The Problem with Balanced Literacy

My summer graduate course, Foundations and Current Trends in Literacy Research and Practice, never fails at being an invigorating course for me and my students because it combines foundational topics in literacy with a never-ending series of current debates and controversies surrounding those enduring elements of teaching and learning literacy.

For several years recently, my home state of South Carolina has provided ample content because of the current reading legislation, Read to Succeed, heavily drawn from Florida’s reading policy and commitment to grade retention as a punitive key element in teaching reading.

This summer, however, even with Read to Succeed firmly entrenched and resulting in grade retention for students, a new wave of controversy has invigorated this course’s topics—the media focus on the “science of reading” driven by advocates for students with dyslexia and the (tired) resurgence of calls for systematic phonics for all students.

The scapegoats in this “science of reading” frenzy are teacher education and balanced literacy (the younger cousin of the similarly maligned whole language).

At the end of class preceding the next day’s focus on balanced literacy, a graduate student asked for a quick definition because since she was new to education and had recently experienced many interviews that asked her to define balanced literacy, she felt quite disoriented and uninformed about what it means.

I pulled up my standard paragraph from Dixie Lee Spiegel and immediately heard several other students note this isn’t how they have had the term defined in their schools.

As I read the daily reflections on the readings for balanced literacy, this response, I think, is an important way to address the problem with balanced literacy (edited for some minor formatting):

My school places a huge emphasis on balanced literacy. However, it is presented more in terms of how much time and in what context various components of literacy should be implemented in class daily (we even have it in a pie chart) [emphasis added]. We used to have a great deal of autonomy in the curriculum we chose in reading and writing, but our district recently adopted Lucy Calkins’ Units of Study. Although Calkins desires for teachers to use her units as a framework, it has become a way to make sure all teachers are doing the same thing [emphasis added]. In practice we have a balanced literacy program in terms of we give students choice (although in the early grades very restricted choices), allow time for free reading, a lot of experience with literacy, small, guided reading group instruction, and explicit phonics instruction; we are doing all of this in a systematic, controlled way. I read the article about effective balanced literacy instruction and felt it did a great job in summarizing the qualities that make a teacher highly effective in the implementation of balanced literacy. But the point is…it takes a highly effective teacher, period.

Having only been consistently teaching for five years, I also understand how incredibly challenging it is to be a masterful teacher. I feel I could have seemed that I was implementing balanced literacy proficiently in a class I had two years ago. Most of my class came from literacy rich environments and could discuss books in meaningful ways. The ones that did struggle, were inspired by their peers to take risks in reading (they made me look good). This past year, I did not have a class as a whole that loved reading. For a lot of them, it was a challenge to get them to listen to stories much less engage in meaningful conversations. The majority of them would say they hated to read. Calkins (and my reading coach) would have me go to a first grade unit of study and implement more basic literacy skills to scaffold, but there was no way I would be able to do this alone. The lessons are very in depth and it would have cost me more time than I had available. Also, those mini-lessons would not have appealed to the 6 or 8 students who were ready to have more comprehensive, richer discussions. Reading and literacy implementation was a struggle all year.

I also realize that it is easier within systems to quantify and package things, but you simply cannot do this with teachers and students [emphasis added]. It is easy to show learning in a quantitative way. Although my students achieved higher reading levels this year, which looks great on an SLO [Student Learning Objectives], as a teacher I know that I missed it with them. I also realize that I can say I am doing balanced literacy, but I know it isn’t truly what balanced literacy is intended to be [emphasis added].

To open the discussion, after reading this an other reflections with similar descriptions, I explained to the class that both whole language and balanced literacy are philosophies of teaching and acquiring literacy; they provide evidence-based broad concepts to guide practice, but neither was originally intended to be programs or templates for how teachers teacher or how students learn.

As the response above demonstrates, however, education in practice is often over-reliant on programs and less diligent about addressing philosophy or theory. In short, the problem with balanced literacy is not that teacher education teaches balanced literacy and not the science of reading (note because balanced literacy as a philosophy of literacy embraces that full and complex science of reading) and not that teachers do not know the science of reading but are teaching balanced literacy, but that almost all schools have adopted programs, many of which claim the label of “balanced literacy” while also breaking the foundational elements of that philosophy (see the last sentence of the response above).

And just as the media, dyslexia advocates, and phonics proponents have endorsed, these reading programs (labeled “balanced literacy” or not) are primarily about addressing standards, preparing students for high-stakes tests, and imposing a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching and learning reading; and therein is the essential flaw.

All teachers and all students doing the same things at the same time and being held accountable for doing the mandated program—this is literacy instruction in the U.S., and this is the grand failure no one in the media or in political leadership is willing to address.

All the bluster around calling out “balanced literacy” is nothing more than distraction because it doesn’t really matter what label we assign to how teachers teach reading or how students learn reading; what matters are the expertise of teachers, the needs of students, and the teaching/learning conditions that support or inhibit (see complying with reading programs) effective teaching and learning.

The real problem with balanced literacy is too few people know what it is and as a result are failing it along with the students and teachers caught in that misguided vortex.