The Rise and Fall of Vibes-Based Literacy

In the first spring of the pandemic, as families across the country were acclimating to remote learning and countless other upheavals, I sat down on the living-room sofa with my daughter, who was in kindergarten, to go over a daily item on her academic schedule called Reading Workshop. She had selected a beginner-level book about

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In the first spring of the pandemic, as families across the country were acclimating to remote learning and countless other upheavals, I sat down on the living-room sofa with my daughter, who was in kindergarten, to go over a daily item on her academic schedule called Reading Workshop. She had selected a beginner-level book about the alliterative habitués of a back-yard garden: birds and butterflies, cats and caterpillars. Her decoding skills, at that stage, were limited to the starting letter of each word, and all else was hurried guesswork—pointing at “butterfly,” she might ask, “Bird?” and start to turn the page. I coaxed her to look at how the letters worked together, to sound them out, starting by taking apart the first few phonemes: bh-uh-tih, butt. She didn’t appear to be familiar with this approach. She seemed to find it frankly outrageous.

Our subsequent reading workshops followed the same script. She would pick out a book, flip around, guess, bluff, and try to match words to pictures, while I plodded along behind her, grunting phonemes, until her patience frayed. I ascribed our ongoing failure to any number of factors—I wasn’t a teacher, for starters. (My kid wasn’t the only one bluffing.) She perhaps wasn’t ready to read. There were ambulance sirens wailing outside, forever.

I looked online for help, and learned that our Brooklyn public school’s main reading-and-writing curriculum, Units of Study, is rooted in a method known as balanced literacy. Early readers are encouraged to choose books from an in-classroom library and read silently on their own. They figure out unfamiliar words based on a “cueing” strategy: the reader asks herself if the word looks right, sounds right, and makes sense in context. My daughter was taught to use “picture power”—guessing words based on the accompanying illustrations. She memorized high-frequency “sight words” using a stack of laminated flash cards: “and,” “the,” “who,” et cetera.

It seemed to me that, rather than learning to decode a word using phonics, by matching sounds to letters with close adult guidance, a reader following this method is conditioned to look away from the word, in favor of the surrounding words or the accompanying illustrations—to make a quasi-educated guess, perhaps all on her own. It seemed possible that my kid’s scattered, self-directed reading style wasn’t entirely a product of her age or her temperament. To some extent, it had been taught to her.

Units of Study was developed by the education professor Lucy Calkins, the founding director of Columbia’s Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, which she started in 1981. Calkins trained thousands of teachers in Units of Study, becoming so synonymous with the curriculum that educators often refer to it—and even to balanced literacy itself—by the shorthand “Teachers College” or simply “Lucy Calkins.” The curriculum has dominated New York City’s approach to early reading for nearly twenty years. But literacy rates remain dismal: as of 2src19, only about forty-seven per cent of the city’s students in grades three through eight were considered proficient in reading, according to state exams, including just thirty-five per cent of Black students and less than thirty-seven per cent of Hispanic students. “Lucy Calkins’ work, if you will, has not been as impactful as we had expected and thought and hoped that it would have been,” David Banks, the New York City schools chancellor, told reporters in the spring. (Calkins declined my requests for an on-the-record interview.)

Children now entering kindergarten in New York City may be taught differently. As of this school year, which starts on September 8th, the Department of Education (D.O.E.) will add a mandatory dyslexia screener for students in kindergarten through eighth grade and require elementary schools to include a phonics component in their reading-and-writing curricula at least through second grade. (Calkins’s Units of Study in Phonics supplement, which was first published in 2src18, is excluded from the list of approved phonics curricula, according to a D.O.E. spokesperson.)

These developments reflect a long-standing consensus among researchers that intensive phonics and vocabulary-building instruction—an approach often referred to, nowadays, as the “science of reading”—are essential. Although an estimated sixty per cent of early readers in kindergarten through second grade in the United States are enrolled in schools that use programs aligned with balanced literacy, in the past two years, eighteen states have passed laws that mandate training for teachers in phonics-based instruction.

