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Lucy Calkins on the “Science of Reading.” Seriously.

I left graduate school fully convinced that this was axiomatic: The road to reading is paved on a foundation of meaning. Fortunately, I spent the first years after my degree as a first grade teacher in a bilingual school, teaching, or at least trying to teach, reading in English and in Spanish. I learned from the children and colleagues at my school that this is not axiomatic; it is just wrong.

But my learning was not without a struggle. Axiomatic convictions don’t go away without a fight. And I fought mightily. But in the end, the evidence won out. And by evidence I don’t just mean what researchers and others publish in their articles and professors say or don’t say to their students and anyone who will listen. I also mean what I was seeing before my very eyes. As both a teacher and a beginning researcher, my convictions were put to the test, and some didn’t pan out.

Which brings me to Lucy Calkins’ most recent contribution to the seemingly never-ending saga of “What is the best way to teach reading?” or at least, “How should we teach children to read?” Welcome to the latest skirmish in the hot-and-cold-running Reading Wars. You know the lay of the battlefield … letters, sounds, phonics, decoding, etc. vs. whole word, whole language, literature-based reading, etc.

I’ll say at the outset that there are many things Dr. Calkins says in this piece with which I have no quarrel. So, as she does in her essay before chastising “the phonics-centric people,” I will begin with these meritorious phrases. For example, “there should be no debate about the fact that children should be taught phonics, and that the phonics education they receive should be planned, systematic, and based on research that is widely available on this topic”; “for learning to read… [i]mmersion in a sea of books is not enough”; “[f]or very early readers, … there is merit to the argument that access to more decodable texts will be beneficial”; “Teachers—especially those teaching pre-K to second grade⁠—do need to learn more about phonics”; “yes, indeed, phonics matters.… But [Common Core and state] standards say that phonics, alone, is not sufficient… young children [need] to receive a rigorous education in writing, in reading comprehension, in vocabulary, and in speaking and listening alongside the education they receive in phonics”; “I am all for a district’s superintendent or director of language arts moving heaven and earth to help teachers across the district develop more knowledge and skills on phonics”; “we need to become more equipped to support children with dyslexia”; “explicit phonics instruction for all children is essential”; “the science of reading proponents … are successfully calling attention to the importance of prioritizing professional education for teachers”; “professional education is necessary for those of us in teacher education as well.”

So far so good. The problem, however (you knew this was coming), is not so much the parts I didn’t quote, although they offer some subtle clues. The problem is that Dr. Calkins is trying to play on both sides of the fence. In reality, she is squarely on the side from which she is trying to distance herself, claiming she is aligned with Common Core and many state standards as sensible alternatives to “the extremes of both whole language as well as those of Reading First.”

To understand this doublespeak fully, you need to dive into her latest offerings to literacy education, Units, Tools, and Methods for Teaching Reading and Writing A Workshop Curriculum – Grades K-8 by Lucy Calkins and Colleagues from TCRWP. Many readers will be unable or unwilling to do this, but fortunately I have done so and herewith offer some observations. These are not exhaustive, since space would not permit and readers would not tolerate. But they will give you a much better sense than does her essay of Dr. Calkins’ positions and what she advocates that teachers do in the classroom.

No Three-Cueing System Here (Is There?)

Dr. Calkins first attempts to slay the whole language dragon by saying it’s actually a unicorn. OK, not literally. But she seems to think whole language simply doesn’t exist in schools anymore: “I do not know anyone, however, who defines his or her method for teaching reading as ‘the three cueing systems.’” The notorious “three cueing system,” of course, is the calling card of whole language. It is the demonstrably false premise that teaching children to read involves teaching them how to use meaning, visual, and syntactic “cues” (or some iteration of these or neighboring concepts) simultaneously or strategically or in coordination in order to comprehend a text. Ken Goodman did not coin this term, as many believe, but it came to be seen as an instantiation, so to speak, of his seminally unfortunate concept of reading as a “psycholinguistic guessing game.” Whole language advocates thought phonics instruction was teaching children a lot of nonsense, another lamentable coinage by Goodman brother-in-arms Frank Smith in his Reading without Nonsense. So phonics-skeptics/whole language enthusiasts said stop the nonsense and instead “guess,” which also became toxic and from which Calkins works to distance herself in her essay, with mixed results: “The ‘science of reading’ people are all-over (sic) the word guess and they aren’t wrong about that. It would be wise for teachers to say, ‘Try it,’ instead of ‘Guess…’”

In her materials, Dr. Calkins does not use “the three cueing systems.” In fact I don’t think the words cue or cueing, much less “three cueing systems,” even appear. I can’t claim to have read every single word in the program’s thousands of pages, but I did read or scan a lot of them and looked in the index of the reading guides. No sign of cues or cueing systems. But how’s this for sleight of hand: Instead of “three cueing systems,” Dr. Calkins uses “MSV,” which, depending on where you are in the A Guide to the Reading Workshop, either stands for “meaning/structure/visual system” (the index, p. 177) or “multiple sources of information” (pp. 108 and 137). Aside from sounding more like a disease than an instructional approach (although some would readily regard it as the former), this is about as clear a case as can be imagined of old wine and new bottle, with the additional feature of said wine still being noxious for kids who need more structure and support on foundational skills (more on foundational skills sleight of hand later, if you are still reading). But don’t believe me. Take a read of what Dr. Calkins writes in A Guide to the Reading Workshop for primary grades, which is more or less a teachers’ guide/PD volume/introduction to the reading curriculum portion of this program. (I’ve tried to shorten without compromising the meaning and intent):

