I owe my education career to reader’s workshop, the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, and its founder Lucy Calkins. I started as a mid-career switcher with a two-year commitment to teach fifth grade in a South Bronx public school. Two things about my school are worth knowing: It was the lowest-performing school in New York City’s lowest-performing district. And we were devoted to Calkins’s Units of Study.

My initial response to the reading and writing “workshop model” Calkins helped make famous and ubiquitous was willing suspension of disbelief. To the degree I remembered learning to read at all, it had nothing in common with how I was expected to teach it. Next came frustration. My “TC” staff developer spoke in inscrutable koans, encouraging me to “be the author of your own teaching.” When I took that advice and gave explicit instruction, however, she shook her head and said, “That’s not teaching, that’s giving directions.” Frustration gave way to exasperation, then resistance, and finally hostility. I left the classroom determined to advocate for curriculum and instruction thanks to Calkins and balanced literacy. My struggling fifth graders needed a lot of things, but not that.

This is all to say that I read the new report from Student Achievement Partners, “Comparing Reading Research to Program Design: An Examination of Teachers College Units of Study,” not as a neutral observer, but largely conversant with the many issues it surfaces and already a convert. Still, the report is staggering—as authoritative and thorough dismantling as you’re likely to find of a curriculum that has been widely praised, implemented, and imitated. Well, not exactly. As another TC staff developer insisted, “It’s not a curriculum, it’s a philosophy.” Either way, schools that are relying on the workshop model, particularly if they serve disadvantaged students and English language learners, should now feel obligated to explain why they continue to use it when the vast weight of evidence is so clearly arrayed against it.

The report begins gently enough. “The literacy expert reviewers were impressed by how beautifully crafted the Units of Study materials are.” Lessons are “charming, elegant, and highly respectful of teachers.” The reviewers, which include bold-faced names in reading research including Tim Shanahan, Lilly Wong Fillmore, Marilyn Jager Adams, and Claude Goldenberg, agreed that the program is “organized above all on the value of loving to read and the encouragement of reading and writing as lifelong habits, both laudable and vital ambitions.”

There’s a “but” coming—lots of buts, actually—and they run for more than sixty pages across multiple dimensions of reading instruction: phonics and fluency; text complexity and language development; building background knowledge and vocabulary; English language learner supports. In none of them is Units of Study found to be anything but lacking.

The program gives insufficient time and attention to phonics skills and recommends teachers use the so-called “three-cueing system” (read: guessing) to help children get past unfamiliar words they’re unable to decode “in direct opposition to an enormous body of settled research.” There is “insufficient guidance” for teachers on how to use assessments to inform instruction. “This means any student who does not immediately master an aspect of foundational reading is at risk of never getting it.” The sternest criticism in the report is that Units of Study “fail(s) to systematically and concretely guide teachers to provide English learners (ELs) the supports they need to attain high levels of literacy development.”

Children who come to school already reading or primed to read “may integrate seamlessly into the routines of the Units of Study model and maintain a successful reading trajectory,” the report cautions. But that’s of little value to those who need additional support and instruction. “These students are not likely to get what they need from Units of Study to read, write, speak, and listen at grade level.”

The overarching conceit of the review’s process is to evaluate the program not by how well it’s aligned to standards, but whether it encourages scientifically validated practice in reading instruction. This is a good and important lens. There may be disagreement over standards (and as a prominent advocate for Common Core, Student Achievement Partners would otherwise be vulnerable to conflict of interest charges), but the weight of scientific evidence is harder to challenge. Enlisting prominent outside experts to evaluate the program makes it the critique stick and sting, and makes it harder to explain away.

Indeed, the review stands as a critique not just of Units of Study but the workshop model, and balanced literacy more broadly. “If you run a balanced literacy classroom that shares some aspects of Units of Study but not others,” the report notes, “it follows that some of the research findings in this report will apply and others may not.” That’s a good and scholarly caveat. But Units of Study is the most clearly articulated and prescriptive program of its type. It stands to reason that other flavors of balanced literacy that are even less well developed are equally or more deficient.

