Few personalities have been as essential as Lucy Calkins, the literacy professor and curriculum entrepreneur, in the current discussion about how schools in the United States educate children to read.
The Teachers College Reading and Writing Project she founded and the curriculum it developed were extensively used by classroom teachers for four decades. There was, however, a strong countermovement. Some have argued that Dr. Calkins ignored scientific evidence on how children learn to read well and trivialised the importance of phonics.
According to a new report, Teachers College, Columbia University has officially disbanded her organisation. Her group, which included a nonprofit arm and many for-profit subsidiaries and was headquartered on campus, has traditionally given a portion of its consulting and publishing earnings to the university.
It’s a sad day for Dr. Calkins and the rest of the leaders of the beleaguered balanced literacy movement, and it might be the beginning of the end for Teachers College.
A tenured professor at age 71, Dr. Calkins is now enjoying a sabbatical. She has been working as a school consultant, and last week she announced the launch of a new firm called the Mossflower Reading and Writing Project to carry on her work. Several of her former Teachers College colleagues have joined the new organisation.
As political pressure on universities and colleges of education to better link teacher preparation with research increases, so does the rift between Teachers College and Dr. Calkins.
Some cognitive scientists and instructional professionals, who were critical of her ideas, said that her curriculum ignored decades of established research in what is known as the “science of reading.” This set of studies demonstrates that Dr. Calkins’ more relaxed approach to teaching reading is less successful than direct, precisely planned instruction in phonics, vocabulary growth, and comprehension.
Her reading instruction plan encouraged instructors to provide “mini-lessons” on reading methods while also allowing children substantial independent reading time and book choice. However, opponents argue that these strategies squander valuable class time and encourage pupils to spend their time on too-easy reading material.
Some of her favoured methods, such as having kids use the initial letter and context cues like drawings to predict words, have since been debunked.
Although her programme is still widely used, numerous high-profile school districts have stopped using it during the last three years, including the biggest in the country, New York City.
Teachers College parted ties with Dr. Calkins’ consulting group last summer, according to KerryAnn O’Meara, the school’s new vice president for academic affairs, as part of an attempt to reorganise its larger work on reading teaching. She also said that new training programmes for teachers may be introduced, maybe online, and that the institution plans to add new faculty members with greater experience in the cognitive science of reading.
The institution announced that some of Dr. Calkins’ previous deputies would be remaining in their positions and would soon be forming a new section called Advancing Literacy, which would focus on training teachers in a more diverse set of pedagogical approaches.
As for an interview, Dr. Calkins politely rejected. She explained her decision to start a new firm to The New York Times through email: “as a way to renew my commitment to side-by-side work with teachers in schools apart from the complexity that comes with being part of a large university.”
Dr. Calkins and her supporters have recently argued strongly that politicians and the media have placed too much emphasis on phonics at the expense of teaching other reading abilities.
Dr. Calkins did, however, state that she had taken notes from her detractors, as reported by The New York Times in 2022. She said that she had neglected cognitive science for a long time while she concentrated on teaching elementary school.
Leaders in curriculum and instruction at universities throughout the nation seldom collaborate with brain science specialists, and vice versa; experts in brain research have rarely converted their expertise into classroom materials.
Educator Rachael Gabriel of the University of Connecticut explains that both parties share responsibility for the issue. She argued that collaborating with primary school teachers may not provide much professional benefit for scientists.
Dr. Calkins is a specialist in the field of writing and education; she has a Ph.D. in English. She relied heavily on the theories of New Zealander literacy theorist Marie Clay, as well as those of Ohio State University academics Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell, who produce controversial reading materials.