NYT Blasts Calkins with “Science of Reading” propaganda

Just 10 days after the New York Times ran a factually misleading piece on a dyslexia program championed by Mayor Eric Adams, Dana Goldstein amplified the “science of reading” attack on Lucy Calkins and the Units of Study reading program.

Margaret Thornton (Princeton) offered on Twitter the essential problem with this mainstream media coverage:

Goldstein’s uncritical use of “science of reading” propaganda fits into a pattern of mainstream media, particularly the work of Emily Hanford, that weaponizes “science” while trafficking in anecdote and grand misrepresentations. Hoffman, Hikida, and Sailors explain:

Hanford critiqued approaches named as balanced literacy and whole language without citing any evidence around these claims. She continued with anecdotes on how a focus on the SOR has improved student performance, but there is not a single citation of evidence in support of this claim. … It is clear that the repeated critiques of literacy teacher preparation expressed by the SOR community do not employ the same standards for scientific research that they claimed as the basis for their critiques.

Hoffman, J.V., Hikida, M., & Sailors, M. (2020). Contesting Science That Silences: Amplifying Equity, Agency, and Design Research in Literacy Teacher Preparation. Reading Research Quarterly, 55(S1), S255-S266. https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.353

The NYT’s article on Calkins has several significant problems. First, since the bar in journalism for citing evidence is much lower than in academia, the piece itself oversimplifies and misrepresents complex and important issues about reading and teaching reading, often with no citation or by cherry-picking (and misrepresenting) a single link to evidence.

Next, the fundamental problem with the article is the continued uncritical acceptance by mainstream media of the “science of reading” movement and marketing. This last point, the marketing aspect of the “science of reading,” must not be ignored since phonics-heavy programs are committed to taking market share away from current popular reading programs such as those by Calkins and Fountas and Pinnell.

And finally, the framing of the article fails to recognize, as Thornton does (as well as Hoffman, Hikida, and Sailors), that both Calkins’s programs and the “science of reading” deserve critical interrogations against research and best practice.

Goldstein’s lede begins in misrepresentation and without citation: “For decades, Lucy Calkins has determined how millions of children learn to read. An education professor, she has been a pre-eminent leader of ‘balanced literacy,’ a loosely defined teaching philosophy.”

“Balanced literacy” (BL) is not “loosely defined,” and even so, that definition is quite accessible and important to this discussion:

A balanced approach to literacy development is a decision-making approach through which the teach makes thoughtful choices each day about the best way to help each child become a better reader and writer. A balanced approach is not constrained by or reactive to a particular philosophy. It is responsive to new issues while maintaining what research has already shown to be effective. It is an approach that requires and frees a teacher to be a reflective decision maker and to fine tune and modify what he or she is doing each day in order to meet the needs of the child.

Spiegel, D. (1998). Silver bullets, babies, and bath water: Literature response groups in a balanced literacy program. The Reading Teacher, 52(2), 114-124. www.jstor.org/stable/20202025

That definition, in fact, directly contradicts the “science of reading” propaganda that phonics is rejected by BL advocates and programs. Goldstein reports without context: “But in recent years, parents and educators who champion the ‘science of reading’ have fiercely criticized Professor Calkins and other supporters of balanced literacy.”

Yes, there are critics of BL, but more often than not, those critics are simply misinformed and that criticism is misguided.

However, the false representation of BL is matched only by the skewed misrepresentation of teaching phonics: “They cite a half-century of research that shows phonics — sound it out exercises that are purposefully sequenced — is the most effective way to teach reading, along with books that build vocabulary and depth.

This link, a rare citation, refers readers to the National Reading Panel (NRP), which raises two problems. The NRP was widely discredited (see Garan) when it was released as a cornerstone of NCLB, and since that release, the findings of the NRP have been repeatedly misrepresented (See Yatvin).

The NRP found that systematic phonics was effective in grade 1 only, and that effectiveness was linked to pronunciation, and not comprehension (see Stephens).

Since the inception of “science of reading” movement, the persistent misrepresentation of systematic phonics for all students (and students with dyslexia [see ILA, 2016 and Johnston and Scanlon, 2021) is discredited by a number of studies:

  • Bowers, J.S. (2020). Reconsidering the evidence that systematic phonics is more effective than alternative methods of reading instruction. Educational Psychology Review, 32(2020), 681–705. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10648-019-09515-y
  • Davis, A. (2013, December 13). To read or not to read: Decoding synthetic phonics. IMPACT No. 20. Philosophical Perspectives on Education Policy. https://doi.org/10.1111/2048-416X.2013.12000.x
  • Filderman, M. J., Austin, C. R., Boucher, A. N., O’Donnell, K., & Swanson, E. A. (2022). A meta-analysis of the effects of reading comprehension interventions on the reading comprehension outcomes of struggling readers in third through 12th grades. Exceptional Children88(2), 163–184. https://doi.org/10.1177/00144029211050860
  • Wyse, D., & Bradbury, A. (2022). Reading wars or reading reconciliation? A critical examination of robust research evidence, curriculum policy and teachers’ practices for teaching phonics and reading. Review of Review of Education10(1), e3314. https://doi.org/10.1002/rev3.3314