At present, there has been no response that I’m aware of from the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project; Heinemann, the publisher of Units of Study; or from Calkins herself. In a lengthy blog post late last year, written in response to the “phonics-centric people who are calling themselves ‘the science of reading,’” Calkins insisted that “no one interest group gets to own science.” Perhaps not. But what she really needs to own is a shovel, to dig Units of Study out from under the mountain of contrary scientific evidence it is now buried beneath.

18 comments on “The Shortcomings of Lucy Calkins’s Units of Study”

  1. 1
    danelle on January 26, 2020

    My school district also uses Lucy Calkins and many of us have mixed feelings if it is effective for teaching reading and writing. We question the rubrics and lack of skills needed to be successful learners.

    1. 2
      Luke on March 18, 2020

      Hi Danelle, my district also uses the Lucy Calkins units of study. We adopted it four years ago and have since found its shortcomings. One glaring piece of omission is foundational literacy skills for K-3 students. If students are not gaining these important skills at an early age then they will really struggle later on, especially if they are ELL or marginalized students.

  2. 3
    Marita Schweighofer on February 3, 2020

    “The value of loving to read and the encouragement of reading and writing as lifelong habits, both laudable and vital ambitions.”

    “It’s not a curriculum, it’s a philosophy.”

    That’s it.

  3. 4
    Mary L. Abbott on April 25, 2020

    The Troy City School District has proposed dismantling the entire reading department due to our budget shortfalls for 2020-2021. The superintendent stated to the Board of Education, and the residents of Troy, that no harm will be done. The reason: approximately three years ago, the District implemented the Units of Study for Reading and Writing. Pretty rich.

    1. 5
      Kathy on September 20, 2020

      Are you referring to the Troy City School district in Ohio?

  4. 6
    Aaron Wiesner on May 19, 2020

    The Dangers of Philosophy as a Curriculum

    I began teaching language arts last year. I had been a social studies teacher for four years but applied for a half social studies and half language arts position. I was lucky enough to receive the job offer and had until the end of the year to become licensed in teaching language arts. I came in with little knowledge on the correct ways to teach reading, literacy, and writing, but had done a little of all of those things through teaching social studies. The one nice aspect was I had a curriculum to fall back on that would hopefully lead me through my first year of teaching, but the curriculum was Lucy Calkins Units of Study.

    I read the book from cover to cover using every lesson exactly how it was spelled out and designed with little change or variation. I needed something proven to give my students while I learned the new subject and how to navigate it. I followed the “curriculum” for four weeks before realizing many of my students did not understand what each lesson was truly teaching them, how the lessons went together, or how to use the concepts in their writing. I would see students love the activities and enjoy writing about each activity but not leave with a skill they knew how to use. The activities were a series of unconnected fun activities for the students. From then on, I designed lessons and curriculum on my own.

    I am sure a large part of the ineffectiveness was me as a first-year language arts teacher, and I fully acknowledge that. Lucy sounds like an amazing teacher and I would love to be in her classroom. However, it was dangerous for the entire district to have a philosophy as a curriculum. The curriculum is generally defined as the lessons and academic content taught in a school or in a specific course or program and although there were lessons and activities, the book is more about the philosophy of teaching as the “curriculum” readily admits.

    So why is it dangerous? Because a first-year language arts teacher with little experience ended up creating and designing a year of content to a year of students. The students worked hard for me, did well on the standardized tests, and were able to show growth throughout the year despite me. They learned and they grew, but having a curriculum that is truly curriculum would have made their 6th-grade year a better learning experience. The Units of Study is an amazing addition and philosophy for experienced teachers with awesome ideas you can steal and take away, but marketing and adopting the idea as curriculum leaves inexperienced, new, and bad teachers with little to work with that will greatly increase the learning of students.

    I gained many ideas, several lessons, and a model from the Units of Study. The Units of Study are not evil or wrong, but is dangerous to adopt as a curriculum when it clearly does not want to be one. Schooling is about student learning and a curriculum should guide a teacher to increase student learning, provide clear content, and set a teacher up for success who decides to use it as written. Adopting philosophy as curriculum puts bad, inexperienced, and new teachers at a disadvantage at best and without a guide at worst.

