I’ve been meaning to write about Reading Workshop for ages.
Its program is one of the most popular in K–12, especially in my neck of the woods. We can learn from its enduring popularity, as well as the things it gets right – such as instruction designed around authentic texts and lauded professional learning experiences.
Yet I’ve spoken with numerous educator friends who use (or once used) Reading Workshop, and who find that – for all its virtues – it does an inadequate job of bringing evidence-based practice into classrooms.
Those perspectives are sure to surprise a lot of folks – and they deserve important, reflective conversations.
But, in the wake of new reviews of its Units of Study product, which raise substantive concerns about Reading Workshop, folks have a lot of questions. They deserve answers. So, I’m going to simplify the concerns, complete with links for additional reading.
Then we are gonna talk about equity. Because equity is at the heart of it.
First, The Research
To understand the critiques of any program, you need to understand what the research tells us about how kids learn to read. It’s well-explained by these free Primers.
Three Key Literacy Instruction Musts emerge from the evidence. Schools need to:
- Ensure all kids can decode words successfully, as a foundation to reading success. (Details here)
- Build content knowledge for students from the earliest grades, because background knowledge (and its attendant vocabulary) is critical to reading comprehension. (Details here)
- Get all kids working with texts at their grade level, including the kids that are below benchmark, because evidence supports this approach over leveled reading instruction in Tier 1 ELA. (Details here)
There’s more to reading instruction… much more. Still, those three pillars are so essential that we need to start there.
Recent Expert Reviews
Seven literacy experts, including Marilyn Jager Adams, Tim Shanahan, David Paige, and Tim Rasinski, just reviewed the Reading Workshop Units of Study, primarily against the criteria above. It went 0 for 3.
Key findings of the 64-page study:
- Reviewers found that the program gives too little time to phonics instruction, as well as too little guidance on how to differentiate based on assessments. In addition, Reading Workshop includes practices (MSV / 3-cueing) that interfere with phonics learning.
- The program “falls short on building knowledge systematically” and provides weak support for vocabulary acquisition.
- Regarding complexity of its texts, reviewers “found the program’s approach to complex text and language development to be too unsystematic to ensure that all students would encounter adequate challenge or receive sufficient supports for successful progress, particularly in grades K–2.”
The reviewers also found that “research-based EL supports are barely present in the Units of Study.”
Other recent articles have raised questions about Reading Workshop – mostly with respect to foundational skills.
(Background: historically, many have felt that Reading Workshop diminished the importance of foundational skills, a concern reinforced by the fact that Units of Study didn’t have a phonics component. The program guides were clear that it was a reading program… a set of model units… rather than a comprehensive curriculum. Yet some folks bought Units of Study without getting that memo and finding phonics supplements, worrying literacy advocates. In 2018, a new, optional phonics program became available from Reading Workshop.)
Last August, At a Loss for Words explained that Reading Workshop includes a problematic practice; when students are taught to use ‘Meaning, Structure, Visual’ cues for word recognition, it impedes phonics learning. (You’ll find a brief explainer for this nuanced concept here.) ‘MSV,’ also known as 3-cueing, is common in balanced literacy programs including Reading Workshop and Fountas & Pinnell, and by calling this out, At a Loss for Words spawned discussion about these programs.
As critiques intensified, Reading Workshop author Lucy Calkins penned an open letter describing a “learning trajectory.” She acknowledged advocates’ points about phonics instruction and dyslexia, which drew a range of responses. Some, like Margaret Goldberg, thanked Lucy for her open embrace of new practices and pushed for necessary refinements to Reading Workshop. Cognitive neuroscientist Mark Seidenberg (among others) had a more critical take. EdWeek covered the developments.
Soon after, Reading Workshop was one of the programs called out in a seismic EdWeek article, The Most Popular Reading Programs Aren’t Backed By Science. “The program assumed a lot of knowledge—of oral language, of phonics—that students just didn’t have.”
In AASA’s School Administrator journal, Chief Academic Officer Brian Kingsley noted separate issues with regard to text complexity:
“The most common approach to reading instruction in U.S. classrooms — grouping students by reading level — isn’t actually supported by research. This approach poorly supports below-benchmark readers in catching up with their peers. Yet it remains conventional wisdom that leveled reading groups serve children, and they are promoted by the most popular reading programs in the country, such as Fountas & Pinnell and the Teachers College Readers Workshop program.”
