Or maybe they never left.
But, when Lucy Calkins, makes the front page of the New York times, you know something is up. It is not every day that the debate about reading curriculums makes front page news.
But indeed, it did.
On May 22, 2022, the New York Times headline read “In the Fight Over How to Teach Reading, this Guru Makes a Major Retreat.” The sub-headline reads, “Lucy Calkins, a leading literacy expert, has rewritten her curriculum to include a fuller embrace of phonics and the science of reading. Critics may not be appeased.”
Lucy Calkins, Robinson Professor of Children’s Literature at Teachers College, Columbia University, and the Founding Director of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, has developed state-of-the-art teaching methods and professional development programs to support teachers and policymakers across the country and around the world in teaching reading. In a classic Calkins classroom, teachers read aloud from children’s literature – then students select the ‘right books’ which fit their interests and ability. The focus is more on stories – theme, character, plot, - and less on sounding out words.
Calkins’ curriculum is framed around ‘Units of Study’ – a reading program based on a vision of children as natural readers. Children learn to read based on their natural desires – they gravitate towards their passion and gradually, build their literacy skills as they absorb reading material that appeals to their interest and ability levels.
In recent years, though, parents and educators who champion the ‘science of reading’ have fiercely criticized this ‘child first’ curriculum. Instead, they cite a half-century of research that shows phonics – sound it out exercises that are purposefully sequenced – as the most effective and efficient way to teach reading – along with books that help children scaffold vocabulary and depth to their understanding. Moreover, in recent years, more than a dozen states have passed laws advocating phonics instruction. In fact, in New York City, Mayor Eric Adams and School Chancellor, David Banks, are urging principals and educational administrators to select curriculums focused on teaching phonics – first.
To counterweight this trend towards a more regimented reading instruction, Professor Calkins has rewritten her reading curriculum – from kindergarten to second grade – to include for the first time daily structured lessons in phonics – accompanied by assessments to track students’ progress with decoding.
So, what does this have to do with young adult literature?
Teaching phonics – and the transformative nature of reading instruction with an emphasis on prescribed reading instructional analysis and engagement – may not inspire political campaign ads the way critical race theory does – but the argument about how to teach children to read – is fundamental to motivating young people to read – especially, for teachers who advocate the teaching of young adult literature.
Unlike in many developed countries, the United States lacks a national curriculum or teacher-training standards. As we know, local policies – about what to teach and how to teach – in our nation’s public schools - change as swiftly as political office holders. The values and beliefs of governors, superintendents, school boards, etc., often have more influence over what our students learn – and read – then, often teacher educators and teachers, themselves.
Yes, reading habits – the ability for children and teens to read – various from kid to kid – still one cannot dispute that ‘desire’ is the impetus for all reading instruction. Wanting to read – whether it be ‘twitter, Facebook, or the latest YA sensation’ – are all predicated on the notion that young people will gravitate naturally towards reading material – that appeals to both their hearts and minds.
And, unfortunately, our country – indeed, the world, is filled with people – who can read, but choose not to…
There are infinite options. From Netflix to TikTok videos, children, adolescents, and adults can find innumerable ways to pass the time – without doing – what experts have all agreed upon is the most desired way to engage – simply enjoying ‘uninterrupted sustained silent reading’. Just reading for pure pleasure – for sheer enjoyment – to learn about the world and the ‘stuff’ that is not shared – often, openly, and honestly – in polite company – but can found in reading material and frequently, can be the most rewarding and fulfilling time spent by young people in their most informative years.
And yet, with the advocacy of reading instruction that is governed more by sounding out words and reading comprehension questions – and less on exploring individual passions for what interests and motivates young people to read – we will again find ourselves in a world where many can read – but sadly, choose other more immediate pleasures.
Yes, young people – and teens and adults – often need help sounding out words. Yes, each individual processes written language differently – some letter by letter, others sound by sound. And yes, human beings, often, have physical concerns and issues – dyslexia, vision or hearing loss, attention deficit disorder, etc., - which require special medical and psychological attention – but these issues should never stand in the way of real reading instruction. By allowing kids to naturally gravitate to reading material they want to read, we can magically turn young people into readers by motivating them to independently find a reason to read.
For many young people, though, - kids who grow up thinking reading is hard and difficult – and only done to pass a test – reading becomes a code word for work. And work – proving their intellectual efficiency by sounding out words and looking up definitions – is never a good enough reason to take up reading for pleasure. And sadly, reading for pleasure – for the sheer enjoyment of discovering new worlds, places, and people –– is often lost during their school years – and sadly, never retrieved.
Thus, our job as educators is to fight the urge to ‘regiment reading instruction’, and in turn, the reading experience. Whether it is phonics – or the great books movement – or the impetus to teach classical literature over young adult literature – we must always keep sight of our goal – to change the world by turning on ‘one kid a time’ to the joy of reading – for no other reason than they want and need to….
