Problems with Lucy Calkins’ program go beyond reading – to writing

The recent controversy over literacy guru Lucy Calkins has centered on her approach to teaching reading. But she rose to prominence as an expert in writing, and her influence there was even greater – and at least as harmful.

About 40 years ago, an idealistic young teacher and aspiring writer joined a two-year research project on the development of writing in young children at a rural school in New Hampshire. It wasn’t the kind of scientific experiment that involves a hypothesis being tested against a “control group.” Researchers are said to be observing just 16 children in classrooms up close – and in the case of young teacher Lucy Calkins, the sighting centered on a third-grade student named Susie.

But Calkins did more than observe. She herself had recently studied with a writer named Donald Murray, who introduced her to concepts like writing and revision and helped her find her voice as a writer — the kind of things college and graduate students do in creative writing workshops. Calkins’ not-so-hidden agenda was to bring this approach to young children and show them that their own lives and ideas were worth writing about.

Calkins described this study in his book The lessons of a childpublished in 1983. Appalled that teachers were assigning writing topics and then “simply correcting and grading assignments”, Calkins persuaded them to let children choose their own topics, to write with minimal guidance from an adult and give each other feedback on drafts of their essays during “workshop” time.

This approach was partly born out of necessity: like most teachers, those at this school had not been trained to teach writing. Calkins noted with approval that one of Susie’s teachers became more of a “listener” than a writing instructor. Another confessed that she was ‘not a handwriting expert’, telling the children: ‘Each of you must be a handwriting teacher’. According to Calkins, this approach, with kids producing multiple drafts of essays about visiting grandparents or fishing, worked wonders. The teachers weren’t so sure. “All that work,” one groaned looking at a finished product, “for this.”

Calkins’ research eventually led to a K-8 program called the Units of study in reading and writing, now considered one of the nation’s most popular literacy programs. Reading units incorporate ideas that have long been central to the ‘whole word’ and then ‘balanced literacy’ movements, but Calkins’ approach to writing is mostly his own contribution – at least, as is applied to children.

Calkins’ perceptions of writing have been perfect in some ways. She first realized that children couldn’t write well about subjects they knew little about, one of the reasons she wanted them to write about their own experience. She also understood that writing should be viewed as a process rather than a series of separate tasks.

But his approach rests on two flawed assumptions. The first is that writing skills can and should be taught separately from subjects such as history or science – an assumption that Calkins and many others have also made about supposed reading comprehension skills such as ” find the main idea. Originally, she seems to have believed that if children honed their writing skills on personal narrative, they could transfer those skills to the more difficult types of writing expected at higher grades.

The Common Core Literacy Standards, released in 2010, pushed back on this idea, requiring more “informative” and “persuasive” writing at the elementary level. In response, Calkins broadened his approach to include these genres. And unlike some other “Common Core” writing programs, which expect students to write about topics they know little about, some of Calkins’ information and persuasion units allow children to go deeper a specific topic for four to six weeks.

But even then, it focuses on writing skills rather than the content itself, and the assumption is that teachers might choose to substitute a different topic. A second-year unit on science writing uses the theme of force and motion, but teachers are advised that if this “doesn’t sit well with you, you can transfer this teaching to another area of ​​science”.

Therefore, course titles and “teaching points” are independent of content, for example, “History writers pay attention to geography,” in a fifth-grade unit. But the subject matter used is westward expansion, and the teacher’s “scenario” illustrating the point centers on the Erie Canal. Teachers choosing another subject should know enough to form their own opinion about the influence of geography. And young students must then write essays applying these generic ideas to other topics of their choice.

When I interviewed Calkins for a book several years ago, she told me that children should learn background knowledge in their social studies and science classes, but that’s not his to concentrate. “When I teach people to write,” she says, “I teach them a method, I teach them to do something.

This approach can work for personal essays, but it can run into problems in units where the goal is to get children to write “like a scientist” or “like a historian.” Scientists and historians can write the way they do only because they know so much about their subjects.

Once students have a certain threshold of information about a topic, writing can be a powerful way to build and deepen their knowledge. But why teach a separate writing curriculum with its own history and science subjects? If students are learning, say, the Civil War in social studies—assuming their school even allocates time for social studies—why shouldn’t they use writing to further their knowledge of the Civil War, rather than to learn to “write like a historian? ” about a different set of events during English language arts class?

Alternatively, schools could adopt a literacy curriculum that integrates history and science subjects, an approach that has been shown to improve reading comprehension. But students benefit the most if they read and write about the same topics, and Calkins’ reading and writing units aren’t coordinated that way.

The second, even more fundamental, faulty assumption underlying Calkins’ program is that the “workshop” approach, developed for experienced adult writers, will also work for children as young as five years old. Like many others, Calkins seriously underestimates how difficult the process of learning to write is for most students.

She is a firm believer in the importance of children writing with little planning — “lightning writing,” she says — and producing prodigious amounts of prose. “Nothing is more helpful for young writers than to encourage more writing,” she said. Study units for kindergartens advise. “That’s why teaching your little ones to write more and more and more is crucial. The assumption that children should write extensively from the start is now part of educational orthodoxy, enshrined even in common-core writing standards.

But writing requires juggling so many different factors — forming letters, choosing and spelling words, organizing thoughts — that it can be overwhelming. Children can become paralyzed, not knowing where to start. Or they may dump pages of barely readable and largely incoherent prose. A second-grade teacher showed me a sample of this kind of writing, saying he knew he was supposed to “react” but couldn’t figure out what the student was trying to say.

Calkins’ program expects children to write essays and even “books” before they have learned to construct sentences, and they must figure out the intricacies of writing largely on their own. They could, for example, be asked to write key phrases on sticky notes and sort them into categories before writing about the westward expansion, but if they encounter any problems, teachers are asked to remember that “the settlers also encountered problems” and “had to solve problems.

Learning to categorize and order ideas is extremely difficult – and despite Calkins’ claims to the contrary, even very experienced writers often rely on blueprints (at least I do). Something as basic as the concept of a sentence is so complex that many children, and even some adults, will not understand it unless they repeatedly practice distinguishing complete sentences from fragments, under the direction of a teacher.

Teaching writing has enormous potential for developing knowledge and literacy, but to unleash its power, two basic principles must be observed, both ignored by Calkins. First, writing activities should be integrated into core curriculum content so that they reinforce the knowledge we want students to acquire. Second, teachers must modulate the heavy cognitive burden imposed by writing through explicit instruction and supervised practice, starting at the sentence level if that is what students need. (I am co-author of a book exposing such a method, The writing revolutionbut I have no financial interest in the book or the organization of the same name.)

Calkins’ journey as a writing guru clearly started from a place of empathy and respect for children. But she basically asks teachers to throw the kids in the bottom of the pool, tell them they’re “swimmers” and let them sink. If kindergartners are reluctant to dive into writing “informative” how-to books and gentle cajoling doesn’t work, Calkins advises teachers to tap on a child’s page, “a gesture that says, ‘Start to write”” or transmit “a company”. Now. If teachers tell Calkins that their students’ writing doesn’t resemble the examples in her books, she blames their low expectations, as I heard her do in a training session. “So often,” she writes, “when we’re in classrooms where the teacher says the kids find a certain type of writing ‘really difficult,’ we ask, ‘I wonder where they got that? feeling?

But write is really hard. It is not underestimating students’ abilities to say that they need a slower pace and more explicit instruction. On the contrary, for many students, providing them with these things is the key to unlocking their true potential.

Scott R. Banks