Educators have shared concerns, as well. Mostly these have been shared as social media posts, but this elementary teacher’s blog shares detailed pros and cons of Reading Workshop, and actually covers subtly different concerns, such as “minimal guidance” provided to students. Margaret Goldberg wrote an insightful blog about the text level concerns.
Reading Workshop was also at the center of 2019’s largest-scale parent protest around reading instruction. In a district near St. Louis, 118 residents penned an open letter protesting the use of Reading Workshop, as well as weak PD for teachers. A noteworthy detail: 42% of K–3 students in the district had been screened “at-risk” for dyslexia, essentially proving the parents’ point about poor phonics instruction in their schools.
Reading Workshop authors respond
How does Teachers College respond to the latest reviews? EdWeek’s coverage gave us a glimpse:
‘In an emailed statement to Education Week, Calkins responded to the critiques in the report. “The Teachers College Reading and Writing Project has always been a learning community. We’ll learn from this review as we have learned from everything else,” she wrote.
Calkins also said that the program develops other skills that the review didn’t evaluate. “Teachers in our schools work to help students become passionate, critical, life-long readers, and writers who develop confident voices,” she wrote. “We applaud our schools for creating communities that increase equity as well as achievement.”‘
Calkins sent a more in-depth message to school leaders on January 16th, as the new study debuted:
“Dear Leaders of TCRWP Schools,
I am writing to give you a heads up. Sue Pimentel, one of the authors of the CCSS and a founder of Student Achievement Partners, has issued a report on TCRWP that may receive far more press than would have happened had it not been for the maelstrom around the science of reading and the Ed Week articles. I want you to know this will be coming out today. I just learned of this earlier today, so I’m sorry you haven’t gotten more of a heads up. I anticipate that this could create problems for some of you, as well as for those of us at TCRWP central, and I couldn’t be more sorry. We don’t yet know what kind of attention this will receive. If the report happens to go under the radar, let’s let it stay there—be forewarned, but don’t amplify it by sharing.
I believe their intent was to review one balanced literacy curriculum, one basal, and two other programs in all, in a way that suggests that perhaps they think their reviews of selected representative programs will have broader implications. I do believe that a good deal of what they question about Units of Study are questions that could be raised about any sister/brother balanced literacy program.
The report is attached. It’s long, detailed, and not pretty. They seem to have reviewed Units of Study in Reading and Phonics, and not writing. They have mostly focused on the younger grades, not reviewing our work on critical and interpretive reading, writing development, higher level comprehension, etc. I’ll issue a formal response as soon as I can. Here are some early responses.
First, it’s important to say that the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project has always been a learning community. We’ll learn from these reviews as we have learned from everything else. I’ve been very intent on learning from any air between TCRWP and the science of reading, as I think that research needs to be brought to schools. I believe we have already been doing that, and we need to continue to do that work. This new review also examines us with new lenses and I’ll need to think about the assumptions that are baked into those perspectives.
When you read the Student Achievement Partners review, you’ll see that running through it are concerns that the Units of Study do not support growth in reading and writing for below benchmark students. Their fear seems based especially on the belief that too much is left to choice. A major way that Paige (in critiquing K-2 phonics and workshop) and Shanahan (in critiquing access to complex texts) critique Units of Study is that the curriculum leaves too much choice to teachers (to select the relevant small group work and extensions that their students need) and to kids (to choose books that will gradually become more challenging). The idea that kids are reading self-selected books instead of working with teacher support on a whole-class text is prevalent. I’m not entirely sure how to talk back to these portions of the critique. It is true we believe in teacher and student autonomy, and in communities that develop growth mindsets, where adults and children strive to continuously improve. We have found that choice leads to agency and independence, and that both are important to achievement.
And, of course, our data shows that our faith in our teachers and in what they have taught their children is well-placed. I am pleased that our students outperform their peers. In 2019, students in core TCRWP schools (schools that have been with us for an average of ten years) outperformed those in non TCRWP schools in New York by over 30 percentage points in proficiency. Language learners in core TCRWP schools out-performed other language learners in the City by 13.5 percentage points. Students in all TCRWP schools—including those working with us for just a year—outperformed other students by almost 5 percentage points—and these numbers have continued to improve every year.
