Weighing In on Balanced Literacy

weighing in

As the New York Times reported the other week, our new Schools Chancellor Carmen Farina recently gave a big endorsement to balanced literacy, which had been cast aside in many city schools after the previous administration embraced packaged reading programs, such as Pearson ReadyGen, Scholastic Codex and Core Knowledge, that were supposedly Common Core aligned. Many of these programs’ claims have since been called into question, but it’s Carmen Farina’s words that seem to have ushered us into a new stage in the reading wars. And from where I sit it’s gotten kind of ugly.

An op-ed piece in yesterday’s New York Times, for instance, called balanced literacy “an especially irresponsible approach,” while a commentary appearing in the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s blog “Flypaper” called it a “hoax” and likened it to “the judo-like Hydrapractice of using terms that appeal to an audience as fig leaves for practices that same audience would find repugnant.” And over at “Used Books in Class,” my friend, colleague and fellow blogger Colette Bennett takes a look at another “Flypaper” writer who’s “recast the phrase ‘balanced literacy’ in mythological terms, as a hydra,” coming to get us. That’s a lot of virulent language for a pedagogical term.

What’s interesting to me, though, is that the New York Times article on Farina’s endorsement begins with an example of balanced literacy in action in a classroom, which is described as follows:

“[The teacher] took her perch in front of a class of restless fourth graders and began reciting the beginning of a book about sharks. But a few sentences in, [she] shifted course. She pushed her students to assume the role of teacher, and she became a mediator, helping guide conversations as the children worked with one another to define words like ‘buoyant’ and identify the book’s structure.”

And here’s an excerpt from “What Does a Good Common Core Lesson Look Like?” a story that appeared on NPR’s education blog, which also includes a classroom anecdote. The NPR piece looks at a ninth grade class that’s beginning to read Karen Russell’s short story “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves,” which I wrote about earlier. This time, however, we’re told that we’re seeing close reading in action, not balanced literacy:

“First the teacher reads an excerpt of the story aloud . . . Then, students turn to individual close reading. They are told to reread sections and draw boxes around unfamiliar words [and] . . . after they have gotten to know the story well, students pair up to tease out the meaning of words like  lycanthropic, couth and kempt.”

Just AlikeI hope I’m not the only one out there who thinks that, in all the really important ways, these two anecdotes are just alike. In the words of the ninth grade teacher quoted by NPR, both teachers are trying to “create content where there is a productive struggle… where all students are being asked to work toward the same target as everyone else” rather than “mak[ing] sure they see everything that’s cool about the text.”

Of course I have some questions about whether that struggle should all be spent on vocabulary words instead of a text’s deeper meaning. And I would never begin the class as the ninth grade teacher does by discussing the standards with the students since I think the standards are for us, not for them. But the point I want to make here is that balanced literacy is an instructional structure, just as close reading is (or has become). And while I personally love balanced literacy because giving students a combination of whole class, small group and independent experiences just makes sense to me, what’s really important is not what structure a teacher uses, but how he or she uses it to help students read meaningfully and deeply. And that reminds me of a quote I shared a while ago from the authors of the great book Making Thinking Visible:

“Rather than concerning ourselves with levels among different types of thinking, we would do better to focus our attention on the levels of quality within a single type of thinking. For instance, one can describe at a very high and detailed level or at a superficial level. Likewise . . . analysis can be deep and penetrating or deal with only a few readily apparent features.”

I think the same is true about teaching approaches and structures: We’d do better to focus on the quality and depth that’s brought to a structure—i.e., what kind of thinking are we asking of students within whatever structure we use—rather than get caught up fighting over which one is better, knowing that a teacher who really listens to students, reflects on her practice and is a critical thinker and learner herself can make almost anything work.

And now that that’s off my chest, I want to share something else: I’m working on a new book on reading that I plan to finish by the end of the year. That doesn’t mean I’m bowing out of blogging, if for no other reason than writing a blog post is so much easier than writing a book. And I love the immediacy of it and the connection with other teachers and readers. But while I may be posting less frequently, I’ll still be trying to wrap my mind in words that speak to the things we all care about.


26 thoughts on “Weighing In on Balanced Literacy

  1. Good luck and much success with your upcoming book! As a retired, yet still active literacy professional, I have thoroughly enjoyed your observations, insights, analyses, and thoughtful reflections on literacy–one of the most professional blogs I have had the pleasure to read. Yours is a book I look forward to adding to my personal collection of resources for reflective and informed practice. Looking forward to its completion and launch!

    • Belated thanks for this, Anne! Between writing and working at a coaching institute last week, I’m way behind on responding to comments. But it’s great to know people are looking forward to it. Will keep everyone posted on the blog.

  2. I agree with you! It seems as if both are doing the same thing. I feel very fortunate to work in a private school that isn’t so easily swayed from one idea to another. Our administration are supporters of our teachers and trusting us to know how best to teach our students and guide them into becoming creative critical thinkers and creating growth mindsets in all areas.

    • You are indeed lucky, Janie, to be in a school that doesn’t feel compelled to jump on whatever bandwagon is being hailed as the latest fix—and more than that a place that trusts a teacher’s professional judgement and capacity for critical thinking. That’s what we need to be working toward, not this program vs. that.

  3. Excited about your book as well! I’ve been following the NYT articles as well on these topics and wholeheartedly agree with your point about the quality and depth. What really concerns me is that this new round of “reading wars” is about who gets to decide about the instruction in classrooms. Unfortunately, so much of this common core vs balanced literacy debate pushes the decision making further and further away from the teacher, rather than supporting and developing teachers in their knowledge of many different ways to approach instruction for the many different students that are learning to read and write.