    Units of Study has amazing ideas and philosophy, but can be dangerous as the sole curriculum.

    1. 7
      Virginia Antinovitch on June 21, 2020

      Well said.

  5. 8
    Cynthia Baumgartner on June 10, 2020

    I am a parent of a rising 5th grader and, unfortunately, she is proof that this philosophy/curriculum does NOT work. She is a fairly smart kid (placed in Advanced Math) but her reading/writing/spelling is abysmal for all the reasons cited in the above blog, comments and other articles. While the content of what she writes is interesting, there seems to be no focus on the writing process so she never has to go back and correct spelling or grammar which makes the content almost unreadable. Her teachers have all advised me that “it just isn’t a focus” and something they “have time to do.” It saddens me so much that I am just figuring this all out now as I have always put my faith in her school district and their curriculum. Now, we are needing to spend hundreds/thousands of dollars to bring her up to grade level since her school district has failed her by embracing this philosophy. I am just grateful I have the resources to fix it as opposed to the hundreds of other kids who will be left by the wayside.

    1. 9
      Helen Wong on October 3, 2020

      We attend public school in San Francisco and it’s a nightmare. How did we arrive at a place where grammar and spelling are unimportant? While I enjoy creative writing, if children don’t learn foundational reading and writing skills k-5, the district doesn’t offer remediation; that’s placed upon the parents. It’s all very sad and needs to change ASAP.

    2. 10
      Lori D Centerbar on March 6, 2021

      Hi, Cynthia,
      I share your concern. As a veteran English teacher, I have adamantly fought against using the Lucy Calkins Units in my classroom, even though every other ELA teacher in my building does. The reason? First, I cannot stand to follow a script like the ones that exist in her units. They come
      off as disingenuous. One of the most exciting things for me as an educator has been to create my own lessons, test them out, evaluate the results, and make modifications the next year. Using someone else’s “canned” program does not allow me to be the English teacher I want to be. Honestly, I see using those units as lazy. There is no work involved in implementing someone else’s work, day in and day out. In addition, the lack of attention to structure, grammar, spelling, mechanics seems to indicate that none of these aspects of writing are at all important. Over the thirty years of my career, I have watched as expectations for students have gotten lower and lower and lower. There IS something to be said for holding kids to a higher standard than they hold for themselves. There is still value in being able to write coherently and take pride in one’s work. This idea that we are somehow asking too much of kids is criminal, but one that perpetuates itself in the age of Progressive Education. The BEST thing we can do for our children is to expect GREAT things from them – not just acceptable things – but GREAT THINGS. Expecting anything less means that we, as educators, are getting paid too much to do too little.

  6. 11
    Annie Hardy on September 17, 2020

    I taught reading and writing UoS to below-level fifth and sixth graders and saw mountains of growth. Just mountains. My students were engaged, read tons, wrote tons, and after my mini-lesson, I was able to provide the personalized, assessment-based instruction you say is missing. I do agree with this statement from a principal:

    “You have to believe in the work. If you can’t put your heart completely into it, don’t bother.”

    I believe students who don’t thrive in the UoS suffer from poor implementation, not a poor curriculum.

  7. 12
    Barbara Dorn on October 28, 2020

    I’m sorry I didn’t see this article about the shortcomings of the Calkins Reading and Writing Units of Study sooner. It sounds like Jane Schaffer Academic Writing is the way to go to teach writing and close reading preparing elementary students for middle and high school writing, and preparing middle school and high school students for AP, SAT, ACT, and college writing. And preparing all students for state writing tests. This program teaches students of all ages how to think through writing and reading processes in all content areas which results in higher level outcomes in writing. It meets the needs of all students-On level, Below level, ELL and above level. It’s all in the thinking and Jane Schaffer Academic Writing teaches the thinking, the process and the language of writing and close reading all in sync with the common core standards.