On the first day of shared reading, introduce the new book and several important vocabulary words or concepts. … Invite children to chime in, even the first time you read the book. You’ll be amazed how many leap right in! The first encounter with the text is a perfect time to practice using multiple sources of information (MSV) to tackle tricky words…. [C]hoose a few words in the text that you and the children will pay extra attention to. Cover these words with Post-its…. [S]top at each of these words and guide students as they use their word-solving strategies to figure the words out. … [I]f you are teaching digraphs (such as ch, sh, and th), you might partially cover words that begin that way. Allow students to see the digraph and to use those letters to help them guess the word you have covered. Then reveal the last part of the word so they can confirm or revise their guesses. … (A Guide to the Reading Workshop: Primary Grades, p. 137)

For the record, I personally have no objection to the concept of “cueing systems” (although I do object to urging children to “guess” and find it very odd that Dr. Calkins uses the g-word in the passage above, after trying to distance herself from it and saying it’s not the wisest choice). In fact years ago, when I was on one of those countless panels and committees pumping out reports on reading education, I invoked the term but with the proviso that all cueing systems are not equal and, more important, that different ones are more salient at different stages of reading development: In the beginning and early stages, the grapho-phonic (or whatever one wants to call it) is the key one, and others should not interfere, except under very specific circumstances (e.g., confirmation). The cueing systems notion had already begun to acquire its toxic glow, and I was essentially told my services were no longer required, or in today’s terms, marginalized. I suppose it was just as well. This cueing system business has done a fair amount of damage, so I’m ok leaving it in the dust bin of pedagogical history. It has many companions. MVS should join them.

Still with Us, Rebranded

Unfortunately, the beast is not slain. It is still alive in works such as this program where it is rebranded as MVS. Even more unfortunately, it lives on in the hearts and minds of way too many teachers who don’t necessarily have a handy label but who are nonetheless guided by precisely this concept: Beginning and early reading instruction is all about helping children make sense of text by using all the information available to them, pictures, letters, sounds, syntax, prior experiences, whatever. It’s all very democratic; there is no hierarchy of skills; the concept of foundational skills (coming, I promise) is fundamentally subverted. All of this points to how right Dr. Calkins is when she calls out “the importance of prioritizing professional education for teachers.” And how doubly right she is when she says, “professional education is necessary for those of us in teacher education as well.”

I don’t know if Dr. Calkins is being disingenuous or purposefully misleading when she says in her essay, “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.” Maybe another sleight of hand. In any case, school systems indeed say they subscribe to this belief, as does Dr. Calkins, but classroom instruction does not bear this out. All one has to do is walk into a first- or second-grade classroom and watch guided reading—the centerpiece of many district’s reading instruction—in action. It’s pretty much what Natalie is doing in another invocation of MVS:

Natalie helped the children search and cross-check multiple sources of information (MSV). She coached kids to rely first on meaning, by searching the picture and thinking about what was happening, and then to decode the print. She continued moving through this process on subsequent page of the shared text, assessing how children called upon the syntax and meaning on previous pages to support their new predictions. This work is especially powerful for supporting English language learners’ growing understanding of language structure and for helping them connect that to the words on the page. (A Guide to the Reading Workshop for primary grades, p. 108; emphasis added; see next section).

What about English Learners?

Dr. Calkins’ guides in this program also make a nod to English Learners. The general advice is reasonable as far as it goes, e.g., the need for clear and consistent classroom routines, procedures, and instructional language; the importance of repetition and practice; contextualization; use of visuals and gestures; instruction/support in grammar, vocabulary, and figurative language; instructional planning with an ESL instructor; providing support in learning academic English; extending ELs’ language.

The problem is that this unobjectionable advice sits atop an instructional model that is fundamentally flawed, for both ELs and nonELs, as it fails to highlight the critical importance of learning the alphabetic principle and the grapheme-phoneme mapping system for learning to read English (or any other alphabetic language). Obviously, other instructional components are essential, again for both ELs and nonELs. But the critical importance of phonics and decoding, “mapping speech to print” in other words, is simply not adequately emphasized in this curriculum.

Instead the curriculum guides contain assertions such as the final (italicized) sentence in the quote above and this in the Guide to the Writing Workshop: “The wonderful thing about a [writing] workshop is that it is incredibly supportive for English language learners…” (p. 86).

There is no—I repeat, NO—known research that supports assertions that the workshops and instructional moves advocated in this program are either powerful or wonderful for ELs’ literacy development. It’s anyone’s guess on what Dr. Calkins bases these claims. In fact, there is much research to contradict them. Please see the references cited at the end if interested in following up on my assertion.

