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New Units of Study in Phonics from Lucy Calkins and TCRWP


PhonicsK2_PS40_DSC01750 (2)[717]Today on the Heinemann Podcast, Lucy Calkins, author and series editor of the Units of Study for Reading and Writing, shares details about the latest, groundbreaking work to come out of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project: the new Units of Study in Phonics for grades K­–2.

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As Lucy Calkins says:

“The goal of phonics instruction is simply and only to support kids’ progress as readers and writers. Every message you send during phonics instruction needs to be angled to support transfer to reading and writing. That transfer isn’t an optional extension of your instruction, or something you support for just the most accomplished of your students. It is everything”

At a recent conference, Lucy discussed the principles behind this fast-paced, research-based, new series. She spoke about why it matters for young readers and writers today…


 Below is a full transcript of Lucy's presentation...

Lucy Calkins: The work we've done in phonics is a game changer. What you know about any curriculum we ever write is that it's cohesive. The beliefs are crystal clear, and they're there on Monday, they're there on Tuesday, they're there on Wednesday. They're there in kindergarten, they're there in fourth grade, they're there in sixth grade.

In my list of the principles, the first one that I think is really foundational is that we're teaching phonics for transfer. The only reason to learn phonics is to use it as readers and writers, so it is all about transfer, which has to change phonics curriculum in major ways.

We know kindergartners are being expected to be reading level C-D at the end of kindergarten. To read level C, C books have contractions in them. Level I books have long vowels in them. So the pace of your phonics curriculum, if it's phonics for transfer, cannot be a letter a week. This also means that you have to teach phonics in a way which is not about mastering something before you've moved to the next thing, or you're still teaching the sixth letter and they're in writing workshop labeling up a storm, beginning and ending sounds. It's got to be about immersion in it, exposure, play, experience with it, but not "We're going to work on this letter, M, for three weeks until every child in this room has mastered it, and we're all sick to death of it."

The pace has to go more quickly, but also the content has to change. If you're really teaching phonics for transfer, and Fry has given us 250 high frequency words, why would you not choose the word "said" to be teaching while you're writing small moments stories, and why would you not choose the word "put" and "how" to teach while kids are writing how-to books?

You can actually take words that are still from the same list of 250 words, but you're going to doctor it up a little bit so that you're teaching something when the kids particularly need it. So the content is going to change, and, of course, the methods are going to change, because often you're going to be saying to kids, "Pull out your book and practice it. You've just learned that every word, every syllable has to have a vowel, so pull out the book from your baggie and check to see if that's true." Robot. "Ro" has a vowel, "bot" has a vowel. Get them to check it using your own books, using your own writing. Constant references to using phonics as readers and writers, that's the first principle.

Second principle is that phonics needs to be efficient. It can't take up all the time so there's no time for reading and for writing. Jim Cunningham has written a really nice article, and he points out that ten years ago, we had a giant experiment on phonics. The whole nation was forced to do systematic phonics in Reading First. And then the government hired somebody to study what was the effect of this total obsession with systematic phonics, where people did it for 45 minutes a day.

Everybody was doing it.

What were the results? The result was reading flat lined. The result was no improvement in reading. Cunningham said, what conclusion could we draw from this Reading First thing failing? Is it that phonics is not foundational? No. Phonics is foundational, but a foundation is not the same thing as the whole house; it was too much phonics, and it wasn't phonics in context of reading and writing.

And now all of our standards are for phonics, and reading, and writing. So in New York State in the new iteration of common core, they're recommending 20 minutes a day for phonics, and that's what our phonics program is. 20 minutes a day for phonics. But it's a lot more than that because it's phonics for transfer, as long as kids are doing some kind of writing--it doesn't have to be our writing workshop, but some kind of writing. Writing is, like Donald Bear says, "What is writing, but spelling? What is it? It's just spelling, spelling, spelling.”

The third thing is that it is really important that you're not just teaching item knowledge, which a lot of phonics programs are. So, right now, would you list the 22 blends? Or list the six syllable types. My hunch is you don't even know what one syllable type is, let alone be able to list the six. And yet you are reading and writing just find. You do not need to be able to recite the 22 blends. No child needs to be taught every one of the 22 blends. Instead, you have to teach them some of the blends, and then you have to teach them strategies for using blends.

