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(50,923 posts)
Sun Oct 15, 2023, 11:38 AM Oct 2023

The Decades-Long Travesty That Made Millions of Americans Mistrust Their Kids' Schools


Call it the end of an era for fantasy-fueled reading instruction. In a move that has parents like me cheering, Columbia University’s Teachers College announced last month that it is shuttering its once famous—in some circles, now-infamous—reading organization founded by education guru and entrepreneur Lucy Calkins.

For decades, the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project was a behemoth in American education. As many as 1 in 4 U.S. elementary schools used Calkins’ signature curriculum. But that number is dwindling as a growing chorus of cognitive scientists, learning experts, and parents—many amplified by education journalist Emily Hanford via her 2022 podcast Sold a Story—argue that the Calkins approach to reading is ineffective at best, actively harmful at worst, and a large part of why more than half of our country’s fourth graders aren’t demonstrating proficiency on reading exams.

It’s common knowledge that never learning to read well damages children’s self-esteem, their life prospects, and our country’s future workforce. What’s less talked about is how, when schools fail to teach reading, it harms the public’s trust in schools. An unspoken contract between public schools and parents is that schools will teach their children to read. In many places, that contract was broken when schools adopted Calkins’ methods, kids didn’t learn to read, and responsibility for teaching reading transferred onto parents and guardians.

That’s what happened to me. I live in New York City, home to the nation’s largest school district and ground zero of the Calkins approach to reading. Mayor Michael Bloomberg brought Calkins’ curriculum to our schools some 20 years ago, and her methods have remained entrenched here ever since. Often called “balanced literacy,” this approach treats reading not as a taught skill, but as something innate that emerges under the right conditions. It rests on the fuzzy fantasy that drenching young children in a literacy-rich environment is what gets most kids reading.


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The Decades-Long Travesty That Made Millions of Americans Mistrust Their Kids' Schools (Original Post) Nevilledog Oct 2023 OP
When I was a kid, we had SRA XanaDUer2 Oct 2023 #1
My school too! But if IIRC, it was rainbow colored & might be interpreted as WOKE! CrispyQ Oct 2023 #8
It was multicolored XanaDUer2 Oct 2023 #10
LOL. I just posted below about phonics! CrispyQ Oct 2023 #18
I really liked that system. 2naSalit Oct 2023 #11
I loved SRA. I blew through my elementary school's supply of SRA modules in no time flat. Aristus Oct 2023 #19
I remember those treestar Oct 2023 #21
Kick dalton99a Oct 2023 #2
I don't remember how reading was taught at school. Ocelot II Oct 2023 #3
Phonics "sound it out" is a phrase I dimly remember. yorkster Oct 2023 #5
I do remember... 2naSalit Oct 2023 #9
My mother was an elementary school teacher. I have no idea when I learned to read, but ... planetc Oct 2023 #22
"Sound it out." I remember that. I just don't remember learning to read Ocelot II Oct 2023 #24
I think you're demonstraing my point: "But even after we got television we still read all the time" planetc Oct 2023 #29
Right With Ya! ProfessorGAC Oct 2023 #26
Yes, reading cereal boxes! Ocelot II Oct 2023 #27
I took a "teaching to read" course cyclonefence Oct 2023 #4
Ironically, the right-wing extremism is removing a previously strong educational pillar. yardwork Oct 2023 #14
I learned to read with phonics instruction, and I use my decoding skills to this day. Lonestarblue Oct 2023 #6
My brother was in one of the initial grades in the '60s, RicROC Oct 2023 #7
See and Say was a disaster unc70 Oct 2023 #15
As someone who taught reading for more than thirty years senseandsensibility Oct 2023 #12
My children - now in their 30s - were subjected to this approach. yardwork Oct 2023 #13
I knew this was true ExWhoDoesntCare Oct 2023 #16
When I was a kid we had phonics in first grade. CrispyQ Oct 2023 #17
Similar Sympthsical Oct 2023 #20
LOL. I'd forgotten the schwa. CrispyQ Oct 2023 #25
In '89 I was in an ed psych program. Igel Oct 2023 #23
I never heard of this "Calkins Method" before now... jmowreader Oct 2023 #28


(10,455 posts)
1. When I was a kid, we had SRA
Sun Oct 15, 2023, 11:42 AM
Oct 2023

I think that's what it was called. You chose your reading level. I enjoyed it


(36,383 posts)
8. My school too! But if IIRC, it was rainbow colored & might be interpreted as WOKE!
Sun Oct 15, 2023, 12:11 PM
Oct 2023

Feeling both this and this


(10,455 posts)
10. It was multicolored
Sun Oct 15, 2023, 12:14 PM
Oct 2023

I was very good art reading and always aced the most-complex essays. It made me proud

We also trained heavily in Phonics


(86,233 posts)
11. I really liked that system.
Sun Oct 15, 2023, 12:16 PM
Oct 2023

A couple schools I attended, in the same state, used it. I think that was when I actually started enjoying reading in the third grade using that system. I guess that's why I remember it.