This data is important because the Student Achievement Partners review suggests they are most worried that language learners won’t move forward. Yet language learners in TCRWP schools out-perform language learners in non-TCRWP schools—so our faith in teachers making deliberate and intelligent choices about small group work, extensions, and helping students move up levels of text complexity is well-placed.
I also need to say that we strive to teach beyond the criterion that are critiqued in the Student Achievement Partners. Teachers in our schools work to help students become passionate, critical, life-long readers, and writers who develop confident voices. We applaud our schools for creating communities that increase equity as well as achievement.
Again, my heartfelt apologies for problems this will cause you. Please let me know ways we can help. What is that saying, “When it is dark enough, we see the stars?” I’m looking into the night sky…
Where Calkins Hits the Nail on the Head
Calkins points out that most issues from the expert study “could be raised about any sister/brother balanced literacy program.”
One hundred percent accurate!
These issues are absolutely present in other programs – and that’s what makes this discussion so important: Many of the top programs suffer from alignment to research.
So, this is about Reading Workshop, and so much more.
Said differently… I have zero beef with Teachers College, and I hope that my blog, the expert reviews, and other pieces about the program won’t be read as anything personal, against anyone. They shouldn’t be.
I have major beef with teachers being asked to use materials that don’t align with extensive research. Based on its market share, Reading Workshop is a leading source of this issue, but it’s far from alone. The pervasiveness of curricula with these same shortcomings lends urgency to this conversation.
Equity Enthusiasts, Take Note
We need to talk about the equity implications. Especially because this isn’t just about Reading Workshop.
The #1 driver of equity gaps in reading: what’s known as the “knowledge gap.” Background knowledge is key to reading comprehension, kids from privileged backgrounds arrive at school with more of it, and our curriculum and instruction should close that gap. (Explained here.)
The #1 reinforcer of equity gaps in reading: leveled reading instruction. The kids who start below-benchmark get a steady diet of lower-level texts, so they tend to finish where they started: below-benchmark. (Explained here.)
To put a fine point on it: the issues with the Reading Workshop program are equity issues. Full stop.
The literacy experts are clear about this in their recent review:
“Children who arrive at school already reading or primed to read, researchers agreed, may integrate seamlessly into the routines of the Units of Study model and maintain a successful reading trajectory. However, children who need additional practice opportunities in a specific area of reading or language development likely would not.”
If we have one conversation, let’s have that essential conversation. These are addressable equity issues, y’all!
Educators across the US are having “Aha!” moments about these important principles (case in point below), in part because of the proliferation of reading about it. And then they are addressing these issues.
I am OBSESSED with this book by @natwexler regarding the #knowledgegap. I’m only 20 or so pages in, but I’ve already experienced so many “ah-ha”, and “uh-oh” moments….presented in the most reflective and honest way possible!#teachertwitter#edutwitter #elachat pic.twitter.com/bG2uU0l0KD
— Michael Hart (@MichaelHart_UPE) January 17, 2020
Watching educators on that learning journey, and watching districts aligning to that research, I feel sure that we have the potential to improve reading outcomes for our most vulnerable learners. I’m truly inspired by what I see in districts making these shifts.
The Questions Folks Are Asking
It sounds like we may get a more extensive response from Teachers College.
Here is what folks are buzzing about. I’ll be watching this:
1. Will the Reading Workshop team be responding to the latest concerns?
Or do they hope that these issues will go away, if this study stays “under the radar,” as Lucy Calkins seems to encourage in her letter?
2. When Calkins says that schools using her curriculum “increase equity as well as achievement,” what does that mean?
If the approach/product doesn’t align with the key equity research… what is the claim to improving equity?
3. What data will we get on Reading Workshop outcomes?
K–12 watchers have long sought efficacy data for Reading Workshop; it has been on the market for more than a decade, yet we’ve lacked statistically significant studies showing its effectiveness. Will we now get to see such data – complete with detailed sources that can be verified by outsiders?
I’m especially curious about this one. My daughter attends one of the NYC Teachers College ‘Project Schools,’ closely aligned with the Reading Workshop team, and eligible for special staff development. Its outcomes exceed the NYC average… but it’s a school with two Gifted & Talented classrooms per grade, which skews its data meaningfully. Based on a number of factors, including a population that’s approximately a third Gifted & Talented, I think the school may punch below its weight on reading outcomes, even though its numbers look good to an outsider.
