Two days ago Natalie Wexler released the following article: https://www.forbes.com/sites/nataliewexler/2021/11/21/problems-with-lucy-calkins-curriculum-go-beyond-reading-to-writing/?fbclid=IwAR0SosUpddd9HqaLW6Gv9lW-bysOzOjc8cgYHmoVR0CLqSkmrLmSbej5bKA&sh=56d0840550c9, and as it is with most things she writes, I was moved by the no holds barred approach to discussing Lucy Calkins’ Writing Workshop for children.
I think most people know by this time that I’m not a fan of anything balanced literacy, much less the deeply harmful curriculums that adhere to the tenants of such a misguided teaching pedagogy. This one spoke to me though because my son is not just dyslexic, he is dysgraphic.
For years the science and data of reading was before me to drink in and use to help him learn how to read, but my questions on dysgraphia were met with mostly silence, and my ability to learn about what dysgraphia meant was not an easily discoverable path. Naively I thought, at least for my son, that he just had messy handwriting, and I also hoped that his dyslexia remediation would address his need to generate written output, but in the defense of the purveyors of the curriculums we used to remediate our son’s dyslexia, those are purely for reading instruction, not written expression, and I did not know to ask about how or if writing was taught.
The issue, at least for me, is that I do not possess any learning challenges, and writing, like reading, came so easily. I always wanted to be a writer, and my paternal grandmother was a teacher who encouraged my writing. I remember she used to send me these “books” that had pretty covers and had a starter sentence with the idea that I would create a story, and create I did. Naturally I do not have any of these anymore, but I do remember loving them.
Further, she was happy when I decided to declare English with a specialization in Creative Writing as my major in college, but my father, the one paying my tuition, was less than pleased. Grandmother and I didn’t have a great relationship, but I found I could discuss books with her, and she would race out, buy and read every book I told her I was reading, then she’d call me to talk about them, probably grateful to have something I was actually willing to discuss with her. She liked reading the stories I created in college and tried so hard to get Reader’s Digest to publish one particular piece I wrote about my grandfather’s house.
My point in sharing this is until high school, I do not remember actually learning how to write, but I know for a fact that I was taught. I do recall sentence diagramming in elementary, and I had a grammar Nazi for an 8th grade teacher who I have profound respect as she was adamant that we all master grammar. Grammar wasn’t easy for me, which you can tell if you read my writing (lol!), but I respected what she was trying to impart. High school was different though. Half way through my sophomore year we moved to Atlanta. I had a teacher who tortured me with the five paragraph closed essay. It was one of the hardest writing forms for me to master, but master it I did. In fact, I mastered it so well that when we moved back to Texas a year later, I was accused of cheating by my junior year English teacher and the school principals. To prove to them I wasn’t cheating, I asked for paper, pen and topic, which they provided, and I wrote a five paragraph closed essay right in front of them. They read it while I sat there, and after asking who on Earth taught me how to write that kind of paper, told me I could return to class.
My next great writing leap happened in college. I was not comfortable writing papers where I essentially took a stand on an issue within the class, then defended my position. A wonderful and generous TA worked with me an entire semester, pushing me, encouraging me, helping me, until one day I finally delivered exactly what was needed to thrive in the English program.
All told, those are my only memories of being taught to write; yet, because I do not recall, I did not have the knowledge that it must in fact be taught, and explicitly so; however, because of Lucy Calkins’ ideas about how to teach writing, my son has never had explicit instruction on how to write.
Now, let’s talk about dysgraphia.
“I think dysgraphia is an accurate diagnosis. I believe in the term of course, but it’s a catchall for a number of different things, so I think that one of the things that parents would need to do first is to get some accurate information about exactly how the dysgraphia is manifesting itself in their son or daughter, or sons or daughters depending on the situation. So, I have seen students with dysgraphia who have absolutely no spelling issues whatsoever. It is just sort of a language brain to hand difficulty with letter formation. I have seen dysgraphic students who can’t spell “cat.” I have seen dysgraphic students whose spelling is good, but their ability to generate ideas and get that out onto paper is difficult. So, what they do write really isn’t effective, but the output isn’t what you would expect from a student that age. I have also seen students whose dysgraphia manifests itself as relatively rapid writing, so at first blush it doesn’t really look like there’s an issue, but that rapid writing is also relatively illegible and tends to wander and not with the focus that you would expect from a student that age. So, you often see dysgraphia comorbid with dyslexia, but somethings you don’t. There are students with dysgraphia who have no dyslexia at all. There are lots of students with dyslexia, with no dysgraphia at all. Dysgraphia isn’t a super common diagnosis.
