Saturday, July 5, 2014

Balanced Literacy Defined

The New York Times Room for Debate column recently focused on something near and dear to my heart: literacy education, more specifically, balanced literacy:  The Right Approach to Reading Instruction.

After reading all of the opinions, I was struck by one thing in particular.  I question if there is an actual consensus to what balanced literacy actually is.  One of the contributors stated that, "By discouraging direct instruction and emphasizing group work, balanced literacy limits the classroom’s intellectual and
Students writing & talking
together to find meaning.
creative possibilities."  
This struck me as odd for a few reasons.  First, a balanced literacy classroom includes both direct instruction and group work.  In addition, it includes a great deal of independent work, specifically in authentic reading and writing.  Second, group work does not limit a classroom's intellectual and creative possibilities!  Quite the opposite, in fact.  I question if the contributor who stated this was ever a full-time K-12 classroom teacher.  This opinion may confuse some who do not exactly know that balanced literacy is.  

Another contributor in the debate stated that, "Balanced literacy is a starting point but it does not sufficiently meet the diverse needs of children alone."  I respectfully disagree with this notion as well.  The point of a well thought out balanced literacy program is to meet the diverse needs of every child.  In the balanced literacy classroom, if something isn't working for a child, the teacher will change it.  In fact, the teacher will keep changing the method until the right one is found.  Balanced literacy encourages and requires a teacher's ability to constantly assess whether or not students are learning.  True balanced literacy classrooms also give teachers freedom in professional decision making.  It is not a one size fits all program.  

Let's focus on actually defining balanced literacy.  From what I can tell, this model is completely misunderstood! 

First and foremost:  In the balanced literacy elementary classroom, teachers use frequent assessment to guide instruction.  Due to this, no two classrooms should ever look or sound exactly the same.  However, in a school where balanced literacy is used, teachers should be encouraged to talk and collaborate and to learn with and from each other.  Kids are different, so good instruction is also different.  A one size program, method, book, or idea does not fit all learners in the balanced literacy classroom (or in any classroom, actually).  Rather, instruction should be continually changed, questioned, assessed, and differentiated for all learners.

Now for the main components of what is actually included in an elementary balanced literacy classroom: independent reading, read aloud, small group reading, whole group reading, writing workshop, reading/writing across the curriculum, and word study.  Also, students study, learn, read, and write both fiction and nonfiction.  One is not more important than the other.  Both are highly valued for different reasons.

Independent Reading
In the elementary balanced literacy classroom, students independently read often.  They
Independent Reading Time
select their own books (with guidance from the teacher if needed), and engage in uninterrupted reading time each and every day.  For me, this is the most important component of the balanced literacy classroom.  It was my one daily nonnegotiable in my own classroom.  Much of the time, independent reading takes place during the reading workshop.  In the reading workshop, a teacher gives a short lesson on some type of reading skill or strategy- often focusing on comprehension, fluency, or decoding.  Students then have the opportunity to practice the skill during independent reading time.

Read Aloud
Read aloud was my favorite time of day as a classroom teacher.  I loved sharing wonderful novels with my fifth graders.  During this time, students either just listened, followed along in a copy of the book (I always made this optional), jotted notes, thought, and talked with each other about the book.  At times, students would also write and respond to each other about the book. Some of our best classroom discussions were sparked from our read alouds. Reading aloud picture books for many different purposes is also used quite a bit in the balanced literacy classroom.

Reading with Small Groups
This will look a little different in every classroom.  When I taught second and third grade, I implemented guided reading lessons daily that focused on specific skills and strategies that students needed.  In fifth grade, books clubs and reading interest groups were more common, but some guided reading still took place.  Small group shared or interactive reading, and close reading mini lessons may also frequently take place in a balanced literacy classroom.   Teachers base their decisions of which methods to use on their students' particular needs.  For example, on any given day, one group may need a close reading lesson while another group just needs uninterrupted time to read and talk in their book club.  
Small group book club meeting

Reading with The Whole Group
Again, based on students' needs, this will look a little different in every classroom.  This could take the form of read aloud in addition to many other instructional methods.  Close, shared, and interactive reading with the whole group will also commonly be found in the balanced literacy classroom.  The instruction may also take the form of direct instruction from the teacher and students thinking, jotting, and turning and talking with each other.  One thing that should not be found with the whole group (or small group even) is round robin reading.  This is a dated practice where all students have the same book and take turns reading aloud.  This practice not only doesn't teach reading, but it also fosters an unsafe environment where reading becomes scary for many students.  Russ Walsh wrote an aptly titled blog post on round robin reading and its problems last year.  

