As I alluded to my previous post, the U. Wisconsin-Madison cognitive psychologist and reading specialist Mark Seidenberg has posted a rebuttal to Lucy Calkins’s manifesto “No One Gets to Own the Term ‘Science of Reading’” on his blog. For anyone interested in understanding the most recent front in the reading wars, I strongly recommend both pieces.

What I’d like to focus on here, however, are the ways in which Calkins’s discussion of phonics reveal a startlingly compromised understanding of the subject for someone of her influence and stature.

In recent years, and largely—as Seidenberg explains—in response to threats to her personal reading-instruction empire, Calkins has insisted that she really believes in the importance of systematic phonics, a claim that comes off as somewhat dubious given the obvious emphasis she places on alternate decoding methods, e.g., covering up letters, using context clues, etc. (Claude Goldenberg, the emeritus Stanford Ed School professor who helped author the recent report on Units of Study, also does a good job of showing how Calkins attempts to play to both sides of the reading debate while clearly holding tight to three-cueing methods.)

That’s obviously a problem, but I think the real question is even more fundamental: not just whether Calkins truly supports the teaching of phonics, but whether she understands what phonics is.

Some of this post is a bit more technical than I would have liked, and I’ve tried to keep it as straightforward as possible; however, in order to really explain the extent of the misunderstandings Calkins displays, I could only simplify things to a certain point. So please bear with me because this is very important.

Here goes.

While discussing Calkins’s embrace of discredited three-cueing methods, Seidenberg cites the following passage from one of her books:

The English language is not phonemically regular; an overreliance on phonics is a common trademark of poor spellers and word solvers [readers]. Phonetic spellers may spell action as aksion and always and allways.”

The first time I read this bit, I didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary, but then I happened to look at it again, and I realized something in the first example seemed… off. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it at first, but instinctively, it did not feel like a substitution that someone who understood struggling phonetic readers or spellers would cite.

It took me a while to tease out all the different levels of the problem, but I think I’ve gotten the major ones.

First, knowledge of the -SION ending indicates a fairly sophisticated understanding of written English, and so it probably would not even occur to a weak speller to use it—particularly a child. The ending -SION is also associated with abstract language (e.g., “confusion,” “derision,” “allusion”), which children, being largely concrete thinkers, do not normally use.

For confirmation, I read through some samples of children’s writing on the Reading Rockets website and did not find one word ending in -SION (or, for that matter, -TION). Unsurprisingly, the only abstract nouns were words like “fun.”

The next major problem, which is really the crux of the issue, is that -SION, like -TION, is not pronounced phonetically. The first three letters drop their usual sounds and are transformed together into a new one. A person adhering strictly to phonetic rules would, however, represent the sound much more literally and write something like “ackshun” or “akshun,” or even “ackshin.” By definition, phonetic spellers do not swap one non-phonetic ending for another non-phonetic ending!

Now, replacing the “t” with an “s” does get you a little closer to the right pronunciation (“ack-see-on” vs. “ack-tee-on”), but it doesn’t actually get you the key “sh” sound.” It’s the sort of semi-guessing error that would be made by a person who had some sense of sound-letter correspondences but who was going primarily by visual memorization. A phonetic speller would not come up with the “s” alone, as opposed to the much more logical “s-h” blend.

As for the -ION part, it’s unclear how someone spelling phonetically could get the sound “un” from a sequence of letters literally pronounced “ee-on” or “eye-on.”

So the misspelling Calkins cites not only fails to demonstrate how an overly phonetic approach can lead to errors, but it is not even an example of a phonetic error.

A subtler but no less serious problem is that -SION is not usually pronounced “shun” but rather “zhun” (as in “confusion,” “allusion,” “revision,” “illusion”). The two sounds are similar, but most definitely not the same. So for that reason as well, -SION is not an ending someone would intuitively reach for, unless they heard the word pronounced as “ak-zhun.” Granted that’s not impossible, but it’s a big stretch. And again, -SION isn’t pronounced phonetically, so this is not even a substitution a phonetic speller would make.

Furthermore, if someone wrote -SION because they could not hear the difference between “shun” and “zhun,” the problem would not really lie with spelling but with identifying sounds (in technical terms, phonemic awareness). The spelling problem would result from the sound-identification problem, NOT from an overly phonetic approach to spelling.

Yes, there are instances in which -SION is pronounced the same as -TION (when it follows an “n,” as in “mansion,” “pension,” “extension,” an alternate pattern that perhaps Calkins was thinking of), but that is, well, an alternate pattern that does not apply in the case Calkins cites. The very ambiguity of -SION makes it an exceptionally poor choice for illustrating a straightforward phonetic misspelling.