    • You are so right, here. How can people who don’t know the specific children who sit in a specific classroom can decide what students need is beyond me. And no matter what kind of program or approach a school might decide to take, it’s the teacher’s capacity for critical thinking and response in the moment that counts. And how do we help teachers do that better after having asked them to deliver scripts? That’s another thing we should be talking about.

  4. What a great comparison between those two lessons as I continue to be amazed that the New York Times and many others believe this is totally either black or white (or hydra or not)! It’s so bizarre that the publishers and news sources are now “creating” the news instead of reporting it.

    I look forward to your new book with great anticipation! We have to focus on the productive side of our work – the learning that students do in the classrooms of great teachers who know that they do MAKE A DIFFERENCE! 🙂

    • So behind on my comment, Fran! But it’s been a real reality check and a big disappointment for to see the NYTimes simply not get it. Not only did their reporting stay on the surface, without probing the issue at all, the article seemed so terribly biased, right down to the word choice: the writer of the NYTimes balanced literacy had the teacher reciting’ a book, while the close reading teacher in the NPR piece was ‘reading’ one. Anyway, wish me luck as I turn from an institute I was doing last week back to the book!

  5. This “debate” is so troubling in what it takes away from the work ( as Fran says ) makes a difference in the lives of teachers and students and what it might bring to our classrooms. Newspapers need to make news sometimes and because reading is such a personal story everyone can weigh in as having THE ANSWER. Curious. The lack of listening to others and synthesizing what this really means is astounding.

    On the other note, I am so excited to hear there is a book in the works. And, I am grateful for your ability to put into words what matters to all of us. I’ll still be on the lookout for the occasional post too!

    • I was working at a coaching institute last week and am longing to get back to the book this week. I’m just a little nervous that I’ve jinxed the process by declaring quite so publicly. But it astounding at the lack of depth in the Times reporting. What happened to investigative journalism? This ‘war’ seems to be screaming out for it.

      And on an entirely different note, I’m so, so glad you got to spend time with my friends at Opal! They’re amazing, aren’t they? Looking forward to reading more.

  6. An interesting read from Australian researcher Allan Luke http://www.aare.edu.au/blog/?p=439 may give you a picture of the current ‘Reading Wars’ in Australia. The idea is mentioned of teaching children more than decoding so that reading is a sustainable skill.
    Looking forward to the new book – good luck mate!

    • Thanks, Brette, for the well wishes and the link. I’m not sure any of the people who are writing these pieces have ever sat down with a child who is able to call out words and ‘read’ fluently’ but doesn’t have a clue what they read meant, even at the literal level. Clearly both are needed. And my hunch that you know as well as I do when all the emphasis is placed on decoding in the early grades—we get kids with a narrow warped sense of what it really means to read.

  7. Somehow I fear this may never end, sad to say. I have read the various versions for 6 decades now. I can’t imagine laypersons dictating medical practice……but still we should never give up. Our children depend on literacy leaders and practitioners like you, Vicki. We are so much further ahead of where we were 6 decades ago, though. Looking forward to your next book. Let me know when I can pre-order.

    • It is amazing, Janet, that we seem to be repeating variations of the reading wars that went on decades ago. And there seems to me something so sad and spiteful in those who proclaim that whole language lost the war. But I think you’re right that we’re in a different place now, if for no other reason than the fact that social media can connect us and give us courage and strength.

    • I’m a little afraid I jinxed it, Mary Lee, by saying that so publically. But I do believe things happen when we carve out time to write and that’s what I’m banking on.

  8. I love your reminder from MAKING THINKING VISIBLE to stretch toward deep thinking. Sometimes I wonder…what if we cared less about what kind of thinking we are asking ourselves and others to do, and cared more about the quality of that thought? I guess I trust that depth (and time) will push me toward breadth more readily than breadth will push toward depth.

    I’m very excited that you are writing a new book. And, of course, I’m not going to ask you to tell us all about it. 🙂

    • And I loved your post on play! And you’re so, so right about the relationship between depth & breadth. I’m thinking that breadth could be a by-product of depth because depth builds that love of thinking and learning and breadth just skims the surface in a way that almost seems to discount depth. Hmm. And thanks for not asking about the book. It’s very much a work in progress.

  9. I always find great inspiration here!! But I am deeply saddened as I am hearing we will be forced to use the basal this year…and only the basal. Any words of comfort???

    • Not quite sure this will be the comfort you’re seeking, but after several years of NYC going CCS crazy, including the adoption of basals, the tide is starting to turn here as more and more people recognized that, for all their claims, the packaged programs simply didn’t help students on the CCS tests—and almost killed independent reading. LA, too, which has been using basals for years is trying to shift. So perhaps this will be short lived. And check in with Steve who managed to keep authentic reading alive despite his district’s adoption of basals.

      • Thank you. It helps to know others have gone this way only to find it didnt deliver the test scores desired. It’s all about test scores. I read “Making Thinking Visible” this summer and trying out some of those ideas gets me excited about going back to school. I will chat with Steve. Thank you again.

  10. Pingback: Where Have All the Readers Gone? | To Make a Prairie

  11. I agree with you entirely that ‘a teacher who really listens to students, reflects on her practice and is a critical thinker and learner herself can make almost anything work.’ It is definitely better to not lose the love by digging too much in the shallows (vocabulary) with little attention to the depth (meaning).

  12. Pingback: Making Room for Thinking in the New Reading Wars | To Make a Prairie

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