The last study, in fact, examines the systematic phonics mandate begun in 2006 throughout England (synthetic phonics); Wyse and Bradbury concluded:

Our findings from analysis of tertiary reviews, systematic reviews and from the SQMS do not support a synthetic phonics orientation to the teaching of reading: they suggest that a balanced instruction approach is most likely to be successful….

In addition to the importance of contextualised reading teaching as an evidence-based orientation to the teaching of reading we hypothesise the following pedagogical features that are likely to be effective. Phonics teaching is most likely to be effective for children aged five to six. Phonics teaching with children younger than this is not likely to be effective. A focus on whole texts and reading for meaning, to contextualise the teaching of other skills and knowledge, should drive pedagogy. Classroom teachers using their professional judgement to ensure coherence of the approach to teaching phonics and reading with other relevant teaching in their classroom is most likely to be effective. Insistence on particular schemes/ basals, scripted lessons, and other inflexible approaches is unlikely to be optimal. Well-trained classroom assistants, working in collaboration with their class teachers, could be a very important contribution to children’s reading development.

Wyse, D., & Bradbury, A. (2022). Reading wars or reading reconciliation? A critical examination of robust research evidence, curriculum policy and teachers’ practices for teaching phonics and reading. Review of Review of Education10(1), e3314. https://doi.org/10.1002/rev3.3314

The most recent research, then, on national mandates for systematic phonics instruction concludes the need for “balance,” and pedagogical practices that strongly match Spiegel’s original definition for BL.

One other claim lacking any link to evidence focuses on the narrow view of “science” being promoted by the “science of reading” movement: “With brain science steadily adding to that evidence, there is a sense — at least for many in the education establishment — that the debate over early reading instruction may be ebbing. Phonics is ascendant.”

Several problems exist with invoking “brain science,” as explained by Yaden, Reinking, and Smagorinsky

[W]e specifically address four limitations that we believe raise questions about the assumptions underlying, and thus conclusions reached, when the SOR is limited to the nature side of the binary and the experimental methods that typically accompany that view: (1) too heavy a reliance on a narrow conception of science claimed to be authoritative and monolithic, (2) too little accounting for environmental factors that complicate the idea that the brain functions identically across the whole of the human population, (3) an exclusive view that experimental designs and replicability are the gold standard of scientific research when other approaches have generated many useful insights, and (4) dismissal of all other conceptions of reading as unscientific and, therefore, of marginal value in generating knowledge about reading and how to teach it.

Yaden, D.B., Reinking, D., & Smagorinsky, P. (2021). The trouble with binaries: A perspective on the science of reading. Reading Research Quarterly, 56(S1), S119– S129. https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.402

This article misreads Calkins/Units of Study and the “science of reading,” and thus, readers do not get the central message: This shift by Calkins is a market response to state legislation banning the adoption of Units of Study; this shift is not a concession that the “science of reading” is right.

Further, the result of this extended critique of Calkins and Units of Study is that the reasonable and needed challenges to this or any reading program is reduced to a propaganda vehicle for the “science of reading.”

As I have examined before, the problem with Calkins’s Units of Study and BL is how the program is implemented. Many teachers find the prescriptive and silver-bullet approaches to any program or ideology as de-professionalizing and harmful to students.

Too often, teachers are being held accountable for implementing the program, covering the standards, and preparing students for (awful) high-stakes tests.

If we need a reading revolution, and we do, the blunt solution is that we must stop teaching programs, stop teaching reading ideologies, and stop teaching reading to children.

Instead, let’s teach children to read, and to learn.

As some prominent authors of a reading program lamented recently, hit pieces on reading programs, grandstanding about the “science of reading,” and passing prescriptive and misguided reading legislation is all about the adults trying to one-up each other—and not about the students.

See Also

How to Navigate Social Media Debates about the “Science of Reading” [UPDATED]

Media and Political Misreading of Reading (Again): NYC Edition

Media “Experts” + Parental Zeal + Political Knee-jerk Legislation + Market Forces = Failing Reading, Again

Don’t Buy It: The Marketing Scam of MSM and the “Science of Reading”

Reading Programs Put Reading Last

Teaching Reading and Children: Reading Programs as “Costume Parties”