Problems With Lucy Calkins’ Curriculum Go Beyond Reading—To Writing
Her influential approach vastly underestimates how difficult writing is for most students.
Recent controversy about literacy guru Lucy Calkins has centered on her approach to reading instruction. But she came to prominence as an expert on writing, and her influence there has been even greater—and at least as harmful.
Roughly 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 New Hampshire school. It wasn’t the kind of scientific experiment that involves a hypothesis tested against a “control group.” Researchers would just closely observe 16 children in classrooms—and in the case of the young teacher, Lucy Calkins, the observation centered on one third-grader 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 drafting and revision and helped her find her writerly voice—the kinds of things college and graduate students do in creative writing workshops. Calkins’ not-so-hidden agenda was to bring that approach to young children and show them that their own lives and ideas were worth writing about.
Calkins described this study in her book Lessons from a Child, published in 1983. Dismayed to see that teachers assigned writing topics and then “merely corrected and graded the papers,” Calkins coaxed them to let kids choose their own topics, write with minimal adult guidance, and give each other feedback on drafts of their essays during “workshop” time.
That approach was partly born of necessity: like most teachers, those at this school hadn’t been trained to teach writing. Calkins noted with approval that one of Susie’s teachers became more of a “listener” than an instructor in writing. Another confessed that she was “not an expert on writing,” telling the children, “Each one of you has to be a writing teacher.” In Calkins’ view, that approach, with kids producing multiple drafts of essays on visiting grandparents or going fishing, was working beautifully. Teachers weren’t so sure. “All that work,” one would groan, looking at a finished product, “for this.”
Calkins’ research eventually led to a K-8 curriculum called the Units of Study in Reading and Writing, now estimated to be among the most popular literacy programs in the country. The 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 her own contribution—at least, as applied to children.
Calkins’ perceptions about writing have been spot-on in some respects. She initially understood that children couldn’t write well about topics they knew little about, one reason she wanted them to write about their own experience. She also saw that writing needed to be seen as a process rather than a series of discrete assignments.
But her approach has rested on two flawed assumptions. The first is that writing skills can and should be taught separately from subjects like history or science—an assumption Calkins and many others have also made about supposed reading comprehension skills like “finding the main idea.” Originally, she seems to have believed that if children honed their writing skills on personal narrative, they could transfer those techniques to the more challenging kinds of writing expected at higher grade levels.
The Common Core standards in literacy, released in 2010, pushed back against that idea, requiring more “informational” and “persuasive” writing at the elementary level. In response, Calkins expanded her approach to include those genres. And unlike some other “Common Core” writing programs, which expect students to write about topics they know little about, some of Calkins’ informational and persuasive units have kids dig into a specific topic for four to six weeks.
But even then, her focus is on writing skills rather than the content itself, and the assumption is that teachers could choose to substitute a different topic. A second-grade unit on science writing uses the topic of force and motion, but teachers are advised that if that “isn’t a good fit for you, you can transfer this teaching to another area of science.”
As a result, lesson titles and “teaching points” are content-neutral—for example, “Writers of History Pay Attention to Geography,” in a fifth-grade unit. But the topic used is Westward Expansion, and the teacher “script” illustrating the point centers on the Erie Canal. Teachers who choose another topic would need to know enough about it to come up with their own insights about the influence of geography. And young students are then expected to write essays applying these generic insights to other topics of their own choosing.
When I interviewed Calkins for a book several years ago, she told me that children should acquire substantive knowledge in their social studies and science classes, but that’s not her focus. “When I’m teaching people to write,” she said, “I’m teaching them a method—I’m teaching them how to do something.”
That approach might work for personal essays, but it can run into trouble in units where the goal is to get kids to write “like a scientist” or “like a historian.” Scientists and historians can write the way they do only because they know a lot about their topics.
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 topics? If students are learning about, say, the Civil War in social studies—assuming their school even allots time for social studies—why shouldn’t they use writing to build their knowledge about the Civil War, rather than learning to “write like a historian” about a different set of events during English language arts class?
Alternatively, schools could adopt a literacy curriculum that incorporates topics in history and science, an approach that has been shown to boost reading comprehension. But students benefit most if they’re reading and writing about the same topics, and Calkins’ reading and writing units aren’t coordinated in that way.
The second and even more fundamental flawed assumption underlying Calkins’ curriculum is that the “workshop” approach, developed for experienced adult writers, will also work for children as young as five. Like many others, Calkins seriously underestimates how difficult the process of learning to write is for most students.
She’s a firm believer in having children write with little planning—“flash-drafting,” she calls it—and produce prodigious amounts of prose. “Nothing is more consistently helpful for young writers than encouraging more writing,” her Units of Study for kindergarteners advises. “That is why coaching your little ones to write more and more and more is crucial.” The assumption that children need to write at length from the beginning has now become part of education orthodoxy, enshrined even in the 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 may become paralyzed, not knowing how to begin. Or they may pour out pages of barely legible and largely incoherent prose. One second-grade teacher showed me a sample of that kind of writing, saying he knew he was supposed to “respond” to it but couldn’t understand what the student was trying to say.
Calkins’ curriculum expects kids to write essays and even “books” before they’ve learned to construct sentences, and they’re left to figure out the intricacies of writing largely on their own. They might, for example, be directed to write key phrases on sticky notes and sort them into categories before writing about Westward Expansion, but if they run into trouble, teachers are advised to remind them that “the settlers encountered problems as well” and “had to problem solve.”
Learning how to categorize and order ideas is hugely difficult—and despite Calkins’ assertions to the contrary, even highly experienced writers often rely on detailed outlines (at least, I do). Something as basic as the concept of a sentence is so complex that many children, and even some adults, won’t grasp it unless they get repeated practice in distinguishing complete sentences from fragments, under the guidance of a teacher.
Writing instruction has enormous potential to build knowledge and literacy, but to unlock its power, two basic principles need to be observed—both of which Calkins overlooks. First, writing activities should be embedded in the content of the core curriculum so that they build the knowledge we want students to acquire. Second, teachers need to modulate the heavy cognitive burden imposed by writing through explicit instruction and supervised practice, beginning at the sentence level if that is what students need. (I’m the co-author of a book setting out such a method, The Writing Revolution, but 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’s essentially asking teachers to throw kids into the deep end of the pool, tell them they’re “swimmers,” and let them sink. If kindergarteners balk at plunging right into drafting “informational” how-to books, and gentle coaxing doesn’t work, Calkins advises teachers to tap on a child’s page, “a gesture that says ‘Get writing’” or conveys “a firm ‘Now.’” If teachers tell Calkins their students’ writing doesn’t look like the examples in her books, she blames their low expectations, as I heard her do during a training session. “So often,” she writes, “when we are in classrooms where the teacher says that the kids are finding a certain kind of writing ‘really hard,’ we’ll ask, ‘I wonder where they picked that feeling up?’”
But writing is really hard. It’s not underestimating students’ abilities to say they need a slower pace and more explicit instruction. Rather, for many students, providing them with those things is the key to unlocking their true potential.
This post originally appeared on Forbes.com.