In an instruction on blends, one of the important things to teach kids is that very often when you go to write a blend, they leave out the second letter. They're writing "blue," but they leave out the 'L,' and that is going to be particularly true with certain blending letters. So that's the first thing.

The second thing you want to teach them around blends is that one reason kids have problems with blends is that sometimes they say a letter like 'B' like this:

"Buh." So if it's B-L, and you go "Buh-la," it doesn't sound like a blend. They had the
"shwa" sound. They're over-saying some of their letters. "Tuh" instead of "t-t-t." The
reason you have to teach them "t" not "tuh" is because when they go to blend, "tuh"
just doesn't work there. Then it would be "tuh-la."

If a kid is writing and they write "b-u" instead of "b-l-u," there are some teachers who say, "Crap, I have to go and teach the 22 blends." But you could also teach them that it is really important to be a brave reader of your own writing, and to actually read your own writing, and read what you did write, not what you hope you wrote. So you read it, and you read it, and you're like, "B-u. Ooh, that says 'bu.' It does not say 'blue.'" And learning to be an honest, brave re-reader of your writing is actually part of teaching kids blends because the big problem with blends is they miss the second letter.

My point being that you need to teach strategies as well as item knowledge, and you do not need to teach all the items. You teach enough blends that they get the concept of blending, and then they can figure out some of these blends. You don't necessarily have to pre-teach the D-R blend. If you've taught blending, and you've taught eight blends, they can figure out the D-R blend.

When you're teaching kids strategies, they need to know why they're doing something, so a lot of phonics, teachers will begin by saying, "We're going to play a really fun game," but a really fun game is not a reason to do something.

When I was writing this curriculum with my colleagues, they would have these fun games, like "Pop the P." I'm thinking, "What the hell is 'Pop the P?'" This does not feel like we're treating kids like readers and writers. "I want to tell you something that writers do. They pop the 'P.'" Pop the 'P' is like in a word like "hop," you get the words to pop the 'P.' "Hah-puh." And I'm like why the heck ... I'm going to my colleagues, "Why do you want them to go "hah-puh?" And they're like, "Because they don't hear the last sounds in words." I'm like, "You've got to be kidding. What's so hard? 'Bike.' What's so hard?" And they're like, "I swear to God, Lucy, they don't hear the last sounds in words." I'm like, "Okay, I've got a suggestion: Tell them that."

Today, writers, I want to teach you that, swear to God, there are kids who don't hear the last sound in words. They just don't. The write "bike" and they just hear the "bi." I mean, it sounds weird that they just go "bi," not "bike," but there's kids who don't hear the last sounds in words. So I want us all to practice hearing the last sounds in words. Right now, will you just touch a part of your body? You guys try it. Whatever you touch, pop out the last sound. "Le-guh." Okay? The good thing about that mini-lesson is it doesn't take any little pieces of paper in baggies. You've just got kids going around the room for five minutes, having a blast. So we're teaching strategies, not just item knowledge.

And then the last thing ... Two last things ... Is engagement. I think that our curriculum is teaching things like there's no greater joy than to work hard on something that you care about. There's even scientific evidence to say that when you're happy you learn better. So joy is not this warm, fuzzy, crappy stuff. It's actually important. And I rest my case. I'm not going to say more about engagement.

And then the last one is research based, and what you need to know about the research on phonics is that pretty much every program follows the same sequence. Like, even to the point of the first letter that's taught is 'M.' Why 'M?' Because "Emmmmmm." You can keep saying it, and you're not in another sound, and it says its own name. 'M,' "Em." So it's one of the easier letters to learn.

Now, pretty much every program, the first vowel they're going to teach is 'A.' By the way, you'll be surprised to hear that the first vowel we taught is 'A.' There's reasons for 'A.' You might think vowels are hard. You might think you should postpone them, but because vowels are hard, they take more time. You want to get them started early, but also, if you're wanting kids to use the letters, you've got to put some vowels out there pretty fast or they're not going to be able to use them.