There has never been much peer-reviewed research to support Units of Study or other balanced-literacy curricula. In 2src2src, the education nonprofit Student Achievement Partners published a meticulous vivisection of Calkins’s program: “there are constantly missed opportunities to build new vocabulary and knowledge about the world or learn about how written English works,” the authors noted. “The impact is most severe for children who do not come to school already possessing what they need to know to make sense of written and academic English.” Last year, the curriculum-review nonprofit EdReports came to similar conclusions, and gave its lowest rating (“Does Not Meet Expectations”) to Units of Study and another popular balanced-literacy program, Fountas & Pinnell Classroom, which, according to one survey, is used in some forty-four per cent of classrooms nationwide.

Both reports bore down hard on the programs’ inattention to phonics. Last spring, Calkins announced that she would revise the main Units of Study programs for kindergarten through second grade in order to add daily phonics instruction. (A spokesperson for Calkins wrote, in an e-mail, “We must always work—together—towards constant improvement. This is why we are incredibly excited for the publication of the new edition of the Units of Study curriculum as this extends our proven approach by incorporating also our latest learnings and research.”)

It’s startling to realize that panels of experts had to argue the case that teaching children to read involves careful attention to the relationships between sounds and letters, or enhancing their vocabulary and knowledge of various subjects. It’s stranger still that, in many school systems and for many years, this was the losing argument.

The reading wars in America date back at least as far as the nineteenth century, when progressive education reformers “believed that children would find it far more interesting and pleasurable to memorize words and read short sentences and stories without having to bother to learn the names of the letters,” as the education historian Diane Ravitch writes in her book “Left Back: A Century of Battles Over School Reform.” Alphabet and phonics instruction, the thinking went, was enervating and, in the long run, unnecessary. The education crusader Horace Mann, who sparred with the phonics-fixated schoolmasters of Boston, went so far as to claim that children were frightened by the alphabet, which he described as a horde of “skeleton-shaped, bloodless, ghostly apparitions.” (In fact, the brain of a very young child does perceive letters differently than an adult brain: not as fixed, flat symbols but as three-dimensional objects rotating in space. That’s why kids who are learning to write so commonly exchange “b” and “d,” for example, or “p” and “q.”)

An under-acknowledged irritant in the reading wars is the fact that written English is deranged—haunted by Mann’s apparitions, perhaps. Why isn’t “bread” or “said” spelled like “red”? Why can’t “move,” “love,” and “stove” come to an agreement on their pronunciation? Why don’t “daughter” and “laughter” rhyme? Given its brotherhood with “what” and “where,” why isn’t “who” pronounced “woo”? What, exactly, is “enough”? In 19src6, Andrew Carnegie funded the Simplified Spelling Board, an organization that advocated for the standardization of English-language spelling; the group included an Ivy League college president, a sitting Supreme Court Justice, and Mark Twain. Soon after, another Simplified Spelling Board supporter, President Theodore Roosevelt, published “The Roosevelt Fonetic Spelling Book,” which included rationalizations such as “fixt,” “kist,” “surprize,” and “thoro.” The project was doomed, owing largely to Congress’s disapproval. Yet the idea that young readers shouldn’t have to learn to decrypt such an inconsistent phonics code took hold, and endured.

The alternative was what came to be called the “whole word” or “look-say” method, exemplified in the notorious Dick-and-Jane primers that were first published in the nineteen-thirties. (“Oh, Mother. Oh, Father. Jane can play.”) “The pedagogical approach underlying these primers assumed that beginning readers learned new words best by associating them with pictures and memorizing them through dutiful repetition,” I-Huei Go wrote, in The New Yorker, in 2src19. By the fifties, Go noted, this “method was just starting to face pushback from proponents of phonics-based instruction, most visibly in Rudolf Flesch’s influential polemic ‘Why Johnny Can’t Read.’ ” Flesch argued that look-say didn’t really teach reading at all. “Books are put in front of the children and they are told to guess at the words or wait until Teacher tells them,” he wrote. “But they are not taught to read.” What’s more, Flesch pointed out, the books that the children were guessing at weren’t any good—they were “meaningless, stupid, totally uninteresting to a six-year-old child or anyone else.” (“See Dick. See, see. Oh, see. See Dick.”) Flesch’s book, published in 1955, stayed on the national-best-seller lists for thirty weeks.

In the sixties, a psychologist at the Harvard Graduate School of Education named Jeanne Chall spent years compiling a painstaking analysis of historical and contemporary approaches to literacy in American schools, which became the influential book “Learning to Read: The Great Debate.” Chall concluded that phonics instruction was far superior to look-say, especially for students from underprivileged families. But she was more evenhanded than Flesch, proposing that phonics be set aside as early as possible in a child’s literacy education in order to focus more intently on introducing her to great books—to move through the mechanics of reading with some dispatch so that the joys and pleasures of it could be revealed all the more swiftly. “Jeanne Chall settled the argument in 1967,” Ravitch told me. “But the argument never stopped.”

