Archives for category: Language

Lucy Calkins is one of the most influential reading researchers In the nation. She created the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, whose teaching materials have been widely adopted and is a proponent of “balanced literacy.” BL prominently opposed the “phonics first” approach.

In my book Left Back: A Century of Battles Over School Reform,” I described in detail the long-standing debates about teaching reading, which dates back to the mid-nineteenth century. The phonetic approach was the conventional method until the advent of the very popular “Dick and Jane” reading books in the late 1920s. Those readers relied on the “whole word” method, in which children learned to recognize short words (“Run, Dick, run.” “See Sally run.”) and to use them in context rather than sound them out phonetically. In the 1950s, the debate came to a raging boil after publication of Rudolf Flesch’s “Why Johnny Can’t Read,” which attacked the whole word method. Many more twists and turns in the story, which should have been settled by Jeanne Chall’s comprehensive book, Learning to Read: The Great Debate (1967). Chall supported beginning with phonics, then transitioning to children’s books as soon as children understood phonetic principles. Nonetheless, the 1980s experienced the rise and widespread adoption of the “whole language” approach, which disdained phonics. Then came Calkins and “balanced literacy,” claiming to combine diverse methods. Critics said that BL was whole language redux.

According to this post by Sarah Schwartz in Education Week, Professor Calkins has called for a rebalancing of balanced literacy to incorporate more early phonics. I continue to object to the use of the phrase”the science of reading,” which I consider to be an inappropriate use of the word “science.” Reading teachers should have a repertoire of strategies, including phonics and phonemic awareness.

Early reading teachers and researchers are reacting with surprise, frustration, and optimism after the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, the organization that designs one of the most popular reading programs in the country, outlined a new approach to teaching children how to read. 

A document circulated at the group’s professional development events, first reported on by APM Reportson Friday, calls for increased focus on ensuring children can recognize the sounds in spoken words and link those sounds to written letters—the foundational skills of reading. And it emphasizes that sounding out words is the best strategy for kids to use to figure out what those words say. 

“[P]oring over the work of contemporary reading researchers has led us to believe that aspects of balanced literacy need some ‘rebalancing,'” the document reads.

While the document suggests that these ideas about how to teach reading are new and the product of recent studies, they’re in fact part of a long-established body of settled science . Decades of cognitive science research has shown that providing children with explicit instruction in speech sounds and their correspondence to written letters is the most effective way to make sure they learn how to read words. 

But it’s significant to see these ideas coming from the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. The program, founded by Lucy Calkins and housed at Columbia University, has long downplayed the importance of these foundational skills in early reading instruction, and has pushed other, disproven strategies for identifying words. 

In a statement to Education Week, Calkins said that the document reflects work they have done with researchers at the Child Mind Institute, a nonprofit that supports children with mental health and learning disorders. 

“Those who know us well, know that we are a university-based learning community, and that the knowledge we offer is constantly evolving and expanding. The document reflects my strong belief that children will benefit when people with diverse perspectives and backgrounds sit at the same table and listen carefully to each other,” Calkins wrote. 

Calkins also noted that the document has been shared at dozens of TCRWP events, including a virtual reunion for teachers this past weekend. 

Mixed Signals on Cueing

The Units of Study for Teaching Reading, the TCRWP curriculum for reading instruction in grades K-5, is one of the biggest players in the early reading market. A 2019 Education Week Research Center survey found that 16 percent of K-2 and special education teachers use the Units of Study to teach reading. 

But as APM Reports noted, the curriculum has faced increased scrutiny, including from reading researchers. Some states and districts have reconsidered its use. 

The curriculum doesn’t include systematic, explicit teaching in phonemic awareness or phonics in the early grades, as Education Week has reported. The company started publishing a supplemental phonics program in 2018, but marketing materials for the new units imply that phonics shouldn’t play a central role in the early years classroom. “Phonics instruction needs to be lean and efficient,” the materials read . “Every minute you spend teaching phonics (or preparing phonics materials to use in your lessons) is less time spent teaching other things.”

But it’s not only that the materials sideline phonemic awareness and phonics—they also teach reading strategies that can make it harder for students to learn these skills. 

Calkins’ materials promote a strategy called “three-cueing,” which suggests that students can decipher what words say by relying on three different sources of information, or cues. They can look at the letters, using a “visual” cue. But they can also rely on the context or syntax of a sentence to predict which word would fit, the theory goes. Reading researchers and educators say that this can lead to students guessing: making up words based on pictures, or what’s happening in the story, rather than reading the words by attending to the letters.

This new document seems to signal a major change in instructional theory from the organization. 

It emphasizes the importance of foundational skills, recommending that students in kindergarten and the fall of 1st grade receive daily instruction in phonemic awareness, and saying that all early readers could benefit from frequent phonics practice. It recommends decodable books—those with a high proportion of letter-sound correspondences that students have already learned—be a part of young children’s “reading diets.” And it suggests regular assessments of phonemic awareness, as problems in that area can indicate reading difficulties. 

