What is Balanced Literacy?

balanced literacyAs literacy instruction has evolved, the proverbial pendulum has swung from the Bottom -Up approach, which includes a strong focus on phonics instruction, to the Top- Down approach, also known as Whole Language, where authentic literature became the focus. The former, largely popular in the years before the early 1980’s, was essentially built on the idea that literacy instruction at the elementary level should include the “building blocks” of language- grammar, rules, and letter/word family constructs particular to the English language. The philosophy here was that with this Bottom -Up theory, students would integrate the rules that they learned, the vocabulary, etc, and become proficient readers.

The early 1980’s saw the emergence of Whole Language philosophy, which essentially forwarded the idea that the presence of real text-books, magazines, newspapers, school text books (also known as basal readers), would spur students on to become accomplished readers. The idea was that exposure to authentic reading material would encourage fluent reading, and that the actual rules of the language would somehow be “passively” learned.

As one would guess, neither approach to literacy acquisition proved to be a panacea. There were merits and pitfalls to each approach, and as the millennium drew to a close, a new concept, Balanced Literacy, essentially a combination of the best of both Top Down, as well as Bottom Up approaches, took hold.

So what is Balanced Literacy? It is, not surprisingly, just what it sounds like. It is an effort to present students with a menu of engaging, balanced literacy instruction. Balanced Literacy includes both reading as well as writing instruction, each in a variety of settings within the elementary classroom. Supported by such literacy proponents and authors like Lucy Calkins of The Reading and Writing Project of Columbia University”s Teachers College, and Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell, whose publications are the gold standard in many American classrooms, Balanced Literacy has become the standard for literacy instruction across America.

On a typical day, classrooms have adopted Literacy Blocks, periods of time that are set aside strictly for the purpose of reading and writing instruction. In the Balanced Literacy Model, Reading Instruction includes Shared Reading, Read Alouds, Guided Reading, and Independent Reading.

In Shared Reading, teacher models and support students. She generally keeps a large book on an easel within her reach, and children sit at the carpet in a group. Usually an early, first reading is for enjoyment. Later, the teacher may focus on theme, title, cover, illustrations and predictions. Significantly, it is during this type of reading that student participation is strongly encouraged. Language constructs are emphasized, and in this way, typical phonics/grammar knowledge is reinforced.

The main component of The Reader’s Workshop (a component of the Reading and Writing Project created by Lucy Calkins, and forwarded at New York’s Teachers College ) is usually the Read Aloud. Included is a “Mini-Lesson,” or main Teaching Point. The teacher may focus on any number of elements of the book–author’s style, character development, illustration, vocabulary, setting, and connections that students can make between the story and their own lives, or other books they have read, and many more possible teaching points. The units of study are planned at the beginning of the year (scope) and presented in a designated, timely fashion (sequence).

Guided Reading, another part of the Literacy Block, is a time when students, selected homogeneously for small instructional groups, read in groups of 5 or 6, with a teacher leading the lesson. Just-Right Books, are employed, as determined by the students’ individual reading levels, which are determined by teacher assessment. Within these groups, students “read for a purpose.” Often, the group reads with the teacher’s mini-lesson (from the Read-Aloud) in mind. Alternately, specific strategies are the focus of the during Guided Reading time (“Let’s look today for the author’s use of interesting adjectives as we read chapter 4”). In general, classes have a few Guided Reading groups, which alternate their time with the lead teacher. Oftentimes, teaching assistants, and sometimes special education teachers supplement instruction, and lead these groups as well. Within Guided Reading groups, assessment is ongoing, and teachers keep a log during each session of student performance. In contrast to practices of the past, “Round-Robin Reading”, where students each take a turn to read aloud, is not encouraged, the philosophy being that fluent readers do not need the practice, and weaker students are oftentimes embarrassed by this activity formerly popular activity.

Independent Reading time, also fondly known by many as DEAR TIME (Drop Everything And Read Time), is a part of the Literacy Block when students use their Just-Right selection (not the same one used during Guided Reading) and independently read appropriate books. Here, they are able to apply strategies that they have learned during Shared and Guided Reading. Often, teachers ask students to put post-it notes on certain pages, and whole classes are given the opportunity to share ideas as a group.

The other portion of the Literacy Block includes Writing Instruction. In this area, writing is taught in a variety of ways. Like the Shared Reading portion of the Literacy Block, the Shared Writing portion is an approach to writing where the teacher and children work together to compose messages and stories. Children generally offer ideas, and the teacher, at her easel, writes the message on chart paper. The message is usually related to some common experience for the class, like a school trip, or a holiday celebration, or vacation. Sometimes, the writing experience relates to a book that the whole class has read. In this capacity, the teacher offers modeling of good writing, demonstrating the process of writing right in front of the children. This is again, a perfect setting for informal phonics instruction. Often, students will illustrate the completed text, and the chart paper is then displayed in the room.

Interactive Writing is another portion of the Literacy Block that is devoted to writing. During this activity, the teacher and class work together to create written text. After deciding upon what to write, the teacher begins to elicit student participation in actually writing the text. She asks them for spelling, identifying chunks of letters, and words that they recognize (phonics opportunity). The teacher may fill in portions of the text that the students cannot, depending upon their level of writing development. During Interactive Writing, students may create stories, poems, literature retells, or any type of writing.

The main portion of the Writing Instruction is the Writer’s Workshop (the other half of Lucy Calkin’s Reading and Writing Project). It is during this time that students are asked to write for real purposes, which are pre-determined by the teacher in the “Mini-Lesson,” or main Teaching Point, that she has presented to the entire group prior to their independent practice. The students study various topics related to the skill of writing as the weeks and months of the school year unfold; one month may be personal narratives, as students write about their own experiences, and another may be character development, as they learn about how to focus on and develop different facets of a character about whom they are writing.

Independent Writing is another part of the Writing Instruction. Often this writing is done in a journal kept by each student. Beginning in Kindergarten, when students are encouraged to get their ideas on paper with invented spelling and illustrations, students through the elementary grades write on their own, usually daily ,about a variety of topics, either generated independently, or as assigned by the teacher. Teachers routinely read these journals, correcting grammatical errors (once again, informal phonics instruction) and making comments.

In the Balanced Literacy Model, there is often a strong connection between the Reader’s Workshop and the Writer’s Workshop units. Common lessons that wind through both of the areas of reading and writing reinforce the unit the students are learning at a particular time. Sometimes, however, Reader’s and Writer’s Workshop units are wholly separate in their focus. The goal, however, of the entire Balanced Literacy experience is for students to become competent readers and writers through the exposure to and active participation with authentic text.

The over-arching idea of Balanced Literacy is that as students are reading authentic text and writing original pieces, the building blocks of grammar and syntax, semantics and word study will come into play. As we have seen, teachers can tuck in phonics study in their mini-lessons. It is in this way that the old, “Bottom-Up” approach to grammar instruction is, incorporated into the literacy instruction, and doesn’t necessarily require a separate time block. In some classes, however, actual phonics workbooks are still used, although their use as a sole focus of literacy instruction is generally not employed anymore. The days that some of us remember, of daily drills in grammar workbooks, are largely a thing of the past.

For anyone that is especially interested in the Balanced Literacy approach to instruction, there is a plethora of books available on the subject. Although mainly geared to educators, parents can also glean excellent teaching methods and apply them when they take on the task of homework support with their children.

For those who want more formal knowledge of the practices of Balanced Literacy, the main source here in New York City, is Teachers College. Workshops throughout the year as well as short-term Summer Institutes are available. For more information, visit http://tc.readingandwritingproject.com/.

By Polly Goltche
Reading Specialist

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