The fact that Calkins does not seem to have realized that -TION and -SION aren’t necessarily interchangeable—in addition to the fact that she selected the version NOT usually pronounced “shun”—also calls her own ability to distinguish between similar sounds into question. This is a major problem because the ability able to differentiate between close sounds and then associate each one with a different letter or set of letters is a big part of what phonics is all about.

Given the plethora of straightforward, easy-to-think-of examples of phonetic misspellings (off the top of my head: “ellifunt” for “elephant”; “brite” for “bright”; “grate” for “great”), it is actually quite astounding that Calkins chose to illustrate her point the way she did. In fact, it is almost impossible to come up with an example this poor by accident, and the fact that she did so implies a really deep level of misunderstanding.

The fact that the example feels so wrong on an intuitive level is also telling: it’s something that only an adult unaccustomed to thinking phonetically, or to working with children who are learning to think phonetically, would come up with.

Another thing Calkins does not seem to realize: somewhat counterintuitively, kids who are great phonetic spellers in the early grades tend to turn into great real spellers later on. The same ability to rapidly absorb sound-spelling correspondences when they’re young generally translates into an ability to rapidly assimilate exceptions as they progress, especially if they read a lot (as strong phonetic decoders are more likely to do) and continue to have their language skills systematically developed.

For instance, a student who learns that “action” is the noun form of the verb “to act” is unlikely to ever omit the “t” from that word again. The phonetic understanding serves as the scaffolding for the later, more sophisticated concepts, allowing them to build more nuanced understandings without losing the foundation.

In contrast, kids who don’t get a good phonetic foundation are more likely to struggle to spell. They can memorize what a certain number of common words look like, but after that they have to guess. They have some idea of the connection between letters and sounds, but not enough to consistently apply rules to the 85% of English that is reasonably regular (50% phonetic, another 35% with only one non-phonetic vowel sound). As a result, their spelling errors tend to be much more illogical (like, say, writing “aksion” instead of “action”) and their understanding of written language weaker.

For an illustration of what I mean, go to the Reading Rockets third grade writing samples, and compare Sample #4 to Sample #2. The writer of the former makes some typical phonetic errors (“too” for “two”; “iland” for “island”; “groand” for “groaned”) but generally has good control over her language and is clearly on the right track.

In contrast, sample #2 contains wild and illogical misspellings (“wongr” for “wrong”; “sasy” for “says”; “thruth” for “truth”) that suggest the writer learned to read by memorizing what words looked like, without fully understanding the relationship between the order of the letters and the sounds the words make. Although she expresses herself with gusto, the pattern of her misspellings sends a real danger signal, and her understanding of the conventions of written English is much less sophisticated.

If you want adult examples of phonetic misspellings, go read some letters written in the eighteenth century, when people not infrequently learned to read and write just well enough to spell by sound before stopping their formal education.

The students who do misspell phonetically these days are usually ones who have been encouraged to use inventive spelling which, despite its crunchy, progressive-sounding name, is actually an incredibly important technical step for children learning to think systematically approach a language that is about 15% significantly non-phonetic. You need to spend some time practicing and internalizing the patterns that do exist before you start to seriously cover the exceptions. Good teachers understand that it’s a necessary stage, albeit a temporary one, and don’t let it go on for too long.

And for what it’s worth, in all my time tutoring I never encountered a single student who misspelled words because of an excessive reliance on phonics, whereas I did repeatedly encounter students who froze or guessed whenever they saw an unfamiliar word because they had no idea how to sound it out, or even that it could be sounded out. (The whole “it’s easy to use context clues” thing has a tendency to break down when texts as advanced as those on the old SAT are involved.) I actually didn’t see all that many spelling errors in my students’ hand-written work, but that was generally because their vocabularies were not particularly expansive, and they tended to stick to words whose spellings they knew.

But to return to my original point, a real reading expert would, by definition, not demonstrate the kinds of misconceptions that Calkins exhibits. Although they are somewhat technical, they are not nitpicky little points. On the contrary, they are huge, major errors, totally unacceptable for the head of a reading program who holds an named chair at an Ivy League university and has her work used in thousands of classrooms across the country. But they certainly do help explain why the conversation surrounding phonics so often devolves into nonsense.

I do acknowledge that I am basing my assessment of Calkins’s work primarily on one example from one book, plucked more or less by chance. (Although, for the record, the internet is filled with people accusing her of educational malpractice; there’s even a teacher’s group in the Bronx calling for her arrest.) However, there are such things as canary-in-the-coal mine statements that offer remarkably accurate insight into someone’s true level of knowledge. In some cases, they reveal almost instantaneously whether someone knows their stuff or is just faking. It’s also true that if you just sit back and let people talk (or write), they’ll usually show you who they are pretty quickly.

And in this case, Calkins reveals exactly what she doesn’t know in just a few words. The misunderstandings are so fundamental and so egregious that they pretty much say it all: this is someone who has no absolutely no business teaching little kids to read. The question is who will pay attention, and what they’ll do about it.