River Forest’s public elementary school district is wending its way through a thicket of upset and debate over its longtime reading curriculum. The high-performing school district is far from alone in absorbing pushback over its foundational “Units of Study” reading curriculum. That program, developed by Lucy Calkins, a professor out of Columbia University, swept the nation’s schools with an approach to teaching reading that was based on natural curiosity and, most particularly, not on phonics.

Recent research has called that approach into serious doubt with yet another educational pendulum swing back toward diphthongs and other sequencing of sounds and letters as part of a “science of reading” approach.

This debate has been percolating in River Forest for at least the past couple of years. It culminated last spring in the election of three new members to the District 90 school board who campaigned largely on the issue of the reading curriculum.

Board and administrative leaders have defended the district’s approach, saying they have long used a blend of teaching approaches in reading, based on the learning styles of specific children. At the same time, the district has accelerated a full-on review of its reading curriculum, tackling the topic with a Literacy Committee, formed in September. A full report from that group is expected before the end of this year.

Stacey Williams, school board president, cautions that significant changes in the reading curriculum will take time to decide, to test and to implement. But it seems clear change is coming.

As it has for well over a decade, the district has reiterated that notable changes in the reading curriculum will respect the district’s focus on equity and will ensure that any reading materials adopted by the district will reflect the diversity of its student body.

That’s important. As is the wider discussion on the reading curriculum.

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