In a September 8, 2021 opinion post, Education Week described two educators’ concerns over the polarization of literary instruction and the distortion of the term “balanced literacy” from its original meaning.
To address the former, we have to look no farther than the hotly debated “war” between phonics and whole-word instruction, which we dealt with here. They feel that these periods of polarization aren’t “productive nor in service to the children who should be at the center of what we do.” To get around the problem, they established four “givens” that all instructors should adopt:
- Too many children aren’t reading proficiently in their early school years, making their futures less hopeful.
- Learning to read is not a process in which children can teach themselves; most require good instruction, and all students can benefit from it.
- Instructors all want their students to become competent, voluminous, voluntary readers who continue to learn from and use literacy their entire lives.
- A strong literacy program must include daily, explicit phonics and word study, and reading teachers need an excellent knowledge of the alphabetic system and how it works to teach effectively.
These concepts help incorporate both rigidly scripted phonics with a more idealized “enjoyment” of the words as a whole, creating a balanced presentation.
To address the latter point about the use of the term “balanced,” the authors clarify that when they published their book “Guided Reading” in 1996, they used the word “balanced” to describe a “high-quality language and literacy environment with both small-group and whole-group differentiated instruction.” However, they feel that “balanced literacy” has now become simply a label, meaning different things to different people, none of which are clearly understood by the whole. To assure equitable outcomes for each student, it requires strong, coordinated instruction in both reading and writing.
It goes back to the four “givens” above. All aspects of literacy are important, and any instructional model that favors one area over another will, of necessity, neglect core strategies. That’s why the authors insist that all elements of effective reading must be taught as part of the “big picture.” These elements include phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency, accuracy, comprehension, and engagement. In addition, teachers should strive to connect all the elements together in such a way so that students learn how written language relates to spoken language, and so that the process of learning as a whole makes sense to them.
Balanced literacy, therefore, in its truest sense, is an instructional method that demonstrates the process of reading to understand and to learn is greater than the sum of its many parts. We, as educators, can model that idea to our students by coming together with our different ideas and forging them into comprehensive and effective instruction that benefits all learners. It’s the teacher or group of teachers — not the program itself — that’s the key to student learning.
Do you agree? Disagree? Fall somewhere in between? Leave us your thoughts in the comments section below.
 Fountas, Irene C. and Pinnell, Gay Sue. (September 8, 2021). “Teachers, More than Programs, Make for Great Reading Instruction: The label “balanced literacy” serves no one.” Education Week. Retrieved from: https://www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/opinion-teachers-more-than-programs-make-for-great-reading-instruction/2021/09.