Friday, November 11, 2022

To: Calkins, Fountas, and Pinnell

I’m up to episode five in Sold a Story: How Teaching Kids to Read Went So Wrong. The podcast remains utterly infuriating — so much wrongheaded thinking about the teaching of reading, so many children damaged as a result. And so much money made from curriculum materials that teach children to read the way poor readers read — by guessing at words, or as those who promulgate these methods now say, “hypothesizing.”

I ended up writing an e-mail to Lucy Calkins, Irene Fountas, and Gay Su Pinnell, three prime movers behind reading instruction whose work is examined in the podcast. Here’s what I sent:

I’m moved to write to you after listening to the podcast Sold a Story. Not a flattering title from your perspective, to be sure.

I write as a retired professor of English with thirty years of teaching at a regional state school. I came to reading at a young age, well before kindergarten. We were a family of modest means, but I had a dad who read to me every night, a shelf or two of books in the house, The New York Times every day, and a public library. I was one of the lucky kids who catch on to reading without explicit instruction in phonics.

It wasn’t until I volunteered as a literacy tutor working with non-reading adults that I realized how important explicit instruction in phonics is. The program I volunteered with was big on sight words: MEN, WOMEN, EXIT, and so on. I asked at one meeting what students were supposed to do when encountering a word they’d never seen before. There was no answer. I somehow got hold of a phonics curriculum and worked for several years with a man in his fifties who learned to read well enough to read a Rules of the Road handbook and pass the written test for his driver’s license.

So I understand the value of phonics. But it wasn’t until I listened to Sold a Story that I began to realize the extent to which the deficits in many of the students I taught as a college professor must have been related to a lack of instruction in phonics. Something I learned early on: not to ask students to read aloud in class. It can be painful. I don’t mean cold-calling on students; I mean just asking a student to read, say, a sentence or two from a text to support a statement about that text. Things are different, I’m sure, with students at elite institutions. But many a college student, in my experience, cannot read aloud with any fluency. It’s. Word. By. Word. When I realized that I had to feed students words here and there, I knew that it was time to give up on reading aloud.

And now after listening to Sold a Story I better understand why students so often would guess at the meanings of unfamiliar words when reading, instead of using a dictionary. They had been taught to guess about words by using so-called context clues. I would explain, again and again, that often the most important context for understanding the meaning of a word is the word itself, something that you can find only by using a dictionary. In other words, there’s no need to guess. And if you do guess, there’s no way to know if you’re right.

I wonder in retrospect about so many elements of college life. I wonder about the extent to which the dreary professorial practice of outlining the textbook on “the board” is not merely a matter of professorial laziness but a way to compensate, consciously or unconsciously, for students’ weaknesses as readers. And I wonder about the extent to which the decline of interest in the humanities might be explained at least in part by the difficulty so many college students have with the mechanics of reading. Figuring out the words is, for many college students, just plain hard — because they were never properly taught how.

Your curriculum and others like it have done, I believe, great damage to the cause of reading. When so few elementary-school students (even pre-pandemic) can read at grade level, when so many high-school and college students profess to “hate reading,” it’s clear that something has gone wrong.

Sincerely, &c.
My e-mail to Professor Calkins added that though my family had books and The New York Times in the house, we had no monogrammed towels. From Calkins’s The Art of Teaching Writing (1994): “They [student writers] will ask about the monogram letters on their bath towels and the words on their sweatshirts.” Is it privilege yet?


In Education Week, Calkins has responded to Sold a Story (without mentioning it by name) by mischaracterizing advocates of instruction in phonics:
The message that has been pushed out by some phonics advocates, and that has trickled down to parents and even some educators, is an oversimplified one: If only teachers would teach phonics exclusively, then presto, all the reading problems in the world would vanish.
No one pushes out that message. No one would advocate teaching phonics exclusively or claim that phonics solves all reading difficulty. But phonics is a foundation. Without a foundation, you’re likely to be on shaky ground.

Related reading
A few OCA Sold a Story posts

comments: 8

Anonymous said...

thank goodness i never grew up with phonics. and i do worry about education today!!!

my father was a professor so we also grew up with books -- lots of them everywhere. there was no tv in our house until the early 70's.

in third grade, our teacher promised a book to the first 3 students who could recite their multiplication tables. i wanted that book so bad!! someone else beat me to it but i did really learn my tables and can still today do them very fast or do math in my head quite quickly.

we seemed to have raised a nation of students who can't read but also spend their whole life looking down at their phone and "liking" something.

and don't forget that not only can they not read they can't write.


Michael Leddy said...

As the podcast says, some kids just catch on. But many don’t. About phonics we’ll have to disagree.

J D Lowe said...

I do remember phonics from my grade school days in the 1960s. I don’t recall if I liked it or not, it was just another subject to study and pass. I don’t recall when I learned how to read, it seems like something I’ve always done.

When I was quite young my mother would read to me. During my childhood we made weekly trips to the public library for books to borrow even though it was a bit of a drive from our house. My parents read a newspaper everyday, and my father usually had a book on the go. I had a small shelf of books in my bedroom.

I recall in grades 5 and 6 we pupils had to write a short essay (maybe 500 words?), memorize it, and then recite it in the annual school-wide public speaking contest.

Guessing at the meanings of words was not on. I was given a Collins dictionary at a young age and was expected to use it. That was later replaced in senior public and high school by a Webster’s, a Funk & Wagnalls, and two science dictionaries, along with a non-dictionary Roget’s Thesaurus to spice-up the mix.

Our position in the class system during the ‘60s? I’d say we were somewhere in the middle-middle to lower-middle class. My parents grew up in the working class, and their families had a hard time during the depression and WWII. Neither started life with a college degree, although at age 40 my father went to night school to get one.

Michael Leddy said...

I too have no memory of learning to read — it’s on parental authority that my brother and I could both read before kindergarten. (And now I remember that My Weekly Reader was in the kindergarten classroom. Was it for kids who could already read?!)

Something I think is wonderful: Rotary groups in the States (and perhaps elsewhere) give dictionaries to third-graders. Your own dictionary at that age? So great!

Sean Crawford said...

My area had no kindergarten. I learned to read during grade one; by grade two I was reading the Hardy Boys as I ate lunch. (at my desk, we had no lunch room until junior high)

My sister read in view of her kids, and read aloud, and my poor niece was partway through grade three before my sister knew she couldn't read. (I hope a teacher noticed first) The girl was switched from a school that used whole word to one using phonetics, and so she learned to read by repeating grade three. But I don't think she ever recovered to reading for fun.

The computer nerd at my local Macintosh Store was surprised that I could read as fast as I could talk, although he wasn't surprised to type at talking speed. And here I thought nerds were smart. More: He preferred audio because his attention wouldn't wander like when he was reading, while I was the exact opposite. (I often have to click "stop" and slide the back up thingy.

In the near future I will swing by my local university and ask an Education professor about bell curve/I.Q. barriers to reading.

Michael Leddy said...

Something you’d find interesting about Sold a Story, Sean: several accounts of parents who realized that their kids were going through the motions of reading, without really reading the words. According to the teachers though, the kids were doing great.

My wife just talked to a grad student who is now learning the Fountas-Pinnell curriculum for teaching reading. My wife recommended listening to Sold a Story.

Joe DiBiase said...

This interview with Emily Hanford from the "Solar a Story" podcast is very interesting. I'm going to subscribe.

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks, Joe. I’ve been waiting on a follow-up episode they talked about doing, but nothing yet.