Seven Literacy Experts Express Concerns About Teachers College Units of Study

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Volume 9, Issue 1
February 2020

By Nancy Cushen White

by Marilyn Jager Adams, Lily Wong Fillmore, Claude Oldenberg, Jane Oakhill, David D. Paige, Timothy Rasinsksi, and Timothy Shanahan

In January 2020, Student Achievement Partners asked seven highly respected literacy experts, known for their “familiarity with the latest research on literacy instruction and deep understanding of how research translates into practice,” to review Units of Study. Units of Study is a balanced literacy/workshop, elementary English Language Arts model widely used in public schools, charter schools, independent schools, and parochial schools throughout the United States.

  • “Each expert assessed the program for inclusion of critical components of literacy instruction and shared a perspective on how well the relevant research base is reflected in the program’s elements. The areas of inquiry selected all have a robust evidence base demonstrating their efficacy in reading and language development. ”David Paige and Timothy Rasinski: sufficiency of foundational skills instruction—print concepts, phonological awareness, alphabetic knowledge, systematic phonics, and reading fluency.
  • Timothy Shanahan and Lily Wong Fillmore: extent of regular opportunities to read complex text and develop academic language.
  • Marilyn Jager Adams and Jane Oakhill: attention to building vocabulary and knowledge about the world.
  • Claude Goldenberg: adequacy of supports for English learners.

Literacy experts began their summaries with complimentary observations: 

  • “Beautifully crafted”
  • “Organized above all on the value of loving to read and the encouragement of reading and writing as lifelong habits, both laudable and vital ambitions.”
  • “Lessons and front matter that are charming, elegant, and highly respectful of teachers.”  
  • “Children who arrive at school already reading or primed to read, researchers agreed, may integrate seamlessly into the routines of the Units of Study model and maintain a successful reading trajectory.”

However, literacy experts consistently expressed grave concerns: 

  • “Following the course of Units of Study would be unlikely to lead to literacy success for all of America’s public school children, given the research.”
  • “Many activities designed to practice deepening reading ability were designated as optional, as was text selection itself.”
  • “The ‘make your own adventure’ design left reviewers skeptical that crucial aspects of reading acquisition would get the time and attention required to enable all students to become secure in their reading ability.”
  • Practice opportunities are almost always optional [emphasis added]. For example, as pointed out in multiple places by the reviewers, the lack of common experience with text once the teacher modeling is complete, and the fact that focused practice isn’t baked in regularly, mean there are constantly missed opportunities to build new vocabulary and knowledge about the world or learn about how written English works.”
  • “The impact is most severe for children who do not come to school already possessing what they need to know to make sense of written and academic English—these students are not likely to get what they need from Units of Study to read, write, speak, and listen at grade level.”
  • “Units of Study fail to systematically and concretely guide teachers to provide English learners (ELs) the supports they need to attain high levels of literacy development.”
  • “Frequently recommends use of SMV (structure/meaning/visual system—known more widely as the three cueing system)—which is in direct opposition to an enormous body of settled research;”
  • “Insufficient guidance . . . regarding how to use the results of assessments to inform instruction.”

Student Achievement Partners, which commissioned the study, has launched a new initiative to analyze widely used instructional programs in order “to make transparent the research-based practices that should be evident in literacy programs and in play in classrooms, particularly to accelerate students who are not reading at grade level.” Student Achievement Partners is especially concerned with “accelerating academic progress for students who face barriers of racism or poverty.”

Want to learn more? Click here for the Student Achievement Partners report

Listen to the latest episode of the Educate podcast to hear these reviewers talk about the report’s findings in an interview with APM Reporter Emily Hanford:

Nancy Cushen White, Ed.D., CALT-QI, BCET is a Clinical Professor, Dept of Pediatrics-Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine, at the University of CA-San Francisco (UCSF). Over the past 40+ years, she has taught students in general/SPED classrooms at public/private schools, provided psycho-educational assessment and literacy intervention, trained pre-/in-service teachers and practitioners, developed curricula, and been involved in policy (e.g., AB 1369 Dyslexia Guidelines Work Group—CA Dept of Education). She piloted a San Francisco Unified School District special day class for 2e—Twice Exceptional students who were gifted with a diagnosis of dyslexia; has taught literacy skills to young adults in a pre-trial diversion program through San Francisco Superior Court—Mentor Court Division; and has worked as a Literacy Intervention Consultant and Case Manager for Lexicon Reading Center—Dubai—United Arab Emirates. She is a certified Instructor of Teaching for the Slingerland Multisensory (Multimodal) Structured Language Approach (Structured Literacy). Certified by IDA as a Structured Literacy Dyslexia Specialist, she is a past IDA board member, currently represents IDA on the National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities (NJCLD), serves as the editor of IDA’s Examiner, and is a member of the advisory board for the Northern California Branch of IDA. 

Copyright © 2020 International Dyslexia Association (IDA). Opinions expressed in the Examiner and/or via links do not necessarily reflect those of IDA.

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