same about those over-priced Units of Study.
I’ve been talking about Lucy like a family member or some ex-boyfriend that I had to finally leave. I felt like I was stabbing her in the back with every word I typed. The reality is, however, that Lucy will never know my name. She will never know the impact she’s had on my teaching. But you know what? Every single day I have kids sitting in front of me who DO know my name and WILL know the lasting impact of my teaching. For their sake, when it comes to Lucy, balanced literacy, and other outdated practices, I am done.
- Calkins, L. (2001). The art of teaching reading. New York: Longman.
- Calkins, L. (1994). The art of teaching writing. New Hampshire: Heinemann.
- Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, NIH, DHHS. (2000). Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching Children to Read: Reports of the Subgroups (00-4754). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.