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Right to Read

Margaret Goldberg

Margaret Goldberg is the co-founder of Right to Read Project, a group of teachers, researchers, and activists committed to the pursuit of equity through literacy. Margaret serves as a literacy coach in a large urban district in California and was formerly a classroom teacher and curriculum developer. All posts are reprinted with permission from the Right to Read Project. Follow the Right to Read Project on Twitter.

Dear Lucy: An Open Letter to Lucy Calkins

November 26, 2019

Thank you for writing No One Gets to Own the Term “The Science of Reading.” I am so relieved that discussion of reading science has made its way into the balanced literacy community and that you’ve added your own voice to the conversation. You’re making it safe for experienced educators to refine our practice as a result of new learning.

For many years, I was a devout reading and writing workshop teacher, so I recently seized an opportunity to become a literacy coach in a district adopting Balanced Literacy. It was a more difficult job than I expected and the experience forced me to confront all that I did not know about reading. In an effort to help teachers and kids, I dove into reading science and my world was upended.

I hope that in your learning process you’ll be willing to hear from teachers like me, who have struggled to reconcile your programs with reading research. Any changes you make to your materials will improve instruction for millions of children and the way you explain your revisions will impact professional development for teachers everywhere.

I hope you’ll read on as I share some areas in your published programs that I think could use your attention. Shining a light on a few practices is worth some discomfort if it contributes to the creation of better tools for teachers.

Three-cueing instruction

You recently wrote:

“I do not know anyone who defines his or her method for teaching reading as ‘the three cueing systems.’”

“Three cueing” is shorthand to describe instruction and assessments grounded in meaning, structural, and visual cues (“MSV”), like the lesson below from Units of Study for Teaching Reading.

Integrating meaning, structure and visual cues

You wrote recently that when a child comes to an unfamiliar word, a teacher should say:

“Hypothesize drawing on all the sources of information available to you.”

Acknowledging that the wording is challenging, you explained that some teachers might take a short-cut and say, “Guess.”

I had a chance in 2016 to attend the Teachers College Reading and Writing Program (“TCRWP”) Foundational Skills Institute. At the Institute, we discussed cueing instruction when our trainer displayed the three-cueing Venn diagram and explained the purpose behind “strengthening MSV” lessons. [Slide recreated below]

three-cueing Venn diagram

Our trainer frequently used the word “guess” to describe what good readers do. Your programs, Units of Study for Teaching Reading and Units of Study for Teaching Phonics, use that word as well.

Guess the covered word

Teachers who have told readers to guess at words do so not because we are taking shortcuts, but because of the training and materials we have received.

I was happy to read your recent words- “The ‘science of reading’ people are all-over the word guess and they aren’t wrong about that.”- and I look forward to seeing what that means for TCRWP trainings and your published materials.

I hope you’ll do more in the revision process than replace “guess” with “hypothesize.” Even if we don’t say “guess,” when we teach students to identify words using strategies other than decoding, we are approaching reading as if it were a guessing game.

“Children who routinely adopt alternative cues for reading unknown words, instead of learning to decode them, later find themselves stranded when texts become more demanding and meanings less predictable. The best route for children to become fluent and independent readers lies in securing phonics as the prime approach to decoding unfamiliar words.”

— Primary National Strategy 2006b cited by Dr. Kerry Hempenstall in The Three-cueing Model: Down for the Count?

“The three cueing systems model does not address the needs of struggling readers. It appears that the three cueing systems model simply reinforces the kinds of habits that naturally occur among children who struggle in reading. It provides no avenue for weak readers to close the gap with their same-age peers.”

— Essentials of Assessing, Preventing, and Overcoming Reading Difficulties, Dr. David Kilpatrick

As I studied the research, I realized that parts of Units of Study teach beginning readers the habits of struggling readers and I began to advise teachers against those lessons. I hope you, too, will start guiding teachers away from MSV instruction.

Guessing the words in a story or text

Lessons in guessing are unnecessary if we refrain from giving students texts that contain words they can’t yet decode.

Leveled texts

I imagine that many advocates gave an audible sigh of relief when you said that predictable texts are “the last thing children who are dyslexic need.”

Pushing the conversation a little further, students with dyslexia are not the only ones who struggle with predictable texts. In theory, both decodable and predictable texts are temporary scaffolds to authentic books. In actuality, predictable texts become permanent reading for too many students.

In my district, when we look at 2nd graders stuck in low-level texts, the achievement gap is glaring.