  8. 13
    Lisa on December 7, 2020

    “It’s not a curriculum, it’s a philosophy.”

    Yes indeed and the power of celebrity.

    My children are in San Francisco public schools and Calkins is spoken of with such reverence and any suggestion that this isn’t working is ignored. I’m glad to see people are starting to research the actual results. Next up, Jo Boaler and her Math strategies which like Calkins is a philosophy which sounds really nice but isn’t teaching number literacy at all.

  9. 14
    Kumar on January 4, 2021

    Lucy Calkins and the TCRWP have found a way to convince schools around the world, but particularly in the United States, that this balanced literacy philosophy, built on a foundation of prediction, not phonics, is sound reading instruction. I’ve taught in schools that have used her programs and those that have not. I can tell the difference with the older kids when they read. Lucy schools using UOS have kids that don’t understand grammar or sentence structure when writing, and who tackle new or nonsense words using guessing & debunked cueing methods. Her materials explicitly teach kids to take the focus off of grammar and phonics and focus on more important things (in her opinion) such as voice and prediction. The result is a lot of bad readers, kids languishing in leveled instruction, and a huge reading gap for Black and Brown kids. She is currently using her marketing team to attempt to pivot so that she can maintain her grip on serious amounts of cash from schools.

    Parents need to ask what reading and writing curriculum their schools are using, and if it’s Lucy Calkins, they need to push back, referencing the MANY articles and clear data indicating the program’s failures. Programs like Wit & Wisdom, Core Knowledge, the Writing Revolution, Wilson, and anything else based on sentence construction, systematic phonics instruction, and background knowledge will always beat anything that comes out of the TCRWP and Lucy Calkins. Kids learn to read by sounding out words, not predicting them. They learn to read by building background knowledge to anchor new texts to what they already know and are curious about. They learn to write by leveraging that background knowledge into writing complex sentences in a systematic manner, not by flashdrafting or just writing about personal opinions all the time as is done in Lucy’s Writing Workshop. Her programs are especially painful to dyslexic readers, who suffer under programs that don’t emphasize phonics and decodable readers.

  10. 15
    Laura Sanchez on January 27, 2021

    Thank you for such an insightful read. I never quite took time to consider the shortcomings of Lucy Calkins Reading and Writing Units of Study. Upon graduating with my undergraduate degree three years ago, I definitely felt that I was underprepared to teach reading, writing, and literacy effectively. In my short three years of teaching, literacy has become one of my biggest focuses in my teaching practice as it is evident that students are being underserved and are often leaving our schools with low literacy skills. This is unacceptable.
    I was introduced to Lucy Calkins Units of Study in my second year of teaching. I mean, who doesn’t like a fully laid out curriculum packed with sequential steps and activities to follow while ensuring your students will be literate at the end of the units? I sure do! Nevertheless, as I reflect on my students’ progress, I agree that solely using these units as the foundation of my instruction has left my students wanting. My downfall that year was solely relying on these units to help my students develop a passion for reading and writing. However, I now use selective lessons to help engage my students but no longer base my literacy instruction on Lucy Calkins alone.
    Whether or not these Units of Study are intended to be a philosophy or a curriculum, educators can not rely solely on one unit to create a wholesome literacy experience for students. Though the workshop method may work for some, experienced teachers will understand that the moment I notice an approach not working for one of my students, it is my professional responsibility to supplement and fill my student’s learning gaps in other ways.

