Saturday 23 November 2019

Running with the hare and hunting with the hound. My response to Lucy Calkins' "Science of Reading" essay.

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This week, Lucy Calkins of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University, and highly published Heinemann author and creator of reading, writing, and spelling materials for teachers, published a piece entitled No-one gets to own the term “the science of reading"
Although Calkins’ work is not directly referenced in Australia as much as it appears to be in North America, the kinds of ideas she espouses, certainly do permeate, via the ubiquitous Balanced Literacy, which readers of this blog will know is really just Whole Language 2.0.
I’ve had a careful read of Calkin’s essay, and would like to share some reflections here.
Firstly, there’s the title, which does seem to have a slightly petulant, foot-stamping edge to it. Calkins is right, in the sense that no-one “owns” the science of anything. Science is its own master, and does not have one face for some, and another face for others, despite Kenneth Goodman’s extraordinary statement to Emily Hanford earlier this year, that “my science is different”.
Reference to “phonics-centric people” in the opening line is hardly a major piece of epistemological d├ętente (and nor is “the new hype about phonics”), and portends the inevitable straw man, that we knew was going to turn up somewhere in the essay, and there it is on page 4: Should schools increase the focus on phonics at the expense of everything else”? Of course, Calkins does not cite evidence that anyone on the science of reading side of the debate argues this, for the simple reason that they don’t.
Calkins’ other straw man argument early on is that phonics is not all that “kids” (her word) need in the early stages; they also need instructional support in vocabulary, comprehension, fluency, and writing. As has been resoundingly argued by science of reading advocates for decades.
Calkins does, however, make some statements that support longstanding arguments by advocates for the science of reading, such as (p.1):

  • “It is true that young children need explicit instruction in grapho-phonics"
  • “Children need to be taught the ways in which 26 letters combine to make words”.
  •  “Immersion in a sea of books is not enough”.
  •  “Speech is like walking, inborn and innate. Reading and writing are like driving a car. They don’t come naturally”.

Predictably, though, Calkins writes (p. 2) “I do not know any school system that doesn’t ascribe (sic) to the belief that explicit instruction in phonics is one of the foundations for learning to read and write”. This is classic Balanced Literacy-speak for “phonics is in the mix”, or “phonics is one of a range of approaches” used. Calkins refers to instruction needing to be planned and systematic but stops short of specifying what this should look like in the classroom – except to say it should be “based on research”. That is the kind of non-specific advice from influential people that helped to get us into this mess in the first place.  

Calkins' attempted sleight of hand in re-packaging multi-cueing (also known as three-cueing, or search-lights) as an assessment tool rather than a core instructional approach is almost laughable, and will fool no-one. Alongside its actual assessment partner, Running Records, it is a widely promoted and defended teaching method in Balanced Literacy circles in Australia and no doubt in other English-speaking countries smitten by Whole Language and its descendant pedagogies. 
There is a growing emphasis in the US on schools and school systems needing to identify children with dyslexia and provide appropriate instructional support. Dyslexia seems to be something of an Achilles' heel for Calkins, as she acknowledges that such children account for 5-15% of learners, and argues that these children need “structured multi-sensory phonics support” (p. 7). But hang on a minute, wasn’t she claiming earlier in her essay, that all children need structured, explicit phonics instruction?  Now she is arguing that the type of instruction children with dyslexia need is materially different from the type of instruction that typically developing children need. This does not align with current conceptualisations of dyslexia interventions, which call for increased dose, intensity and frequency of instruction, rather than approaches that are materially different from those used in Tier 1.
Equally worryingly, Calkins argues that it is unrealistic to expect classroom teachers to meet the needs of children in their class with dyslexia. This statement is alarming at a number of levels. It is common for children with reading problems (whether formally diagnosed as dyslexia or not) to go undetected for too long before any intervention is provided. Calkins’ world view will see these children languishing in classrooms, because the version of “explicit phonics instruction” they are receiving is in fact not sufficiently robust to avert or address their difficulties. Calkins makes no reference to how such children should be identified and supported (or by whom), nor to the opportunity cost for them of the time that elapses before they receive a diagnosis (if, in fact they ever do). Such children seem to be the acceptable collateral damage (in some cases, what Reid Lyon described as "instructional casualties") of a system in which Calkins claims it is not practical to properly equip pre-service teachers to explicitly teach phonics to novice readers. She goes so far as to acknowledge, however, that there is a school-to-prison pipeline filled with “children with untreated dyslexia” (p. 7) and that such children are at high risk of psychosocial dysfunction. Hey ho.
In spite of claiming to be “on board” with the science of reading, Calkins’ lack of authenticity on this is betrayed by the fact that she suggests an unethical state-auspiced experiment, in which one consortium of school districts adopts a "serious study of phonics", while another consortium adopts “other horizons as their focus” (p. 7).  If she was truly on board with the science of reading (as she claims), she would know that experimenting on children like this would be akin to withdrawing antenatal screening from one group of pregnant women, while continuing it for another. What is to be gained here at this point in history?
The essay is a little over seven pages long, but remarkably light on for references, relying instead on the writer’s presumed authority. Disappointingly, it includes a thinly veiled ad hominen attack on APM Reports journalist Emily Hanford, who has made it her business in recent years to turn over every rock she can find on the issue of reading instruction. Attacking people, rather than their arguments, is very low down in the food chain of intellectual debate.
Apart from the major logical inconsistencies I have identified above, I felt this essay was permeated by a slightly testy, defensive tone, reflecting perhaps a desire to be on the right side of history, but the irritation of knowing that this requires some reluctant major concessions to be made. It reminded me a bit of those semi-contrite apologies that politicians make, when they know they have transgressed in some way, but they are regretful rather than remorseful.
The concessions do not go far enough and on every page, Calkins’ true Whole Language/Balanced Literacy biases seep through, revealing that though she wants to be on the right side of history, she is running with the hare, and hunting with the hound.
That, however, is not how science works

(C) Pamela Snow (2019)


  1. Thank you for all of the clarifications that were helpful to me as an educator and a parent of a child with dyslexia.

  2. I greatly appreciate this scholarly response.

  3. Excellent response! Thank you :-)

  4. Excellent analysis! I love your commitment to digging deeply into Lucy’s writing and showing the truth. Thank you!