By the early nineteen-eighties, the literacy pendulum was swinging back toward what was then known as the whole-language movement, which, in the U.S., was led by a pugilistic University of Arizona professor named Kenneth Goodman. Goodman believed that, ideally, learning to read was a self-directed and self-willed act; he posited whole language as a rejection of “negative, elitist, racist views of linguistic purity” and compared advocates of phonics to flat-Earthers. But, throughout the eighties and nineties, researchers compiled evidence that rigorous instruction in phonics was superior to early-reading programs that did not emphasize phonics. The National Reading Panel (a commission formed by the National Institutes of Health, at the request of Congress) and the National Academy of Sciences published reports to that effect. “Whole language proponents could no longer deny the importance of phonics,” the education reporter Emily Hanford has written. “But they didn’t give up their core belief that learning to read is a natural process.” Whole language was rebranded as balanced literacy, in which, according to Hanford, “phonics is treated a bit like salt on a meal: a little here and there, but not too much, because it could be bad for you.”

The pivotal National Reading Report appeared in 2srcsrcsrc, the same year that Calkins published “The Art of Teaching Reading,” which extends to nearly six hundred pages and where much of her philosophy of literacy—honed by the decades she spent providing professional-development services to educators through the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project—can be found. In the book, Calkins walks her audience through a typical reading workshop, beginning with teacher-led “minilessons,” which are guided by questions such as “How can we choose ‘just right’ books?” or “How can we make more time for reading in our lives?” Even very young students are sometimes asked to deduce an author’s thoughts and intentions: why she chose a particular descriptive word; how she might personally feel toward her characters.

Then, the class moves on to independent reading, which is generally meant to last for at least thirty minutes, although “emergent and beginning readers may not be able to sustain reading” for that long. “This—actual reading time—is the most important part of the reading workshop,” Calkins writes, adding, “Children can’t learn to swim without swimming, to write without writing, to sing without singing, or to read without reading.” As the students page through books that they have individually selected from the classroom’s mini-library, the teacher moves among them, checking in on their progress or gathering small groups “for a strategy session around a shared text.”

What Calkins was proposing, it seems to me, was literacy by vibes. Her reading workshops bet that a youngster could, to a great extent, guide herself toward reading fluency through proximity or osmosis, eventually achieving what my colleague Kyle Chayka has called “the kind of abstract understanding that comes before words put a name to experience.” Even the chapter about phonics in “The Art of Teaching Reading” contains a vibes-y digression on high-frequency words, in which Calkins notes that “children who are thriving as readers and writers at the end of first grade usually seem to ‘just know’ ” these words.

For many teachers, balanced literacy was a welcome turn away from lesson plans in which all children at a certain grade level read the same stories and answered the same predetermined questions, leaving teachers with less room for creativity and spontaneity. “It used books that kids would actually read, which made it more meaningful for them,” Nadine Bryce, an associate professor of literacy at Hunter College and a Teachers College alumnus, told me. “It was new and refreshing and innovative.”

A major proponent of balanced literacy was Carmen Fariña, who was the New York City schools chancellor under Mayor Bill de Blasio until 2src18. Fariña logged twenty-two years as an elementary- and middle-school teacher in the public schools, including a legendary stint at P.S. 29, in Brooklyn, where she turned empty washing-machine boxes into cozy independent-reading nooks and kept a “forbidden” cache of titles by Judy Blume and other provocative authors that kids could read by special request. For Fariña’s students, reading wasn’t a chore or a drill—it was a treat. “The last twenty minutes of most school days is wasted time in a classroom, so we used it for free reading,” Fariña told me. “The kids leave the school gentler, quieter, and if they’re reading a good book they want to go home and finish it.” The novelist Jonathan Lethem, who was Fariña’s fourth-grade student at P.S. 29, in the early nineteen-seventies, dedicated his first novel to Fariña; “The Art of Teaching Reading” includes Calkins’s reverent account of Fariña’s tenure in the nineties, as principal at P.S. 6, in Manhattan, where she dramatically raised reading scores using a balanced-literacy approach.

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