The decision was made amidst heightened political pressure on education institutions to align teacher training more closely with research-based practices; a methodology to which TCRWP explicitly does not subscribe. 

Lucy Calkin’s curriculum has been used nationwide for upwards of four decades, guiding educators through literacy instruction. Due to the curriculum’s decade-spanning popularity and usage, the decision sent shockwaves through the education community, sparking numerous questions and concerns about the future of literacy instruction. Consider its reach – in 2022, approximately a quarter of the country’s 67,000 elementary schools adopted the curriculum, with an estimated 16% of K-2 teachers implementing its tactics routinely. These numbers emphasize the widespread impact Lucy Calkins has had in the literacy world. 

Alana Mangham, a lifelong early educator and current Director of Development and Implementation Support at IMSE, has a deep understanding of the good and bad that came with Calkins’ teaching, from learning the balanced literacy approach at Columbia Teachers College early in her career to becoming deeply rooted into science of reading and Structured-Literacy based instruction. Mangham provides valuable insights into the implications of this decision – and what it means for teachers, schools, and districts throughout the U.S. 

The rapid ascent of TCRWP was met with a lasting impact, yet its subsequent decline has proven to be equally far-reaching. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Lucy Calkins released a manifesto titled “No One Gets To Own The Term Science Of Reading,” in which she claimed no one gets to own the research or associated methodologies exclusively. This declaration sparked the “reading wars” as Calkins “drew a line in the sand,” according to Mangham, causing widespread uproar and drawing significant criticism to her already highly controversial instruction.

Lucy Calkins’ workshop-style curriculum faced scrutiny from both education researchers and teachers, primarily due to its focus on meaning-based approaches to foundational skills. While the framework appears promising, encompassing shared reading, read-aloud sessions, independent reading, and guided reading, it goes against the research, which says students need explicit and repetitive instruction. What was embedded was just the format, not the results. So much of it was about immersing students in books and classroom management. The focus was more on meaning and the lesson- the more exposure the better. There is a time and place for focus on comprehension, but students also need to learn how to actually read.

Moreover, the workshop-style curriculum heavily depends on students’ ability to draw from personal life experiences, which inherently favors those from privileged backgrounds. This approach’s effectiveness is limited, as it excludes a broader spectrum of students who lack these specific life experiences to be able to draw from.

Despite TCRWP’s widespread and pervasive popularity, the limitations of a non-structured learning environment are glaringly evident, as only 40% of students can read proficiently in the U.S., based on the latest NAEP numbers. The question remains: what about the other 60% of students? Ultimately, it was parents’ distress, many of whom discovered their child could not read when they were at home with their kids during COVID-19, and Calkins’ manifesto pushed this movement for change forward. Parents and teachers started to demand change, challenging educational institutions to adapt and evolve quickly.

With the dissolution of TCRWP, administrators and teachers now find themselves at a critical juncture. In navigating this transition, Mangham emphasizes a crucial point: change must be rooted in scientific evidence. There is no shame in evolving teaching practices to align with the latest research-backed methods; moving away from a workshop-style teaching methodology toward a comprehensive understanding of the foundational literacy learning skills. Educators must shift away from the conventional guided reading assessments instituted through Calkins, which no longer suffice in pinpointing and addressing students’ reading deficits. Instead, teachers should embrace content-rich, contextually relevant, science-backed teaching methods. By tailoring lesson plans to individual student needs and focusing on the foundation of reading development, this approach ensures targeted instruction, moving beyond mere level assignments and addressing specific challenges effectively.

However, this transition is not solely in the hands of educators. Many teachers, despite recognizing the need for change, find themselves constrained by contracts or financial obligations tied to the TCRWP. So what can teachers do? Mangham recommends a personalized approach to student reading levels, advocating for leveling readers individually rather than grouping as TCRWP recommends. Teachers can then incorporate thematic units into their lessons to enrich their student’s content knowledge. Additionally, teachers can enhance their students’ reading skills by exposing them to a diverse range of books; focusing on decoding and sentence analysis, and pinpointing where individual students connect with the material. The ultimate goal of these adjustments is to guide students in sentence construction and grammar usage. While these strategies might not offer permanent fixes, they provide educators and students with better outcomes than what they currently have access to.

Educators are in the midst of a significant turning point in the landscape of literacy education. Lucy Calkins has dominated the literacy space for decades, but now, there is a new literacy teaching methodology in town. By embracing evidence-based practices and innovative teaching methodologies, holistically or where able, teachers can equip themselves with the tools needed to nurture a generation of confident, capable readers. The challenge lies not just in adapting to change but in championing a more inclusive, effective, and equitable approach to literacy education. As teachers we should feel no shame about the past, we practiced what was taught to us in our teacher prep programs, but we can’t put our heads in the sand or put the genie back in the bottle. Science isn’t political – we need to put forward evidence-based methods to help every child become a proficient reader.

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