And then I think there’s another group. There’s another group who have been diagnosed with dysgraphia who are really caught by poor handwriting instruction, ineffective instruction, and I wouldn’t call those students dysgraphic at all. I would say that with the proper remediation, dysgraphia sort of erases itself. I had a student who was testing as dysgraphic who turns out was poorly taught and with the correct instruction, more targeted instruction, really that isn’t an issue anymore; so, I think your first step in this process is to figure out how dysgraphia is manifesting itself, what are the specific attributes in that child, because you can’t target remediation until you know exactly what you’re remediating basically.”
-William Van Cleave from his interview on Dyslexia Coffee Talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e-uFJkWusWM
So, again, written expression must be explicitly taught, and to be clear, this includes handwriting (manuscript and cursive), grammar and syntax, and they must be taught in parallel with teaching a child to read because the ability to write aids in reading comprehension. Case in point: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11145-021-10224-8?fbclid=IwAR0EZwa6RZgUCKswr-P7zacERYJMOvZIKFMG1yZ22Eg3SuHdBWRnOQYE1Lk.
The sad facts are this is not occurring, and more than our dyslexic and / or dysgraphic children are the ones paying the price for this lack of instruction. Also, the failure to understand that dysgraphia is more than messy handwriting is completely lost on almost everyone. We collectively need to embrace the knowledge that a child can be struggling with getting their ideas out of their head and onto paper as well. I wrote a piece on what dysgraphia is here: https://www.thedyslexiainitiative.org/post/what-does-dysgraphia-mean.
My issue, and what I intend to share here, are the lengths some schools will go to in order to hide the deficiencies of the child. I’m at a place in my life where I no longer think things were hidden in order to be deceptive per se, but in order to keep “encouraging” the child, though one can call this approach the very definition of toxic positivity. It may be well meaning, but the damage is overwhelming as the child slips further and further behind.
This was a book “published” by my son’s school for the families of their first grade class.
What I can share with you is this was approximately 1st grade, 7th month. Fun fact, that’s my son’s current written expression level, and he’s in 7th grade. This product here was “written,” meaning written out by his teacher then carefully re-written onto the paper needed for the book by my son who clearly paid extra special attention to his handwriting. By removing the angst of having to think about anything more than the shape of the letters on the page, his anxiety over this assignment, while still high while he concentrated on something he profoundly struggled with, would have been lower than normal, because to quote him, “First I have to think about what I want to write; then I have to think about how to spell it; then I have to think about my handwriting so by the time I actually write I’m exhausted and just want it over with.”
The facts are my son was incapable at the time of generating the above. He could verbally tell the story, but he didn’t write this onto paper. It wasn’t possible, and I know this because right after this book published we found out he thought the alphabet was just a song, and he had no idea that the shapes had sounds that correlated to what he was seeing on the pages of the books he was being forced to “read” every night. Also, a 1st grader, at this point in the year as well, should have better handwriting, assuming that handwriting instruction is actually being taught, but again it wasn’t. What was being taught that year and every year since was Lucy Calkins’ Writing Workshop.
Now, at almost 13 years old, we, meaning he and I together, are working on the very basics of written expression. I am diving into how to teach him the proper sentence construction, then we will move to paragraph construction, and using the idea of writing about the topics we are learning, at the same time will teach him history, because that’s also not being taught thanks to the misguided approach of balanced literacy. Instead we will work on writing papers in every form through content instruction per the guidance of Judith Hochman. I am doing this because no one else seems to know how. This English major who was not the best grammar student, is diving into all the things that have to do with writing, in order to help my dysgraphic son who also wants to be a writer.
I think of all the time, energy, and consternation that we could all be spared if written expression were just a core part of the educational doctrine within our schools, not the idea that all children are born writers and if you set a child free to write about their personal experiences that you somehow magically impart the construct of what writing is; yet, that is not the case as Lucy runs amuck within our schools with her deeply and profoundly misguided approach.
We collectively have a lot of work to do. Spread the message to your schools, school boards, and state education agencies that written expression, just like reading, is critical, must be taught explicitly, at the same time as reading, which also needs to adhere to Structured Literacy guidelines.
Our children deserve nothing less.