(66,237 posts)
19. I loved SRA. I blew through my elementary school's supply of SRA modules in no time flat.
Sun Oct 15, 2023, 01:18 PM
Oct 2023

I had to start using the modules from the junior high school next door. A lot of the other kids thought I was a freak. But I wasn't. Just someone who came from a home in which reading was a joy, not a chore.


(81,279 posts)
2. Kick
Sun Oct 15, 2023, 11:45 AM
Oct 2023
This notion contains a subtle but unmistakable streak of classism and parent-blaming — if kids are struggling to learn, chances are something is missing at home, or so the logic goes. Back in the 1970s, this general line of thinking may even have fueled a Supreme Court decision justifying discriminatory funding of schools, with the idea being that more money to poor districts would not help students because families — not schools — were the key ingredient in student success.

Last year, reporting a story on babies and libraries, I came across a heavily referenced research paper on early literacy in which I glimpsed the rotten roots of the literacy mess our country is in. Dated 1990, it appeared in a journal published by the National Council of Teachers of English and was co-authored by three professors, all of whom taught or would go on to teach at graduate education programs.

In the authoritative tone of Those Who Know Best, those authors assert: “When a child is born, parents expect him or her to learn to talk and to walk. Expectations are very subtle messages that we give learners about their probability of success. If we expect children to learn to read and write, they can accomplish these literacy skills with the same ease that they learned to talk.”

This idea that parents — rather than instruction — determine whether or not children become readers was not true at the time that paper was published more than 30 years ago. Nor was it true when Calkins, a few years later, honed the reading methodologies that Bloomberg would make the word of law in New York schools. But by embracing the notion that homes bear the bulk of responsibility for whether or not children can read, education specialists like Calkins made it true for far too many.

Ocelot II

(115,475 posts)
3. I don't remember how reading was taught at school.
Sun Oct 15, 2023, 11:46 AM
Oct 2023

because I don't remember not being able to read. At least according to my parents I was reading long before I started school because I kept asking about the words I saw - "What's that word?" - and learned that way. But I think we were taught some kind of phonics in those days (the '50s). My experience does suggest that, at least in some cases, parents do influence their kids' reading abilities.


(1,438 posts)
5. Phonics "sound it out" is a phrase I dimly remember.
Sun Oct 15, 2023, 11:56 AM
Oct 2023

Still do it when "deconstructing" the name of a chemical compound, new medication etc. Or trying to correctly pronounce a name in a language unfamiliar to me.


(86,233 posts)
9. I do remember...
Sun Oct 15, 2023, 12:13 PM
Oct 2023

Learning to read, I was always left behind by the two older siblings because I wasn't at their reading and math levels, though I was reading at four, and learning a second language. I went to so many schools that I was able to sample a wide variety of curricula at the grade school level in a few regions of the country.

The one I liked best was the SRA system, 3rd and 4th grades, and a phonics component that I hated but learned from all the same. I still recall a couple of the stories in the SRA program.

I'm pretty sure that learning to read is a process that starts before and outside of school. I had two siblings who were years ahead of me to compete with because they demanded that I compete with them. I think most siblings do that to some degree. My parents never sat down and did homework or helped me learn to read, that was the responsibility of the siblings for some reason... my parents had issues.

But I also credit the school systems in the New England states in the early 1960s, they prepared me well when it comes to reading, and probably math, if I weren't dyslexic I would have fared better in that.


(7,763 posts)
22. My mother was an elementary school teacher. I have no idea when I learned to read, but ...
Sun Oct 15, 2023, 02:44 PM
Oct 2023

I do remember an internal voice telling me to "sound it out" when I met an unfamiliar word. But besides phonics, I think what was most useful in the 1940s and '50s is that there was no television. If we wanted adventure and excitement and drama, we had to get a book. By the time we were old enough to go out and buy ourselves a comic, we had been taken to the library every week by Mom for years. Comics were fun, but "Silver Chief, Dog of the North" was excellent! I saw Silver Chief displayed in the children's section of my local library last year. I was right!

Ocelot II

(115,475 posts)
24. "Sound it out." I remember that. I just don't remember learning to read
Sun Oct 15, 2023, 02:49 PM
Oct 2023

in the first place. But even after we got television we still read all the time, since in those days we mostly had just the Saturday morning kids' shows. All other times we were either playing outside or reading. I got a weekly trip to the library, too - every Wednesday I got to check out as many books as they would allow.


