Lucy McCormick Calkins has been called the Moses of reading and writing education in the United States. Over three decades, she has taught her methods to hundreds of thousands of teachers -- pioneering workshops in schools, as well as blocks of class time devoted to students doing their own writing and independent reading.

Calkins founded and directs the Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University's Teachers College, which is building a knowledge base about literacy and providing professional development. In the past year, she has trained teachers in most of New York City's elementary schools as part of a literacy effort with heavy emphasis on professional development.

Staff writer Valerie Strauss spoke with Calkins, who will be training teachers soon in the D.C. public schools.

Q Making sure that young children can read and write has become something of a national obsession. We hear many politicians and educators say there is a crisis around this issue. Is there?

A There certainly is a perceived crisis. I don't think that the evidence is there that kids are reading and writing less well than they used to, but we know in today's world a higher level of literacy skills is required. And clearly, this perceived crisis is having consequences. The consequences are both troublesome and important. The troubles are increased anxiety, increased time on test prep, increased surveillance of everything by state legislators and state departments of education and the federal Department of Education.

There is a tendency to reach for quick-fix programs, to script teachers' every move, to systematize everything. But the perceived crisis has also led to new and long-overdue attention to the issue of unequal access to educational opportunities and to the disparity of performance between kids at high-poverty schools [and] high-income schools.

You have seen the country go back and forth in what is known as "the reading wars," essentially a struggle over whether phonics (by which children are taught how to decode language) or whole language (which concentrates on reading for meaning) should rule instruction. Where are we now? Is one approach better?

Classroom teachers have always known that we need phonics and we need comprehension. We need to put the best of children's literature in the hands of kids, and we also need to teach them the strategies of phonics. I'm sure the battle is not over. I think it was overstated by the media, though extreme versions probably did exist on both sides. Now I think that people's practices for reading have come a little more to the center.

Doesn't President Bush's Reading First initiative stress phonics over comprehension and other kinds of instruction?

Yes.

What do you think are the limits of a strictly phonics approach?

Kids need to understand what literacy is for. The most important thing first is to help them fall in love with books, become accustomed to following and creating in their minds a story. We need them to understand that the pages of a story go together and create a drama in your mind. We want them to reach for books and carry books with them and value books. That doesn't happen if you only teach phonics. . . . Phonics is important. But standardized tests are more and more challenging. Kids can't excel in them if all they get is phonics. They need to be able to do a lot of high-level literacy.

Is there an age at which children should know how to read?

I wish that we lived in a world where kids could come to reading in their own time. But that's not the world that I see. I think that a lot of schools start classifying and labeling and categorizing kids by the end of first grade. And therefore, I'd encourage parents to be activist on behalf of their kids from a very early age.

Do you have a favorite kid's book for early readers?

I think the "Frog and Toad" books [by Arnold Lobel] are fantastic.

Does it matter if kids are reading fiction or nonfiction?

The most important thing is that kids are reading what they love to read. I think it is great that they read fiction and nonfiction. Both are valuable, but they develop different muscles. When you are reading fiction, you are building the world of a story in your mind. It is almost a drama. You are acting it out. Nonfiction can be narrative, too. But with non-narrative nonfiction, you are constructing a knowledge base, almost like putting a machine in your mind, putting the parts together, building a diagram, rather than a movie. It's a different mental process. Kids need both.

Are there differences between what boys and girls read?

We know boys often choose to read nonfiction and girls choose to read fiction, and schools don't support enough nonfiction reading. If that's going to be your son's entrance ramp into reading, give it to them. . . . There is a widespread recognition that girls grow up loving to read more than boys. It is exacerbated by teachers, who are mostly women. The women are choosing the books the children read. That tends to be realistic fiction. Libraries are filled with "Junie B. Jones" [by Barbara Park]. . . . Parents need to read to boys. They go out and play sports with boys but don't read to them. They need to read in front of their boys, and to their boys. And they've got to find books boys love. The "Captain Underpants" books [by Dav Pilkey] are great.

And what about girls who want to read all 108 books in a series that a parent thinks is lousy?

Series books provide a lot of support -- the same characters, the same setting. You don't have to build a whole new world each time. You can build habits of a discerning reader with series books, notice a brand-new character or predict what will happen based on knowledge of a character's personality. There is also a social dynamic around them. Your friends are reading them, you are trading them. Series books can help develop a lot of habits of good reading, even if the parent doesn't like them.

How has your work changed over the years?

I used to work with individual teachers who would leave their schools and come for professional development. . . . But more and more we are working with whole schools and whole districts and whole regions. That is a very important change. The research is clear that kids profit from having consistency, when the approach they receive in first grade is the same as in second grade. I think that, ultimately, the only way teachers will receive enough professional development is if we start creating schools where professional development is part of the everydayness of what teachers do. . . . You can have all the programs in the world, but the good teacher is what makes the difference.

"The most important thing is that kids are reading what they love to read," says Lucy McCormick Calkins of Columbia University's Teachers College.