In every way, we follow the research on phonics. Now, there are some complications. There's a little bit of debate. One of the debates is, do you spend the first half the year on phonemic awareness, phonological awareness, and not start letters until the middle of the year? Just so you know, smart researchers disagree on that. There's a few who would teach phonological awareness, phonemic awareness, for several months before they go into the letters and sounds. Many disagree with that. We're among those who disagree with that. We teach letters and sounds starting right away because it goes with reading and writing workshop.

The other question is to what extent are you going to be teaching phonograms, your vowels inside of word families like "at" versus "ah." Everybody in kindergarten is going to teach short vowels, and short vowels before long vowels. You might think long vowels are easier because it says its own name, but long vowels are represented by lots of different ways. Short vowels are easier. But do you teach "ah" or do you teach "at?" And that is a debate.

So, for example, Pat Cunningham would just say, "All I would do in kindergarten is ‘Cat in
the Hat’. That would be my curriculum for kindergarten." The use of the phonograms, of the rhymes, of the "at" and "it" and "up" and so forth is so important to Pat, whereas Isabel Beck, for example, who's a more conservative phonics person, would do just the vowels in isolation. We actually, on most of these questions, are pretty balanced. We started with the "at," but then we go to the vowels in isolation.

The other thing is decodable texts, and there are battles about decodable texts. And just to tell you, the people who argue against decodable texts are saying that kids need to be able to self monitor for meaning. And if it's a text that is just written with lots of "ats," (“The rat sat and that is that, and at the…”) it has no meaning, and you're teaching kids it can be correct and have no meaning, which destroys their ability to check that it's meaningful, because it can be correct and not meaningful. Especially when working with English language learners, you would never want to lean towards decodable texts, because those kids, above all, need to be checking that it's meaningful.

But the argument for decodable text is if I've just taught you "rat," "cat," "sat," if I've just taught that to you, the problem is that the books the kids are reading in an F and P type is a lot of "I see the lion," "I see the elephant," "I see the tiger," which is based on repetition and pictures, and there's not a lot of place to practice that "at" work you've just finished doing.

So we do add decodable texts into our curriculum that we've written that are meaningful because we do want kids to be able to practice some of the phonics work inside of continuous texts, and we are for that. And I also am for Freddy Hiebert’s series of books, which is published by Pearson, which has some of that. Those are semi-decodable, but still meaningful.

Those are our principles: that it's transferrable, efficient, strategy based,
engaging, and research-based.


To learn more about the forthcoming Units of Study in Phonics, place a pre-order, or download a sample session, visit Heinemann.com


Download a Sampler

Lucy Calkins is the author of the best-selling grade-by-grade Unilucycalkinsts of Study for Teaching Reading, Grades K-8 and Units of Study in Opinion/Argument, Information, and Narrative Writing, Grades K-8 series, which have quickly become an indispensable part of classroom life in tens of thousands of schools around the world, the new Up the Ladder: Accessing Grades 3-6 Units in Narrative, Information, and Opinion Writing series, and classroom essentials such as the groundbreaking TCRWP Classroom Libraries and the Workshop Help Desk series. Lucy is also the author or coauthor of numerous foundational professional texts with Heinemann, including The Art of Teaching Writing, Writing Pathways: Performance Assessments and Learning Progressions, Grades K-8 , Pathways to the Common Core: Accelerating Achievement, and One to One: The Art of Conferring with Young Writers. She is also the author of The Art of Teaching Reading.

In her role as the Founding Director of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, a New York City–based organization that has influenced literacy instruction around the globe for more than thirty years, Lucy has developed a learning community of brilliant and dedicated teacher educators who have supported hundreds of thousands of teachers, principals, superintendents, and policy-makers in schools that bear their distinctive mark: a combination of joy and rigor in the classrooms, and entire school communities—teachers, principals, parents, kids—who wear a love of reading and writing on their sleeves.

Lucy is the Robinson Professor of Children's Literature at Teachers College, Columbia University where she co-directs the Literacy Specialist Program—a masters and doctoral program that brings brilliant teachers and coaches to TCRWP schools everywhere and to the Project itself.

Topics: Units of Study, Lucy Calkins, Podcast, TCRWP, Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, Heinemann Podcast, Units of Study Phonics

Date Published: 07/03/18

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