(7,763 posts)
29. I think you're demonstraing my point: "But even after we got television we still read all the time"
Sun Oct 15, 2023, 07:36 PM
Oct 2023

We did too. Because by the time the TV arrived, we had a taste for the depth of adventure that books could bring. And the variety, and the excitement. But there was good television on in those days. It's just that TV had competition from books, and we never had to depend entirely on TV. If children today think that TV/streaming is all there is, they won't spend the time and energy to read well. And that's a pity.


(64,728 posts)
26. Right With Ya!
Sun Oct 15, 2023, 04:21 PM
Oct 2023

My mom says I started reading the milk cartons (my dad worked for a dairy, so I was obviously interested in it) & the cereal boxes. This was at least a year before kindergarten.
Like you, I have no recollection of being unable to read.


(4,483 posts)
4. I took a "teaching to read" course
Sun Oct 15, 2023, 11:56 AM
Oct 2023

at Temple Univ. in order to obtain a teaching certificate in 1969-70, and I will never forget what our instructor said on the first day: "no one really knows how children learn to read." Some kids learn from being read to; some kids need phonics to connect the written word with the spoken word they know; some kids need drills to memorize lists of words--and who knows what else.

I think immersion in reading, at home, in school, at the library on Saturday, is a good start. I think encouraging kids to read whatever interests them--in my case, it was comic books--no matter how "appropriate" for the kid, is crucial. Exposure to books at school is of course essential, and books at home *if* the family can afford them.


(61,514 posts)
14. Ironically, the right-wing extremism is removing a previously strong educational pillar.
Sun Oct 15, 2023, 12:29 PM
Oct 2023

I grew up in a very conservative, rural area. Almost all of my teachers were quite conservative, but in those days that meant "hard work, personal responsibility, respect, strong ethics."

I had a fourth grade teacher who was mean, narrow-minded, and fairly uneducated. However, she read to her classroom, and she filled the bookshelves with classics and Newberry Award winning books. She read us Charlotte's Web, Treasure Island. Our classroom had Narnia books, plus all the SRA materials. The school library - which had been a high school library - had Edgar Allen Poe and other "adult" authors.

This would never happen now. The 21st century version of my 4th grade teacher would ban every one of those books. Something crucial has been lost.


(9,958 posts)
6. I learned to read with phonics instruction, and I use my decoding skills to this day.
Sun Oct 15, 2023, 11:57 AM
Oct 2023

I usually complete the daily NYT Spelling Bee, and it’s helpful to know typical word endings and letter combinations in finding some of those lesser-known words. That said, children also need to be read to in early years to develop the love of a good story, and the joy that comes from being able to choose and read the stories that interest you. That is why book bans are so harmful. They deny kids the opportunity to choose their own books, which is what motivates kids to read.


(1,203 posts)
7. My brother was in one of the initial grades in the '60s,
Sun Oct 15, 2023, 12:01 PM
Oct 2023

where the reading philosophy turned away from teaching phonics as the way to learn reading, to 'sight reading'. He never did develop a reading skill and even as an adult, paid for a reading course because he realized how deficient he was.


(6,106 posts)
15. See and Say was a disaster
Sun Oct 15, 2023, 12:37 PM
Oct 2023

That whole word method just totally failed when one was faced with unfamiliar words. And if the student had any learning problem like dyslexia, there was little hope.

Learning to sound out a word underpins becoming a proficient reader. Later skills include learning the more common suffixes and prefixes and how to "remove" them to reveal the root word within

Education theory is a lot like economic theory; the theory requires ignoring the evidence in front of your face.

BTW my brother in law was taught See and Say in the early 1950s. Fifty years later he still bemoaned his difficulties with recognizing words and with spelling. He had learned phonics later in life, but still ...


(16,832 posts)
12. As someone who taught reading for more than thirty years
Sun Oct 15, 2023, 12:18 PM
Oct 2023

reading definitely has to be taught as a skill. In other words, phonics must be employed. This is true especially for students who do not speak English as a first language.


(61,514 posts)
13. My children - now in their 30s - were subjected to this approach.
Sun Oct 15, 2023, 12:19 PM
Oct 2023

Fortunately, neither of them had reading disabilities. Children who did, though, didn't get the interventions they needed.

On the other hand, my kids weren't subjected to New Math - the 1960s fiasco that was such a poor way to teach math, many of us grew believing we were no good at math. I had to reteach myself math - with the help of my kids' math curriculum - and now feel much more confident.