The Subversion of “Foundational Skills”

Finally, foundational reading skills are conventionally defined as understanding and being able to apply concepts of print, the alphabetic principle, the system of grapheme-phoneme mapping that permits recognizing words (commonly referred to a phonics and decoding), and other basic conventions of English writing. See, e.g., “English Language Arts Standards » Reading: Foundational Skills » Introduction for K-5” at the Common Core site. As students become increasingly fluent and adept at these foundational skills, emphasis also increasingly shifts to the real purpose of literacy—meaningful communication and expression, both receptively (reading) and productively (writing). However, foundational skills are never left behind and can’t ever be taken for granted, which is why the Common Core contains a “foundational skills” strand, comprising phonics, word recognition, and fluency, through grade 5.

Dr. Calkins’ program, however, defines foundational skills very differently. In a curious supplemental resource called “Mystery: Foundational Skills in Disguise, Grade 3, with Trade Packs” (also available without the trade book packs), the curriculum appears to define “foundational skills” as, e.g., following ideas across texts, seeing cause-and-effect relationships, predicting outcomes, and making inferences. This mysterious resource is strange, coming from the shop of someone who wraps herself in the mantle of Common Core.

No one could dispute the importance of these skills to successful skilled reading. But they’re not foundational. The simple reason is that if you cannot read words on a page or screen fluently and with comprehension, the chances of being able to follow ideas across texts, see cause-and-effect relationships, and all the rest are zero.

In conclusion ….

Dr. Calkins has been taken to task about the ineffectiveness of her program, based on a New York City study. She has called the study “very problematic”; in fairness, a perfect study it was not. But the study findings did converge with the opinions of a group of teachers in the South Bronx who didn’t simply take her to task. MORE, the Movement of Rank and File Educators, which calls itself “the Social Justice Caucus of the UFT, New York City’s Teachers union,” have called for her “to be Arrested, Prosecuted, Convicted and Sentenced… for her systematic compliance in ruining the lives of NYC’s students.” That seems rather extreme to me. But it illustrates the depth of dissatisfaction among some educators, in this case, those identifying closely with social justice for students who are most dependent on effective schools and worthwhile curriculum and instruction.

Others don’t go to MORE’s lengths but still are cynically convinced Dr. Calkins is all about market share. I have no idea what Dr. Calkins’ motivation is; I am completely willing to believe that she and her colleagues are convinced that this is the way to help children become fluent and joyful readers and writers. But it doesn’t matter. I don’t give a phoneme about market share or motivation. Advil has a big chunk of the analgesic market, and those who invented it and sell it want their profits. That’s OK with me. Advil is inexpensive and effective; my headache is gone faster than with any other product. But the Calkins program is neither inexpensive nor effective. In fact, for the tens of millions of children who do not learn to read and write easily regardless of the pedagogy inflicted on them, it will give them and their teachers headaches, or worse.

This might be hard for readers to believe, but I have no interest in joining the fray on yet another round in the Reading Wars. But I can’t abide obfuscation, misrepresentations, and misinformation, no matter how well-intentioned. It’s a disservice to everyone—children, teachers, parents, communities, and the nation. It must stop.

About the Author

Claude Goldenberg, Ph.D. is Nomellini & Olivier Professor of Education, emeritus, Stanford University. He is author of Successful school change: Creating settings to improve teaching and learning (Teachers College); co-author with Rhoda Coleman of Promoting academic achievement among English Learners: A guide to the research (Corwin); and co-editor with Aydin Durgunoglu of Language and literacy development in bilingual settings (Guilford). He has published and been on the editorial boards of various literacy and education academic and professional journals. Previous projects focused on improving literacy achievement among English Learners in elementary and middle school, language and literacy development among Mexican children in Mexico, and a randomized control trial of an early literacy intervention in Rwanda. Current projects include consulting for the US Department of Justice on English Learner issues and chairing a research advisory panel on early childhood education for Arizona’s First Things First.

References for Further Reading on Effective Practices for English Learners

August, D. & Shanahan, T. (Eds.) (2006).  Developing literacy In second-language learners:  Report of the National Literacy Panel on Language-Minority Children and Youth. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

August, D. (2018, Fall). Educating English Language Learners: A review of the latest research. American Educator (Available at

Cheung, A. & Slavin, R. (2005). Effective reading programs for English Language Learners and other language-minority students. Bilingual Research Journal, 29.

Ehri, L., Dreyer, L., Flugman, B., Gross, A. (2007). Reading Rescue: An Effective Tutoring Intervention Model for Language-Minority Students Who Are Struggling Readers in First Grade. American Educational Research Journal, 44, 414-448.

Genesee, F., Lindholm-Leary, K., Saunders, W., and Christian, D. (2006). Educating English Language Learners. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Goldenberg, C. (2013). Unlocking the research on English Learners: What we know—and don’t yet know—about effective instruction. American Educator, 37 (2), 4-11, 38. (Available at

Vaughn, S., Mathes, P., et al. (2006). Effectiveness of an English intervention for first-grade English Language Learners at risk for reading problems. Elementary School Journal, 107, 153–181.

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