Our Fountas and Pinnell Benchmark Assessment Data:

Fountas and Pinnell Benchmark Assessment Data

You explain that predictable texts are helpful because students can “approximate reading,” but too many of our kids, especially kids of color, are spending valuable instructional time approximating reading. Decodable texts offer the most efficient and reliable path to authentic texts, for students with and without diagnosed learning difficulties.

Independent reading

In The Guide to the Reading Workshop, you provided the example of a child reading ten or more Level C books in a thirty-minute sitting. From an adult’s perspective, this may seem like a pleasant and productive use of time, but a child may feel differently about it. 

The Guide to the Reading Workshop: Independent Reading

Some struggling second grade readers will quietly flip through books during independent reading, but others quickly grow bored. More than once, I’ve seen a child throw a book bin and shout, “I hate these stupid books.” There’s no convincing an eight year old that his Level C books aren’t stupid.

Children who struggle with reading realize something many adults do not understand-- they do not learn to read by reading. Desire to learn and time to practice are not sufficient for most students. They need to be taught how to read.

I began to question why we prioritize independent reading in our instructional minutes when I saw beginning and struggling readers sitting alone with books, waiting to be taught. I read many of the studies cited in Units of Study for Teaching Reading (e.g., Foorman (2006). Where you inferred that independent reading time produces skilled readers, I read that skilled readers read a lot, and that instruction is necessary to build skill.

Why is this so important? Because if we shift from seeing reading as a magical process and instead see it as an unnatural skill that requires explicit instruction, the way we use instructional time changes, too.

The Guide to the Reading Workshop: making meaning

As Wiley Blevins, whom you cited, writes:

Wiley Blevins quote about learning to read


It’s now rare to meet a primary grade teacher who does not teach phonics and that may be due to your current message about the importance of phonics instruction.

I wonder if you might be hearing “phonics-centric” conversation because people are trying to better understand your beliefs about the role of decoding in reading. My own thoughts about phonics have changed in the past few years. I’ve gone from thinking it is a small but necessary part of reading to understanding the Simple View of Reading and how decoding impacts comprehension. Perhaps people are wondering if your thinking has changed since you wrote Pathways to the Common Core.

Pathways to the Common Core Lucy Calkins quote

In recent years, many schools have applied what’s been called a “phonics patch,” a layer of phonics instruction on top of cueing/MSV. The phonics patch is popular among educators who see decoding as a “low-level literacy skill,” rather than as the very thing that makes reading to oneself different from being read to. Adding phonics to the school day is a step in the right direction, but we have many more steps to go in order to align instruction with reading research.

This brings me to some difficult questions, ones I have asked myself repeatedly.

How committed are all of us to our previous thinking and to the approaches grounded in that thinking?

How willing are we to seek out and incorporate new learning?

Reading science

The divide between the research and education communities has resulted in research left on the table and classroom practices that are not as effective as they could be. Bridging the divide is where educational leaders, like you, have the power to do the greatest good for teachers and children.

New learning will likely result in new materials and trainings, but I hope that in addition to creating new work you will continue to revise what you’ve already published. Words such as “guess” are written in lesson plans that will be used across the country unless you campaign to retract them. Problematic practices (like guessing instruction and time spent with predictable texts) will continue unless you actively discourage them. I hope that you will continue to look back, reflect and revise, and that you will then look forward to all the good you can do by bringing classroom practice closer to reading science.

You have enormous influence and I look forward to seeing how you use the power of your words to guide the instruction of teachers across the country.


Margaret Goldberg


Educators need to use the best of many different experts to provide the best quality reading instruction for all. I'm fortunate my teacher training program provided for a wide variety of reading approaches. No one person became a guru, Lucy Calkins has demonstrated the upmost courage and professionalism in order to publicly acknowledge that her beliefs fell short in regards to teaching of Reading & Writing. The phonetic component was/is weak. Reading Recovery programs has successfully shown us the importance of a strong foundation of meaning, phonetic & structure in order to teach Literacy. Lucy Calkins is being shunned by some states which seems extreme and short sited. Lucy Calkins is not to blame for what educators could have noticed from yearly test scores and daily reading assessments of their students. Educators did not apply their own critical thinking while teaching children the fundamentals of reading. Lucy Calkins is unfairly blamed for what educators saw for themselves but didn't act on. Perhaps the places that need to change are our University Literacy programs. Are they teaching our educators multiple approaches to teaching reading based on strong foundation of phonetic components? Are they teaching educators how to think critically? I think we are blaming the wrong is not Lucy Calkins' ideas about how to teach Literacy.