In her influential 2000 book, The Art of Teaching Reading, Lucy Calkins wrote that the simple way to build ‘lifelong readers’ is to allow children and adolescents to spend time with books they choose, regardless of content or difficulty. Too much sounding-words-out and reading comprehension questions, can turn natural readers into non-readers – kids who can read, but often, do not.
I would like to think that Professor Calkins believes the same.
I know I do.
I believe that one of the most important things schools and teachers can do – is ensure students leave with a desire to read – to learn to nurture their natural instincts to become lifelong learners.
Here are some Simple Ideas to Get Kids to Read
Uninterrupted Silent Reading
Want to do an activity that kids will enjoy and remember forever? Try ‘Uninterrupted Silent Reading’ – Not for a whole class period. But for a good 20 minutes. Reading quietly, books that kids enjoy – or will learn to enjoy (or perhaps, not) for a solid 20 minutes in class can be good for all – you – your students. And their future as lifelong readers.
Let Them See You Read
Yes – you. As the teacher. Let them see you read – either silently or aloud. As you undoubtedly know, many kids don’t have the luxury of people in their lives who read. Too busy with the business of living, many adults and older brothers and sisters spend their days just getting by – and often, the last thing on their mind – is silent reading. By role modeling for them – reading silently – and reading aloud – you are providing your students a ‘sight’ that many often do not see.
Reading What Pleases Them
Kids should be able to read what pleases them – what motivates them – what arouses their interest and curiosity – with teacher guidance. Yes, in this age of censorship – far and near – kids still need guidance from caring teachers and parents – about what is appropriate for them – but that doesn’t mean, we should censor their choices. We should always keep in mind that as teachers, we are loco parentis – meaning, that parents can intervene on what they deem appropriate for their child – but not everyone else’s child. Kids should still be able to read what matters most to them – as minors – and parents should be able to weigh in on their children’s choices.
Stating Likes and Dislikes – When it Comes to Reading
Another good activity to get kids talking about reading – and what they like and don’t like – is to bring kids to the library – and ask them to select 3 books – one they have read (if any), one they would like to read (there are plenty) and one they would never read (the ones with the strange titles). Then, ask them to share their 3 choices – like, want to read, and will never read – to your class. You will be amused and bemused at their choices – and learn a little bit more about themselves.
Keeping a Reading Journal
Motivating kids to read – also means motivating kids to write. Better readers mean better writers – as kids will begin to imitate what they are reading – and that is a good thing. Have your students keep a running journal of what they are reading – what they like, dislike, and want to read next – all in the guise of ‘getting kids to talk about their reading experience and what moves them the most…
Getting Kids to Read – and Draw
Finally, lighting a fire to get kids to read – means that the possibilities are endless for getting kids to talk about their reading – and what better way – than to allow kids to draw – yes, draw – draw about their reading experiences. What images did the see in their mind as they read? What new worlds did they conjure? How would they re-design the cover of their book? What do the main characters look like? What is the setting of the book? What new images and ideas do the books inspire? Art is a wonderful tool for motivating even the most reluctant reader to reimagine their universe
These are all good activities – and I am sure you can imagine a ton more – to inspire kids to read.
For reading saves lives.
My life was inspired – like so many of my generation – by J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. This wonderful coming of age novel – was considered brash and crude and controversial – at the time – for it spoke of a disaffected adolescent out to rid the world of phonies and hypocrites. And yet, today, it seems so tame – in comparison to what great books have come next.
But, for a young kid of 14 or 15, Salinger was a whole new world – a world where brutal and honest thoughts made for compelling and engaging reading. A world where self-realization and self-understanding came into play – like never before. And a world where I began to question everything and anything – that appeared be part and parcel of them natural order.
And for an adolescent, that is everything.
You begin to learn about yourself – and you begin to learn about others.
When kids read, they learn to empathize.
When kids read, they learn to sympathize.
When kids read, they learn to dream.
And to imagine who they are and who they will be.
They can do that without learning phonics.
They cannot do that without good teachers.
Teachers who take the time to allow reading to happen in their classrooms.
Our job is turn to good kids onto good books – openly, honestly, and naturally.
And to leave the reading wars behind.
Calkins, L. (2000). The art of teaching reading. Prentice Hall. https://www.amazon.com/Teaching-Reading-Lucy-McCormick-Calkins/dp/0321080599
Goldstein, D. (2022, May 22). In the fight over how to teach reading, this guru makes a major retreat,” New York Times, A1. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/05/22/us/reading-teaching-curriculum-phonics.html
Today's author: Jeffrey S. Kaplan, PhD, is Associate Professor Emeritus in the School of Teaching, Learning, and Leadership in the College of Community Innovation and Education, University of Central Florida, Orlando and Senior Adjunct Professor/Dissertation Chair/Methodologist for College of Doctoral Studies, Grand Canyon University, Phoenix, Arizona. He can be reached at Jeffrey.Kaplan@ucf.edu