  11. 16
    Dawn on February 4, 2021

    If you look for shortcoming you will find it in everything. What I have noticed in my 25 years in education is the lack of practice, the lack of example, the lack of opportunity our students have to speak, read and write. Teacher voices, teachers doing the work, teachers are on stage. The units have student time built in. The practice of teachers giving students more space to share, talk, write, read is what LC Units do. Any program is as good as the person reading it and understanding it. Unfortunately, we have many who don’t do things with fidelity and consistently. We have those trying to disprove instead of giving it an honest try. I have seen great success with the Lucy Calkins units both reading and writing (of course it wasn’t all that was used since these teacher made decisions to meet the needs of their students). It was a school where true literacy was valued for all, you walked into the school and knew there was a love and understanding of reading and writing. It wasn’t easy, teaching isn’t and won’t ever be. The joke is on those who think it is. What do students need to be able to do when they enter adult world; reader, writer and think….how do you get that? That should be the question. All this bashing of people who are just trying to help or share their passion because it worked for them, doesn’t help. Teaching is not a one stop shop. I have 3 kids and each of them needed something different. When we as teachers and educators choose to successfully teach ALL children then we will see a difference. In the meantime we will get educators who continue to bash other educators. I thought we were all on the same team. We want better for our children/students. I guess until that time, education will remain where it is and has been. Teachers have the ability to change the world, to do what is best for kids. If using the balanced literacy approach, LC Units of Study, Heineman or Harcourt gives you success with your students then use it. Why do we continue to give every teacher the same thing to do things the same way? Is it because it is easier for the adults, the principals to see if we are on the same page/units, to micromanage? It definitely isn’t about the students we serve. What works for one doesn’t for another. How about we learn to be flexible, situational, and a lifelong learner so our students can be successful. Perseverance people!

  12. 17
    Helen Irene on February 12, 2021

    I am working with this curriculum as a brand-new middle school ELA teacher (though not a new teacher: 15 years of other teaching experience). I am not happy with it. And it’s not because I’m an inexperienced teacher in this situation, though that doesn’t help and I’ll handle it better next year if I am doing this again. The thing is, the program itself does not help me out, just as it does not help the students out. It works well, I presume, for a narrow group of students, but extremely badly for mine. Setting aside the specific concerns listed by several people above, I have three broad concerns. (1) No curriculum should replace a community’s knowledge of, and responsiveness to, the students. I am very troubled by the total bewilderment of 4/5 of the students encountering all the paraphernalia of a workshop for the first time, dropped in to sink or swim, with the promise that they will magically thrive after enough “exposure.” That might turn out okay if we had lots of time and the stakes weren’t so high, but they are not learning to write, for the simple reason they already couldn’t read anywhere near grade level, and ignoring that fact is not making it go away. (2) I’ve taken writing workshops and I’m familiar with their premise that somehow the art of writing got invented in the middle of the 20th century. No, what got invented was the marketing of a system for making money off teaching adults to write. By extension, making money for the publishing profession is at the core of this workshop approach, as I see it. Create a vast reservoir of young people who’ve learned to write reasonably competently in a mold that has been proven to sell well and get good reviews on GoodReads, and now the publishing companies will have unlimited material in a mass-market style that they can sift through (using agents and agents’ agents as their filters) for a few likely winners–and the more decent submissions there are, the less they have to pay the authors. Along the way, of course, thousands of kids never did learn to write at all, nor did they learn to read, since their teachers (like me) were charged with teaching them to construct a five-paragraph essay, and forbidden to take the time to teach them to read the story they’re supposedly writing about. (3) The philosophy, and the curriculum based on it, is racist. I’m not just talking about the slate of mediocre mid-20th century memoirs by white men that seem to outweigh all other categories of text. I’m talking about the way students and teachers are portrayed as all living white-picket-fence lives in which kids have two wise, loving parents and learn valuable life lessons that never seem to include fighting back against oppression. And most of all I’m talking about how even texts by and about people of color are misused to promote a dominant-culture ideology endorsing compliant, good-kid, teacher’s-pet behavior that does not serve any oppressed group.

  13. 18
    Emily on April 8, 2021

    I’ve been using Writer’s Workshop for several years at the middle school levels. It’s good, but needs to be supplemented with a grammar program. I’ve been using Reader’s Workshop for two. It’s unwieldy and unmanageable. To ensure success, you end up encouraging many kids to take non-challenging books since as a teacher you may not have read the novel. Many of the sessions require extra scaffolding if you a dealing with classes that have a lot of below level readers. In no way are we preparing them to have to sit down with the more complicated classics they will see at the high school level. It’s an almost impossible program if you have short classes and other curriculum to run, such as a grammar or vocabulary program.

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