A crash course in the "root" of the problem. Thank you for this very organized and deft piece.

Relying on one person to be the guru of information in any field is not a best practice. I think we can agree something needs to change. We all need to take responsibility for our own teaching practice which includes how we become the best researchers in our own classrooms. Rather than picking apart things here and there like a car manual, it would be wiser to let go of the idea that there exists a silver bullet to unlock any type of instruction. We can all appreciate how the human brain is a magical space that science helps us better to understand. People are complicated. So too are our classrooms. Reading material that you agree and disagree with is how we all grow. But we can do it in the spirit of bridge-building productively by offering solutions that return the responsibility to us in our daily instruction.

Thank you for writing this and explicitly connecting the curriculum's instruction with the problems kids face. My son is a 10 year old dyslexic in a public school that uses Units of Study and that denied any problems with it, until last February. In the interim, my son has struggled with reading far more than he ever needed to.

Teachers are not at fault here. Colleges of Education, School Districts who lead professional learning sessions and publishers are feeding teachers methods that are detrimental to children as they try to learn to read. They continue to cheat teachers out of a body of knowledge that would empower teachers that when shared with their students will help them to reach the goal of becoming proficient readers. Teachers need deep knowledge about the linguistics of how our language is structured so they understand the 'why' of the lessons they teach, the sequence needed, the remediation necessary and the ability to address individual needs of students. I've watched this "holding on to one's belief of whole language/balanced literacy" for the past 40 years and look where it's gotten us. Flat reading scores with fewer than half of students in this country reading proficiently by 4th grade. Lucy and her minions need to accept they have it wrong and look at the science that's happening in psychology depts. and speech and language programs at our universities. They get it. Come out of your colleges of education silos and wake up!

My counterpoint to this article is this; Lucy didn’t provide phonics materials (she does now) but she does provide something much move valuable. Time for you to teach phonics, and comprehension, and fluency, and vocabulary all in 45 minutes. Every teacher I know knows that students need more than just reading. We know the different components of literacy, but we also know that teaching these in isolation turns a literacy block into 90 minutes of mostly busy work. We know when we do this, we are up all night creating centers work and grading papers. We know how to teach reading. I found that the biggest challenge is just making it all work together.
In my classrooms reader’s workshop time I do a lot of phonics work. Short, sweet, and targeted. I’ll meet with one group or even one kid and work through phonics progressions for 2-3 minutes (ok, some kids may need more time in the beginning, but by the second week they won’t. PS they will also love you for making this short and sweet). I’ll teach them to do this and meet with them every day, then switch to 3 times a week once they build success. Lucy doesn’t provide the material, but I know as a teacher that I can print out find the materials I need. I also know that no curriculum has always provided exactly what I need for every student, every year. I also know how to assess students to find out just what they need. We all learned this in our graduate classes, but we were all let down when we entered a school or taught a curriculum that didn’t prize engagement and flexibility. It wasn’t that I didn’t know about phonics!
I would gladly challenge anyone to provide a more engaging curriculum that allows for so much flexibility in such a short block of time. I would also like to thank Lucy for bringing the fun back into reading instruction in the face of so much tedium and monotony.

Thank you so much for posting this. As a parent, I was pretty clueless about reading programs. I just thought my kids went to school and learned to read much in the way I did. When my son hit 4th grade and still was struggling to read - I began researching the Units of Study program our school uses. It all clicked as to why my son was struggling so much - he was missing that phonics layer. We found him a phonics based tutor who started at square one with him and the improvements he has made are remarkable. Since my son was in K and 1st - our school has add more phonics but I wonder if it is truly enough. Thank you so much for laying out such an clear and concise explanation of this reading program.

Margaret, well said, thoughtful, and respectful. I appreciate the efforts of Lucy Caulkins to further the art of teaching literacy, and Nancy Atwell, but I've found Caulkin's materials and philosophy troubling from the beginning. Manuals that take the classroom teacher hours to digest and deliver, instructional models that fail to thoroughly incorporate sound scientifically backed research, and an unquestioned following that cringes at the very whisper of criticism of her practices has constrained teachers and been a disservice to students. Educators can and should do better. Next I would love for you to address Caulkin's writing approach. It pushes teachers and students into a box of must do's. It's time for educators to begin to work to grasp the breadth of reading, writing, speaking, and story telling practices, and thoughtfully incorporate them into their craft. Remain open to criticism and scrutiny, defend and discuss our choices and positions, and continually revise and refine our practices based upon feedback, research, and practice. So called "Gurus" like Caulkin should be part of the discussion but why do we fall in the trap of letting them dictate and drive practices. Take what works but make thoughtful, informed, and defendable positions. Marching to the same drum is an antiquated practice that you have respectfully addressed and you are to be commended!