I am guessing that her school is in the data set to which Calkins alludes in her letter. I’d like the chance to dig into the data at that level, so we know: How many schools in the data set are outliers because of factors like G&T programs?
Update: Emily Hanford’s request to get a list of these schools was “declined” by representatives, as she shared in her January 27th podcast.
4. How will the Reading Workshop program be changing in light of Calkins’s ”learning trajectory”? When will changes take effect?
Calkins writes that she is “very intent on learning from any air between TCRWP and the science of reading.”
In this case, the proof is in the product. How and when will the Reading Workshop model and the Units of Study program evolve to address these concerns?
To date, Calkins’s recent “learning trajectory” has not translated to product changes. For example, her open letter devoted a section to the role of decodable readers, saying “decodable texts have value for all children in the earliest stages of learning to read.” Also, “very early books (A through D especially) heavily supported by pictures and repetition should be just one part of a child’s reading diet, and that including a range of decodable texts would be a wise move.” Calkins recommends the Ready Readers decodables by Elfrieda Hiebert.
Neither Reading Workshop Units of Study nor the new phonics program come with a set of decodable readers. Recent calls to Heinemann suggest that this remains unchanged; Heinmann representatives are neither aware of decodables coming soon, nor do they recommend purchase of Ready Readers. So schools buying Caklins’s program for 2019-20 will not get a component that everyone agrees is important, including Calkins. I find that troubling.
A Facebook post is not a product evolution. Only the latter has the potential to shift practice in the tens of thousands of classrooms using Units of Study.
So, as Calkins’s thinking evolves, we should keep a close watch on the Units of Study materials. What practices do they bring into schools? And in asking this question, I mean “all schools, not just the Teachers College Project Schools,” which have staff developers on site.
Update: on January 29th, Teachers College published a response to the reviews which can be read here.
Just Scratching the Surface
By its nature, curriculum is robust and multilayered. So, there’s a lot more to say. I hope to write more about the virtues of Reading Workshop, because we can learn a lot from its best aspects and its popularity in K–12.
There should be a blog unpacking the fact that Writing Workshop then Reading Workshop were designed as models, not as actual curriculum, for many misunderstand this aspect of the programs. (if anyone knows of such a blog, please send it my way?)
We should be exploring Writing Workshop, which many describe as the strongest part, and compare it to other approaches to writing instruction, like writing tasks built from knowledge-rich texts. And so much more.
But every conversation about a curriculum needs to start somewhere, and seven expert reviews is a pretty good place.
Let’s keep the conversation going, friends.
PostScript: Reading Workshop vs Units of Study
I’ve updated this blog in response to comments from a thoughtful reader, who raised concerns about the distinction between the workshop model and the Units of Study program.
That topic really deserves its own blog. Reading Workshop started as an instructional model and eventually turned into published curricular materials (the Units of Study). They are very connected but different things, lending murkiness to the whole conversation…for example, a school could use the Reading Workshop model without purchasing Units of Study, implementing the approach with its own modifications. Unpacking related matters – such as distinctions between Reading Workshop and Writing Workshop, getting into the different versions of a program that has evolved over time (including the addition of a phonics option, as noted in my blog) – is kind-of a rabbit hole. I opted to save that for another blog, because this one was already getting long.
Here, I used Reading Workshop as shorthand for the Units of Study and the Reading Workshop model as implemented in many schools, for two reasons:
- Schools that implement the Reading Workshop model, without major modifications to address for the issues in the study, are gonna have the same issues that are present in Units of Study, making it fair (and even helpful) to reinforce the connectedness of the approach and the materials.
- Much of K–12 uses similar shorthand in the same way (saying “we’re a TC school” to mean “we purchased Units of Study“); and in fact, it seems to me that Calkins’s own letter uses “TCRWP” as shorthand for her work, inclusive of the Units of Study, in a not-dissimilar fashion.
That said, upon rereading, I noticed two spots where ‘Units of Study‘ was more apt than a reference to Reading Workshop, and I tweaked the blog to be more clear, with gratitude to that reader for her nudge to put fresh eyes on this nuance.