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Sold a Story: Building bridges for literacy

In the following article, Laura Stewart, Chief Academic Officer and literacy expert, reflects on Emily Hanford's podcast series, Sold a Story. Episode 4 focuses on Teachers College Columbia professor Lucy Calkins: "She’s one of the most influential people in American elementary education today. Her admirers call her books bibles. Why didn't she know that scientific research contradicted reading strategies she promoted?" It's a good question. Read on for more.

APM reports. Sold a Story.

I’ve been reflecting a lot on the Sold a Story podcast series by Emily Hanford. Episode 4 revolved around Lucy Calkins and her journey, which resonated deeply with me. I too started my career in a British Primary School, which was devoted to a constructivist approach to reading and writing. The embedded belief was that children learned to read in the same way they learned to speak: modeling, immersion, exploration. So, if we model for children how good readers read, immerse them in print experiences (guided and coached), and let them explore reading (“print-rich environment,” “book browsing,” “book boxes”), reading will happen. The same was true for writing. The workshop model was developed by looking at what competent writers do and trying to emulate that in classrooms; so if we model that process of what good writers do (ideate, draft, revise, edit, publish), immerse children in authentic opportunities to write (guided and coached), and let them explore the world as authors, writing will occur. Along with Lucy Calkins, the voices of Frank Smith, Donald Graves, Ken Goodman, and later Regie Routman were ringing in my ears as I carved out my early practices as a teacher.

And what’s not to love? The approach I was brought up under sounded beautiful and authentic: children as readers, children as writers. I understand the appeal and allure. I also understand the social-political underpinnings of this approach: surely a focus on phonics seemed rigid, teacher-front-and-center, didactic, conservative, and old-school; whereas this was progressive, teacher-as-coach, evolving, and developmental. It spoke to my free-minded, 20-something heart.

I dug in—all in. As my career progressed, I became a facilitator for the Writing Project and traveled the country training teachers in the workshop approach. I also taught teachers the joys of shared reading and a literature-based approach (“everything you need to teach a child to read is the book itself; we simply need to point it out”).

Is there anything inherently “wrong” with practices such as modeling, creating print-rich environments, book browsing, authentic writing and reading? Absolutely not. These are critical attributes of a literacy learning environment. But was it enough to support ALL developing readers? As I watched some of my students thrive, I saw many struggle. And I was trying all I knew how to do. It is in those moments when we are often handed a breakthrough.

Breakthrough Moment

Like so many of us in this field, I had moments of disquiet, of doubt. I had so many kids who still weren’t “getting it.” I worked with teachers who were working so hard every day to follow the protocols we were espousing, only to be discouraged in the results. If I had to choose one moment where that doubt opened to discovery, it would be a specific personal event.  I remember it distinctly. I was sitting with my niece and nephew, and I was reading a book with them, enacting my best “shared reading” strategies. We did a picture walk, I read the text, and my niece said to me, “what does that say?” while pointing to a word. I read the sentence and asked “what would make sense here?” and she, with a quizzical look on her face (“well, don’t YOU know??”)  responded “but what does it SAY?”  Well, of course! She wanted to know how to REALLY READ the word! She didn’t want to waste time guessing what the word was. . . she knew I could read it and she wanted to be let in on the secret. What does it say and how do you know? She wanted to learn how to read the text.  So we sounded it out. It took a moment. It was simple. And she was very happy.

So, at that breakthrough moment, I got it. This is a system that kids need to understand. They know it is a system, they know those squiggly lines on the page represent something. They want to be let in. I reflected back on my teaching and realized I had spent a great deal of time providing talk and activities around reading rather than really teaching reading. Those foundational beliefs were driving my practice, and the disquiet was a voice worth listening to. I needed a new foundation.

A New Approach: Falling Upward

So that is when the journey really began. The journey of unlearning to learn anew. The journey of forgiving myself for not knowing and not doing. The journey of a fresh start filled with possibilities for the students and teachers I served.

The ensuing time has been filled with voracious learning and a relentless focus on the work to be done. What did I learn and what advice would I give? I think I would sum it up in two words: grace and space.  We need to give ourselves the grace to recognize that we as teachers have always made choices with the best interests of our students in mind. We have always done what we think is right for our students. And when we learn something that changes our practice, we need to give ourselves the grace to do so. And space. . .the space to continue to learn and grow, to know that the science is always evolving, to listen to our hearts and listen to that disquiet. For in those moments, we grow. And our students reap the benefits.

I am not that fresh-faced, early-years teacher with the dog-eared texts of my youth. I am a life-long educator who has faced failure and humility and acceptance and rebirth. I like to think of it as, according to Richard Rohr, “falling upward.” From my perch, this is the trajectory of a life’s work, and one I am privileged and proud to be part of.

Listen to the Podcast

Millions of kids can’t read well. Scientists have known for decades how children learn to read but many schools are ignoring the research. They buy teacher training and books that are rooted in a disproven idea. In her Sold a Story podcast series, Emily Hanford investigates four authors and a publishing company that have made millions selling this idea.

Don’t miss an episode! Follow along with the podcast series.

About Laura Stewart

Laura Stewart, Chief Academic Officer, is a nationally recognized Science of Reading and Structured Literacy advocate and expert who will serve as the company’s spokesperson and will continue to build its thought leadership position in the literacy market. Stewart has dedicated her career to improving literacy achievement at leading education companies including The Reading League, Highlights Education Group, and Rowland Reading Foundation.

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