There is some misleading claims about the word "guess" in this open letter. The idea behind "guess the covered word" is that you teach students to attend to meaning as well as visual information (including phonics). This type of lessons includes examples where you would have a word completely covered, and prompt students to hypothesize what the word MIGHT be based on context (meaning). Then, you show perhaps the beginning part of the word (an individual letter, blend, or digraph) and have students determine which of their original hypothesized responses are wrong due to the fact that they don't match the beginning sound. Students also use what they know about phonics to determine which of their responses could still fit. The teacher then reveals more, or the entire word, and students then use what they know about phonics and the context of the story/text to CONFIRM that the word makes sense and looks right (phonetically.)
While the lesson is called "Guess the Covered Word", the students use several sources of information to hypothesize, INCLUDING PHONICS (just not limited to phonics).

Also, the idea that students don't need time to read independently is flatly wrong. People do not get better at something without actually doing it. It is also widely agreed upon that explicit teaching matters, and Lucy Calkins encourages this in ALL OF HER WORK. But, in order take on the work of phonics, fluency, comprehension, critical literacy, etc., one must actually practice, in the reading of REAL books No amount of teaching matters unless students practice.
Lucy Calkins has NEVER suggested that students do not need phonics instruction. She has advocated for phonics instruction in the Units of Study for years. She write about the importance of phonics in the "Guide to the Primary Reading/Writing Workshop" texts that compliment the units, and before developing their own phonics curriculum, she recommended that you choose/develop such a curriculum.

Balanced is doing what is best for each learner. Screening children as they enter k and continuing to monitor their ability to hear sounds, and manipulate those sounds in spoken language. Once phonemic awareness is solidified and mastered the student is able to move on to letter sounds correspondence, blending, then word-level reading. ie. decoding for meaning. SSR is not appropriate for all students. It is obvious. Direct, explicit instruction is necessary for k-3rd grade. It really isn't rocket science, but for some reason, people make it out to be.

Based on the below article, I don't think Lucy Calkins is going to change her position on phonics anytime soon.
"Lucy Calkins’ TCRWP recently added Units of Study in Phonics to her Balanced Literacy curriculum. It is supposed to be a “game changer.” On the Heinemann Publishing website, it is described as a “Lean and Efficient Curriculum.” It says, “Phonics instruction benefits children when it supplements and does not replace reading and writing instruction. Every minute you spend teaching phonics (or preparing phonics materials to use in your lessons) is less time spent teaching other things.” What??? Isn’t phonics part of reading instruction? Learning to decode and spell words are supplemental activities? So…she adds a phonics component, pumps it up with elitist language, and then minimizes its importance and efficacy. How does time spent on phonics take away time “spent teaching other things”? What things? Teaching children to guess at words based on pictures and context? In what other enterprise but education is the teaching of fundamentals so disdained?"

Lucy did change her mind. Finally, she realized it’s not magic that results in readers.

Calkins believes in this method / theory. She has also made her life's work doubling down on her thinking. There are several issues at play and I believe that most boil down to money and reputation. If she swings too hard the other way, all the the districts paying for her methods will possible abandon her costings her millions and potentially billions. In the educational community, she is seen by most as "problem solvers" and who wants to give up the rep of being the smartest person in the room.

I am deeply grateful for the thoughtfulness and obvious dedication to children reflected in this response from Margaret Goldberg. My years of research on how the young reading brain learns supports everything written here. I have recently given several keynotes in which I saw the clear confusion about phonics that persists today because of past overemphases on one half of the reading brain (vital processes devoted to meaning) and underemphases on the other half (vital processes subserving decoding). There should never have been a divide between these halves. Rather, the time ensuring that the decoding processes are linked to each other and to semantic, syntactic, morphological, and affective processes should be the foci of early teaching. We should eschew labels like balanced literacy, which unfortunately has become a recipe for cherry picking processes, rather than systematically addressing all parts of the reading circuit till fluent comprehension is reached. The science of reading itself has become cherry-picked by those who would offer a "patch", rather than a comprehensive and systematic approach to the teaching of reading. In reading as in other areas of politics, fear of what is considered "other" causes deep mistakes in our teaching. The unconscionable failures of two-thirds of our nation's children is fueled by well-meaning teachers who remain uninformed by the research. If everyone would understand that decoding processes are essential for meaning and meaning-related processes are essential for fluent decoding, we would begin to rescue increasing numbers of our struggling readers. Godspeed to you all for your work! Prof. Maryanne Wolf.