Writing Workshop
The writing workshop is a critical part of any balanced literacy classroom.  In
One student sharing her writing at
 the end of the writing workshop
the writing workshop, students receive a mini lesson focusing on a skill, author's craft, or another aspect of writing.  Much of the instruction is done through the teacher's own writing being modeled for students.  After the mini lesson, students go off to write and confer with each other and the teacher.  The writing workshop ends with a short sharing time.  Across the span of an entire school year, students may write nonfiction research essays, memoirs, narrative pieces, opinion pieces, persuasive pieces, fictional stories, poetry, and much more.  There really is no limit to what students write in the workshop.  The key component in writing workshop is to continually look at students' writing.  In the balanced literacy classroom, teachers use student writing to guide instruction to the whole group, small groups, and individually.  The Two Writing Teachers blog is a great place to learn more about the components of the writing workshop. 

Reading and Writing Across the Curriculum
Another main component of the elementary balanced literacy classroom is that reading and writing are taught not only as their own disciplines, but also across the entire school day.  Students need to be able to research, provide evidence, form opinions, and write about topics across the whole curriculum.  Reading and writing should always be present in math, science, social studies, and even in the arts!  I wrote about literacy across the curriculum in my own classroom last year:  Literacy Across the Entire Curriculum.

Word Study
Word study refers to spelling, phonics, vocabulary, patterns, syllabication, and everything else having to do with word-based skills.  A good word study program will look different in every classroom.  It's all based on students' particular needs.  Do you see a pattern with my explanations? With balanced literacy, it's always about the students' needs, not a particular program.  

Due to the variety, richness, and ever-changing nature of the balanced literacy classroom, I am sure I left a few things out.  As you can probably infer, truly defining balanced literacy is not easy.

A well-stocked classroom library that celebrates
 reading and writing  is the cornerstone of all
balanced literacy classrooms.  The library will
 look different in every classroom.  
Now, with all this being defined, I have to stress that I firmly believe literacy instruction should be focused on getting kids to love reading and writing.  I've never met a child who loved reading and writing who wasn't successful and happy in school.  For this reason, I have a huge problem with scripted reading programs, Accelerated Reader (points for reading), pointless busy worksheets, and writing prompts to "teach" writing.  These programs do not take student needs into account.  Any program that claims to be a balanced literacy program is flat out false.  Plus, the point of a canned program is not to foster a love of reading and writing.  The point is for the companies who created them to make money.  In a true balanced literacy classroom, the teacher pulls from multiple sources to best meet the needs of his or her students.  The teacher will never go to one book or resource and call it his or her literacy program.  Balanced literacy requires multiple sources.  These sources are also constantly assessed, questioned, tested, retested, and replaced if found to no longer be effective.  

Running a true balanced literacy classroom is hard work.   Scripted, canned programs are easier (and ineffective) as they take the critical work of assessment based decision making away from the teacher.  Classroom literacy decisions should always be left to those of us who are trained in the field.  We have a lot of decisions to make each day as literacy teachers.  Those decisions help kids learn to read and write. Those decisions help us choose one book over another.  Those decisions allow us to change our teaching if it isn't working.  Those decisions allow us the teachable moments that truly change kids' lives.  A canned program takes all the decision making power away from the most knowledgeable and capable educators.  Balanced literacy is based on frequent assessment and a teacher's daily decisions.  

Lucy Calkins, director of The Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, and panel contributor put it best, "No one approach to literacy is guaranteed to work at all times and in all settings. Rather, in order to ensure success, teachers and principals must participate in a system of continuous improvement, monitoring students’ work and their progress, and adapting instruction accordingly."

Which type of instruction would you prefer for your children?  I know my answer.


  1. Outstanding post, Christina. An excellent description of balanced literacy instruction. I wish the folks at the New York Times would read this so they could get a clue. Thanks for mentioning my piece as well.

  2. Thank you, Russ! Much appreciated.


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