Balanced Literacy: The Solution or Just Another Formula?

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So I heard a new term today: ‘balanced literacy’. I was told it was the truce between those fighting for phonics and those fighting for whole language for reading instruction. I decided to investigate. First, some definitions:

Literacy: In this context, the meaning of literacy is the ability to read and write.

Whole language: According to Reading Horizons, whole language learning is “a complete system of making meaning, with words functioning in relation to each other in context.”  In other words, it is recognizing words as meaningful pieces of language, rather than looking at them in pieces (letters and sounds).

Phonics: this is the decoding of an individual word through the analysis of letters and sounds. Proponents of whole language learning argue that learning to read through phonics leaves the meaning up to chance.

Now we come to balanced literacy – the supposed truce between these two opposing methodologies of literacy learning. The idea behind balanced literacy, the middle ground in teaching reading, is through a multi-pronged approach: read alouds, guided reading, shared reading, independent reading and word study.

Read alouds: the act of reading aloud to a child.

Guided reading: the act of guiding a child’s reading through leveled texts at the student’s ability level.

Shared reading: reading with students to encourage greater understanding of the meaning behind words.

Independent reading: when a child choses his or her own book to read and sits alone to read.

Word study: pretty sure this is where phonics study comes in, so I’ll just skip the technical jargon.

Honestly, teaching “literacy” should be so much simpler than all of this. After a read through of the concept of Shared Reading, I have decided that we have taken the enjoyment of reading, and passing it on to the next generation, into a formula where you plug each piece in and out pops a child who can pass a standardized test in the subject area of reading.

Shared reading: First read a familiar book, reviewing concepts of print. Then introduce a new book, get predictions from students about the new book, and then read the book. After you read the book once, read it again, pointing to the words so students can read along. The next day, you read the same book again, using new strategies to get students to think about the words – cover key words and have students guess what word would make sense, have students echo you after you read, or have students read together with you in “choral” reading.

Why not just share a love of literature with children instead of trying to make “learning to read” fit into a reproducible formula? Not all children are going to learn the same way, no matter what “formula” you follow. You have to start with a foundation and move on from there but if you love reading and you show your children that you love reading, they will learn to love reading too!

In the end, children need to know that letters make sounds. That those letters and sounds put together make words and that each word means something specific. Then you put those words together into sentences that convey more meaning. Then you put those sentences together into paragraphs and you have a story. Want children to love reading? Read to them! Want children to read better? Start where they are and move forward – don’t make a child reach for knowledge they can’t possibly attain without a firm foundation behind them. Talk about books with children – discuss the interesting things that happen and the amazing way words can work together to show specific meaning. And finally, provide books for children to pick up and read when they want. Don’t put limits on it. Just let reading happen.

But – if you expect any of that to happen without a foundation, you are going to be disappointed. So start there.

But don’t move on to a formula. Move on to the love of language. Move on to a fascination with words and how they work together. Love books of all types and your students will learn to love books as well.