I am heartened to read your blog, Margaret. I too hope that Lucy Calkins and other educators who reach a wide audience will express their support for and understanding of the need for systematic phonics instruction.

Bravo! Although I am no longer teaching I whole heartedly agree with your comments. You speak for a host of teachers still
In the classroom looking for help! Thank you

Reading is a meaning making activity. Without teaching students to use meaning when they are decoding, you are simply teaching them to become word callers. Instead of attacking MSV, why not focus on an integrated approach where students use the skills that they learn in phonics instruction in tandem with meaning based cues.

You are confusing language processing with decoding. These are two distinct parts of the brain. Context/meaning is important to understand what you have read AFTER you decode the words, not before. Your comment exemplifies one of the biggest misconceptions in the balanced literacy monopoly on reading education.

How can you miss the point so profoundly? The moment you teach cueing, all else fails. You teach a child to guess and to use the techniques of unskilled readers. Ask my dyslexic husband how challenging that feels... he is an expert in MSV, but can't sound anything out! My son's school applied MSV for 3 years and he never learned to read, despite a literacy-rich home. The moment we stopped the "balance" and switched to intense phonemic awareness practice, he learned to read. Unless you've sat, night after night with a profound dyslexic, comparing the 2 methods for 5 years, start listening -- and stop cheating our children of the right to read with your MSV nonsence.

I agree with this article so much! I left Kindergarten after 20 years because our district adopted Lucy Reading and Writing. I am now teaching Middle Schoolers who are struggling to read!

You will not find the use of the word "guess" in the prompts for strategic action in Fountas and Pinnell resources. It is inappropriate to lump together the different approaches to what many refer to as "balanced literacy". In my own experience, I have found that it is critical to always take things back to Marie Clay's research and that is one reason why I feel so passionate about the work of Fountas and Pinnell and Linda Dorn, as their original and subsequent work is all rooted in Clay's research and how to adapt this for small and large group literacy instruction. The "Guess the Covered Word" activity to which you have made multiple references came from Cunningham's work to create a large group lesson for using a variety of strategies in Shared Reading, with a focus on utilizing the visual cues of the text in light of the meaning of the sentence. Regardless of what you have now come to "believe" or think about how literacy skills are acquired, this is how good readers read- they are always thinking about the meaning as they simultaneously utilize the visual cues or "decoding" as you prefer to call it. If we could all calm down and understand that none of what happens in the reading process happens in isolation, we might be able to serve the needs of the learners in our classrooms. It sure isn't going to happen if we continue to spout unproductive rhetoric at each other, ignoring the fact that there is likely value in all these paradigms, but as you said to Calkins, we have to be willing to work together. Which by the way is pretty much what she said, she just asked that we look at what the focus on phonics centered programs used during the Reading First initiative accomplished & that it obviously did not work for developing readers that comprehended or enjoyed reading, even if they did learn to "decode". To read is to make meaning of a message intended by the writer, that requires more than decoding and comprehension can not be an afterthought, taught following decoding. It must occur simultaneously.

Our mind should be alert when we are reading and the guess/ prediction is then followed with checking the whole word which was not highlighted. Only guess was.

Thank you for the best response I have heard to these arguments to date. Let's not make this a polarizing one or the other. I do agree that the "balanced literacy" or "cueing approach" does not seem to be working for our Nation's reading scores, but throwing it out completely is a grave mistake. Reading First exclusively phonic based program was not successful either. There needs to be a blend.

Couldn't have said it better myself! Except to say...... just admit we were doing it incorrectly and we all need to fix it and admit our mistakes! And who better than a highly listened to and respected person in our field than Lucy! We can't continue to hold onto these unsuccessful practices over pride. Time to do what's best for kids. Teachers should be doing the teaching. The kids shouldn't spend the day teaching themselves. It isn't working.

I appreciate both Lucy's initial commentary and the follow up post here. I like to think this is the exact type of discourse we might want on this topic online.

I wish more people would read and heed your commentary here, Margaret. Coming from someone who shares the same sentiments as you, I couldn't agree more. Thank you for this.

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