Especially notable, the document seems to do an about-face on cueing. Students should not be “speculating what the word might say based on the picture,” the document reads. Instead, teachers should tell children to “respond to tricky words by first reading through the word, sound-by-sound, (or part by part) and only then , after producing a possible pronunciation, check that what she’s produced makes sense given the context,” it reads.

The statement on cueing contradicts advice Calkins was giving less than a year ago. In November 2019, Calkins released a statement pushing back on those whom she called , “the phonics-centric people who are calling themselves ‘the science of reading.'”

In that statement last year, Calkins said teachers shouldn’t encourage students to guess at words. But she did say that students could create a hypothesis based on the context of the sentence. 

In a response to Calkins’ statement, reading researcher Mark Seidenberg wrote at the time, “Dr. Calkins says she disdains 3-cueing, but the method is right there in her document.” 

Teachers Need ‘Fine-Grained Guidance’

The past couple of years have marked an evolution of publishers’ and reading organizations’ public positions on reading science and how it should guide instruction, spurred in large part by media coverage of best practice from Emily Hanford of APM Reports, and other outlets, including Education Week

In July of last year, for example, the International Literacy Association published a brief emphasizing the importance of systematic, explicit phonics instruction, a clear distinction of stance from an organization that has long included members on opposing sides of the “reading wars.” 

But it’s not a given that any of Calkins’ or TCRWP’s statements will change classroom practice, said Julia Kaufman, a senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation, who studies how school systems can support high-quality instruction. Past research from RAND has also found that Calkins’ materials are widely used in U.S. schools

“I don’t think there’s any way that we can expect a shift in [TCRWP’s] philosophy and ideas to change anything unless it’s documented and really clear to teachers where they need to change,” she said. 

Curriculum and implementation is complex, Kaufman added: “Teachers need specific and detailed and fine-grained guidance in order to know what they need to do in the classroom.”

In their reporting on this recent document, APM Reports noted that educators at a recent TCRWP training received supplemental curriculum materials that encouraged decoding. 

The core curriculum, though, still promotes cueing. For example, a strategies chart from a sample 1st grade lesson tells students to “Think about what’s happening,” “Check the picture,” and “Think about what kind of word would fit,” as ways to solve hard words. 

Unless and until TCRWP puts out a new edition of the Units of Study for Teaching Reading, with detailed teacher guidance that reflects these philosophical shifts, Kaufman said she wouldn’t expect to see much change in elementary classrooms. 

Some educators were optimistic that TCRWP’s new position could lead to more widespread adoption of evidence-based instruction and higher reading achievement. “Lots of changes still to make but this is encouraging!” wrote Erin Beard, a literacy coach, on Twitter.

Others expressed frustration over a move they saw as too little, too late. 

“Is she handing out refunds for all the intervention needed for the missed learning opportunity?” LaTonya M. Goffney, the superintendent of Aldine Independent School District, wrote on Twitter . “Our most vulnerable students – black, brown, poor, ELL, & special education students paid the ultimate cost!”

Sharon Contreras, the superintendent of Guilford County schools, noted that any changes would likely come at a cost for districts using Calkins’ materials. 

“Millions of dollars wasted. Thousands of students cannot read proficiently. Districts spending a small fortune on new curriculum & to retrain teachers. All totally avoidable,” she wrote, on Twitter .

English teacher Justin Parmenter writes that creative writing is one of the victims of standardized testing and data-driven mania.

https://teachersandwritersmagazine.org/a-defense-of-creative-writing-in-the-age-of-standardized-testing-4460.htm

He writes:

“Educators are under enormous pressures stemming from a data-driven culture most recently rooted in No Child Left Behind and its successor, the Every Student Succeeds Act, in which the ultimate measure of professional and academic success is a standardized test score. As a result of this standardized testing culture, many of our English students spend way too much time reading random passages which are completely detached from their lives and answering multiple choice questions in an attempt to improve test results. In many classrooms, writing has become little more than an afterthought. Creative writing, in particular, is seen by some as a frivolous waste of time because its value is so difficult to justify with data.

“Two decades before the advent of No Child Left Behind, the research of influential literacy professor Gail Tompkins identified seven compelling reasons why children should spend time writing creatively in class:

*to entertain
*to foster artistic expression
*to explore the functions and values of writing
*to stimulate imagination
*to clarify thinking
*to search for identity
*to learn to read and write

“The majority of Tompkins’s outcomes of creative writing could never be measured on today’s standardized tests. Indeed, over the same period that standardized reading tests have pushed writing in English classes to the sidelines, efforts to evaluate student writing on a broad, systematic scale have dwindled. Measuring student writing is expensive, and accurately assessing abstract thinking requires human resources most states aren’t willing to pony up. It’s much cheaper to score a bubble sheet.

“Measurement and assessment aside, the soft skills that we cultivate through regular creative writing with our students have tremendous real-world application as well as helping to promote the kind of atmosphere we want in our classrooms. After many years as an English teacher, I’ve found that carving out regular time for creative writing in class provides benefits for me and my students that we simply don’t get from other activities.”

