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.

7 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.

  4. 5
    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. 6
      Virginia Antinovitch on June 21, 2020

      Well said.

  5. 7
    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.

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