These days, I often hear a school’s approach to reading instruction described as “balanced.” What could be better? No one wants unbalanced literacy instruction, right? Obviously not.
But what does balance really mean? It can mean that teachers provide skills instruction but in the context of sustained silent reading, learning centers, book clubs, big book activities, minilessons and the like. In other words, it is a combination of instructional approaches that clearly make a difference in kids’ learning (as shown by research), and activities that may or may not make a learning difference (they might be good, but there is no research showing it yet).
The problem is that balance has lots of meanings or metaphors. For instance, I’m a long distance cyclist. If my bicycle is starting to fall to the left, I shift my weight to the right to stay on top. Or, there is the balance accomplished by placing equal weights on the scales of justice. And, there is the claim of many television news shows to be “balanced.” By this, they mean they will include the voices of liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, or pros and cons on their broadcasts.
Those news shows' ideas of balance really bother me. They’ll take an issue, like child pornography, where there just isn’t a legitimate pro- position and put someone in that chair anyway. Why do they do such a foolish thing? Is it really balanced to have a spokesperson for a position held by the vast majority of human beings and with strong research support
counterweighted by someone who speaks for a fringey, weird, hurtful, and non-supportable position? What that does is to make the two positions seem equal. Balanced, but not really.
Unfortunately, the notion of balanced literacy is something like that. The late Michael Pressley put forth the idea of balanced literacy as a kind of political agreement between warring factions in the field of reading education. Since one group of teachers want lots of explicit teaching in phonological awareness, phonics, oral reading fluency, vocabulary, comprehension, writing, and spelling and this other group wants to free kids to “experience” literacy with minimal adult mediation so they can enjoy themselves, can’t we just give each side equal coverage in the classroom? I guess the thinking is, we’ll balance these interests of adults and the kids will be fine.
The problem is the same as with those talk shows; this make the two positions seem equal and if they are truly equal they obviously should be balanced. That this isn’t the case, upsets those who know they have the stronger evidence supporting their proposals. They see balanced literacy as a trick to keep teachers from finding out what the research really says and to sabotage efforts to make reading instruction more rigorous.
Of course, many of those who embrace balanced literacy do so, not out of any sense of political compromise, but because of their fear that explicit teaching tends to get reduced to the lowest common denominator. That is, skills instruction often perseverates on the lowest level reading skills that can be taught—rather than focusing on the more complete conception of reading that is evident in the research. They quite rightly fear what happens to kids’ learning when teachers put all of their time into decoding skills while ignoring language development and the teaching of logic and reasoning.
Research indicates that kids benefit from explicit instruction in a wide range of skills, from differentiating language sounds to matching sounds with letters to making a text sound like oral language to interpreting word meanings in context and thinking about a wide range of texts with an extensive and complex set of intellectual tools. We need the teaching of a complete conception of literacy. We are more likely to accomplish this by following research than by some political compromise, however.
Unfortunately, there is still too much of a gap in the research record: those who are so passionate about high-level thinking and critical reasoning should be conducting research studies into how to teach these successfully. No matter how strongly one asserts that these are important, it is still necessary to test the assertions through empirical study. The phonics people, to their credit have done that, and their work makes it clear that readers should be taught explicitly how to decode. The “higher level thinking” folks, sadly, have not bothered to make their prescriptions entirely practical or proven; they have acted like all they need to do is avow their claims and teachers and policymakers should fall in line with their wisdom. It doesn’t work that way. From the existing work, I have no doubt that it is possible to teach higher level thinking and to help students to develop more sophisticated language, but there are far-too-few studies to be able to tell teachers how to do this well (I can give them much better advice on teaching fluency than on comprehension).
So, let’s leave the political compromises and code language of “balanced literacy” behind. But let’s also commit ourselves to teaching literacy thoroughly and completely—and researchers can help realize this vision, by exploring more thoroughly those aspects of reading that we don’t yet understand very well (passionate exhortations aside).
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