(4,741 posts)
16. I knew this was true
Sun Oct 15, 2023, 12:40 PM
Oct 2023

I taught my son to read, long before he went to school. I was not rich, and I did not sink tons of time into it. I'd do it in snatches of time grabbed whenever. Started by reading to him, but, more importantly got him to learn the alphabet before he was two, then how the letters worked/sounded together, then having him sound out words during "story" time. Not all of them, the little ones at first, then the bigger ones.

Then one day when he was still a wee sprog of three, he took over for me to read a book all by himself aloud--and he understood what was going on. I let him get used to reading on his own, and kept stashes of books in every room for him to turn to if he got bored or was in a quiet mood. Once reading was simply something he could do for long enough on his own, I started him on chapter books, before he was 4. Peter Pan. We took turns reading that one to each other until he got the hang of reading with no pictures.

As we progressed with more chapter books, I showed him the dictionary for words he didn't understand. He could ask me for advice if even that didn't make sense, but after a while, he didn't need me for that anymore, either. I also introduced him to the idea of *thinking* about what he was reading by talking about what we'd just read, why characters acted how they did, basics about theme and plot, and so on. Nothing too taxing or cerebral, just simple things that a child could grasp.

And then he was was reading "big books" on his own. That was the summer before he started kindergarten.

His very first teacher and parents of his classmates wondered what pre-K he'd attended, to learn so much going into school that everyone else would only start to learn then. The wealthier parents asked who his tutor was.

Imagine their shock when I told them he never attended pre-K, and his only tutor was yours truly. What shocked them even more was when I admitted that I hadn't spent a small fortune, or even needed a great deal of time or effort doing it. Most days, I devoted probably half an hour to the task. I started early, slowly progressed him through various steps to reading on his own, and, most of all, I was consistent about it, without being pushy. Every day was about reading (and basic numbers/arithmetic, colors, shapes, and so on). I made sure that he saw reading as simply something we did every day, like eating or playing outside or putting away toys when he was done with them.

That's what it takes to create a reader.


(36,383 posts)
17. When I was a kid we had phonics in first grade.
Sun Oct 15, 2023, 12:42 PM
Oct 2023

In second grade I changed school districts where they didn't teach phonics & I was by far the best speller & reader in the class & that stayed with me for years. My tenth grade biology teacher commented how I could read biological terms better than anyone else. I wonder if they still teach phonics?


(9,001 posts)
20. Similar
Sun Oct 15, 2023, 01:56 PM
Oct 2023

Grade school in the late 80s. We had phonics drilled into us in first and second grades. To this day, I have no idea what a schwa is. No intention of finding out. I like the mystery that deep in my childhood, there lurked this unknown entity, the schwa, that was traumatizing and forgotten.

Then we moved on in 3/4/5 to those color-coded manual thingies. You basically worked your way through the boxes.

Out of curiosity, I looked up the current curriculum at my old elementary school. They now use the EL Education Core Reading Program that uses structured phonics. One thing that caught my eye while reading through it is that they note how most old systems assume kids are proficient enough by 3rd grade to move on to deciphering texts. However, they say testing does not bear out the effectiveness of this old thinking, so they have created and included instruction for grades 3-5.

So, at least in my old district, they're teaching more phonics than they used to.


(35,253 posts)
23. In '89 I was in an ed psych program.
Sun Oct 15, 2023, 02:44 PM
Oct 2023

Prep for getting getting certified to teach.

The professors (it was team taught) were clear: The research was in, they knew what worked and what didn't work. Direct instruction in phonics matters; without it some kids do well, with it pretty much all kids do well. Once they're up to speed on phonics, then you bury them in practice so that phonics is a stepping stone to what amounts to see-and-say or whatever the standard in the late '60s was.

I have students now, sophomores through seniors, that can't sound out words. In fact, there's a good chance if the word's similar enough to another word they'll confuse it with the other word and if it makes no sense assume that the sentence is intended to be gibberish. Same for words they've never seen and can't sound out. Not just no phonics, but dictionaries are unnecessary because in taking standardized tests you might not have enough time to use a dictionary--so guess and rely on intuition, context, and a curve for the test.

(In learning languages and to this day in reading, if I sense that a sentence doesn't cohere really well and it's clear from the context it should, I dictionary the word to find what the different, unknown-to-me sense is. Recently saw "strophe" in a usage I thought goophy, saw that it was the first stanza in a kind of poem--and the second and required stanza was the antistrophe. Sure enough, a paragraph later there was the second even, a clear response to the first, termed the "antistrophe".)


(50,501 posts)
28. I never heard of this "Calkins Method" before now...
Sun Oct 15, 2023, 06:37 PM
Oct 2023

...and I kinda wish it had stayed that way. This sounds a bit like Professor Harold Hill's Think System from "The Music Man."

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