Writing is thinking, put to paper or screen, with the opportunity to clarify and edit one’s thoughts. It can’t be taught by formula or by rote. It is a joy for some, a struggle for others. It is a luxury available to all. There is reward in knowing that your thoughts matter.

Not everyone will become a writer, but everyone needs to learn how to express his or her thoughts clearly. Everyone has a voice. Everyone must learn how and when to use it. These are lessons that standardized tests can neither teach nor test.

 

 

 

Much has been written about the ludicrous banning of words at various government agencies.words like “climate change” and “fetus” and “diversity” are on the outs in government documents, while Nazi rallies and chants are okay, at least among Trump’s alt-right fan base. Alan Singer has a clever idea:

“To help teachers address the official and unofficial word bans in their classes, I propose a “High School Homework Challenge.” Students should write a coherent paragraph using all ten words and phrases officially and unofficially banned by the Trump Administration. For extra-credit, text your paragraph to Donald Trump at @realDonaldTrump.”

For me, there is a certain sense of deja vu about this latest burst of word censorship.

Nearly twenty years ago, I was on the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB), which oversees the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). President Clinton suggested the creation of voluntary national tests. At first, he thought that the Department of Education could do the job, but under criticism, turned it over to NAEP, which had been developing and administering tests since the early 1970s.

A consortium of major publishers won a contract for $50 Million to create the new tests. NAGB got lost in a debate about what would be voluntary about the new national tests and who could say “no, thank you.” States? Districts? Schools? Parents? Students?

we met with the publishers who were going to write the tests, and in the course of the briefing, each of us get a 30-page “bias and sensitivity” guidelines, a list of words, phrases, and images that could not appear on the tests. They were banned because they offended some group. They were the pet peeves of feminists, ethnic groups, rightwing groups, lobbyists for the elderly, and for every imaginable aggrieved minority.

I was appalled. Tests could not mention Halloween, witches, death, cancer, mice, roaches, nuclear war, pumpkins, yachts, ten-speed bicycles, swimming pools, on and on.

Puzzled, I contacted friends in the education publishing industry and learned that every company had similarly guides, some of which were even more extensive. I collected as many of these guides as I could get my hands on. There was considerable overlap, but there were important additions, such as images and stereotypes that were banned from textbooks. For example, the word “evolution” is almost universally banned, as are depictions of anatomically correct cows, rainbows, owls, a man with his hands in his pockets, poverty, women performing domestic chores, and older people sitting in a rocker or using a walker or cane. In the ideal world, children are never disobedient, women are construction workers, men bake cookies, and old people are never infirm.

I even discovered books that gave lists of hundreds of banned words, like “Achilles’ heel” or “Tom, Dick, and Harry.”

I published a book in 2003 about this widespread but unknown censorship, imposed by left and right. It was called The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn.” It contained a list of nearly 1,000 banned words, phrases, and images.

This is magical thinking at its silliest. Some people think that if we don’t say certain words, we can make the underlying behavior or activity disappear.

The climate will change even if no one says those two words.

The hard questions are papered over by the Language Police. What do we do about hate speech? How should we respond to incitements to violence? What about the person who shouts “fire” in a crowded theater? Yes, there are lines to be drawn. There is a real difference between hurt feelings and mob violence that threatens lives.

 

 

 

The Trump administration has ordered the Centers for Disease Control to remove certain words from its budget documents.

This is typical rightwing magical thinking. If you don’t name something, it doesn’t exist. They assume. I wrote called “The Language Police” about the efforts by pressure groups to control the language in texts and on tests, which reached elaborate and ridiculous heights.

“The Trump administration is prohibiting officials at the nation’s top public health agency from using a list of seven words or phrases — including “fetus” and “transgender” — in official documents being prepared for next year’s budget.

“Policy analysts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta were told of the list of forbidden words at a meeting Thursday with senior CDC officials who oversee the budget, according to an analyst who took part in the 90-minute briefing. The forbidden words are “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based” and “science-based.”
In some instances, the analysts were given alternative phrases. Instead of “science-based” or ­“evidence-based,” the suggested phrase is “CDC bases its recommendations on science in consideration with community standards and wishes,” the person said. In other cases, no replacement words were immediately offered.”

Ten years ago, I wrote a book about censorship of textbooks and tests by the education publishing industry. It is called “The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn.” There are hundreds and hundreds of words and images that are banned from educational materials, to placate some pressure group from the right or the left or from some interest group. Every publisher has a guidebook of banned words, phrases, and images. The guides have been circulated from publisher to publisher, and they look very much alike. Children will never see a story in a school book that shows mother in the kitchen cooking, although she may see mother driving a truck. They will never see old people walking with a cane or rocking on the porch, although they may see them up on the roof hammering in a loose shingle. The list of words and images that are banned are hilarious and also frightening. Look around and you will see how ineffective this censorship has been in changing attitudes and even language.

I can safely predict that Trump’s ban on the chosen words, plus “climate change,” will change nothing. People will still use the words, and the underlying phenomena will still exist.