This year readers were drawn to critiques of literacy guru Lucy Calkins and to research on reading challenges faced by kids who speak a dialect that differs significantly from the kind of English generally used in classrooms and books.
I have mixed feelings about year-end “top ten” lists. Posts that get the most clicks may not be the year’s best. (Another approach would be to list the ten posts the author herself deems most important, as The Hechinger Report’s Jill Barshay did here.) And of course, a calendar year is an arbitrary unit of time.
With those caveats, though, it’s interesting to see what readers have paid the most attention to over the past 12 months. I’ll rely on the statistics for my posts on Forbes, but I’ll also provide links to the versions I routinely publish five days later on my free Substack newsletter, Minding the Gap, which I started in August.
Before I get to those, I’ll mention a piece of mine that—judging from the reaction on social media—has gotten a lot of attention, although I don’t have access to any figures. It tackles a topic too complex to cover in a post of a thousand words or so, and one that probably deserves an entire book: the disconnect between teacher training and cognitive science. The article, titled “Why So Many Kids Struggle to Learn,” appears in the Winter 2022 issue of The American Scholar, and can be accessed here. It’s about why teachers have long been trained in methods that conflict with what scientists have discovered about how the learning process actually works.
Here, then, are the ten posts that got the most views in 2021:
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Calkins, the creator of popular reading and writing curricula, has come in for lots of criticism lately, most of it centered on her lack of attention to phonics and other foundational reading skills. But her approach to reading comprehension is also holding back untold numbers of children because it fails to systematically build the academic knowledge and vocabulary needed to understand complex text. Calkins’ curriculum is far from unusual in that respect, and I’ve certainly written about the general problem in other posts and articles (and in a book). But Calkins’ name attracts attention. The link to the post on Substack is here.
Children who speak a variety of English that varies significantly from the “general” variety may face challenges learning to read, according to researchers. If, for example, a teacher asks if cold and hole have the same ending, a child who pronounces cold as cole might say yes. The teacher might then tell the child that the way she says cold is wrong rather than just different. But telling children the way they speak is wrong can have unintended negative consequences, and adopting an approach closer to that used with kids whose native language is something other than English can work much better. This piece came in second despite having been published only a few weeks ago. Here it is on Substack.
As with reading comprehension, Calkins’ curriculum treats writing as a skill to be taught separately from the content of the core curriculum; kids are either writing about personal experience or about topics in a separate writing curriculum. That method squanders the potential of writing to build and deepen the knowledge we want students to acquire. And Calkins’ emphasis on having children write at length from the beginning rather than starting at the sentence level makes a difficult task overwhelming for most students. Substack version is here.
Scientists have long known that knowledge—either of the topic or of academic vocabulary in general—is a key factor in reading comprehension. But it’s been harder to determine whether building students’ academic knowledge produces better results on standardized reading tests, where the topics don’t overlap with what’s been taught. Some reading experts deny that such evidence exists. But it does. (And see post number six, below, for even more of that evidence.) Click here for the Substack version.
As British education writer Daisy Christodoulou explains in her book Teachers vs. Tech?, education technology won’t work if it’s premised on widespread but mistaken beliefs about how people learn. It could be used effectively, but that would require educators to, for example, revise their long-held views that acquiring factual information is unnecessary or even harmful, when in fact it’s the necessary basis for higher-level thinking. Substack version here.
Recent studies done with kindergartners, using two different knowledge-building curricula, found significant positive results on standardized reading comprehension tests after only a year or less. A meta-analysis of 35 studies done with elementary-level students yielded similar data, plus evidence of effects on vocabulary and content knowledge. Click here to read the post on Substack.
Sonja Santelises, CEO of Baltimore City public schools, has led a shift towards knowledge-building literacy curriculum over the last several years. It hasn’t been easy, but Santelises argues that this kind of switch is needed to level the playing field for students who are less likely to pick up academic knowledge outside school. Substack version here.
A spate of recent books has questioned the concept of meritocracy, largely on the ground that “merit,” in the sense of intelligence, is distributed unequally. That’s true, and work that is vital to society but considered less intellectually demanding should be better compensated. But the idea that schools have done all they can to develop all students’ intelligence, as some maintain, is both mistaken and dangerous. Click here to read it on Substack.
There isn’t much good research on writing instruction. And the research that does exist has overlooked a key question: Should we teach students to write sentences before asking them to write at length? For the Substack version, click here.
When the U.S. Department of Education proposed criteria (since revised) for awarding American history grants that alluded to the 1619 Project and other concepts identified with “wokeness,” right-wing commentators exaggerated their impact to score political points. Still, the ideas embraced in the criteria—and by many educators—don’t get at the real reasons so many students know so little about any version of American history. To read it on Substack, click here.