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Saturday / September 21

Reclaiming Balanced Literacy for Higher Learning

The term “balanced literacy” has been in use for several decades. School systems just about everywhere say that they use a “balanced literacy” approach. After all, who would want their literacy instruction to be unbalanced? The question is, what is in balance? And the answer to that has changed significantly over the past several decades.   

By and large, the term today is used to describe instructional arrangements. A simple Internet search for “balanced literacy” will result in a wide range of graphics that indicate that whole class and small group instruction must be in balance. But that’s not where the term originally comes from. The term “balanced literacy” dates back to the reading wars, a time when phonics versus whole language was hotly debated. The compromise position was balanced literacy. In our home state of California, often cited as ground zero for the reading wars, State Education Commissioner Honig (1996) responded to the low reading scores of California students on a national exam by calling for more balanced literacy instruction as a way to promote an increase in student achievement. In 1998, the late Michael Pressley (a proponent of phonics instruction), published a book titled Reading Instruction that Works: The Case for Balanced Teaching. In both cases, the term was evoked to ensure that students had sufficient and systematic instruction in phonics as well as opportunities to apply what they are learning in texts that are authentic, meaning texts not written expressly for literacy instruction. Thus, to our thinking, balanced literacy instruction must include direct and systematic instruction in foundational skills, including concepts about print, phonemic awareness, phonics, and fluency. Literacy instruction should also include vocabulary, oral language, comprehension, and writing. These aspects of literacy should be the focus of students’ learning if we are going to say that we implement balanced literacy.   

Having said that, we do think that teachers also need to balance their instruction. It’s hard to imagine meeting all students’ needs with only whole class instruction. When teachers use assessment information to plan instruction tailored to students’ needs, students are likely to learn more. Often, this involves small group, needs-based instruction. Unfortunately, in some versions of balanced literacy, students are grouped based on a reading level. This does not tell teachers what students still need to be taught. Further, the evidence behind independent, instructional, and frustrational levels are suspect (see Shanahan on Literacy). As part of this balance, it’s important to recognize the value of direct instruction as well as more dialogic forms of learning. Simply said, there are some aspects of literacy learning that develop faster using direct instructionAnd there some aspects of literacy learning that require students to practice and apply with peers or on their own.  

To avoid direct instruction is to unbalance literacy instruction.   

But there is more to balanced literacy that is often neglected. The term includes literacy, not just reading, but most implementations of the idea focus nearly exclusively on reading. Both receptive (listening and reading) and expressive (writing and speaking) forms need to receive attention. It’s not “balanced” if 80% of the instructional minutes are spent on reading instruction. Similarly, if students only read narrative texts and not expository texts, then literacy learning is not in balance. 

We are hearing a lot of criticism of balanced literacy of late. When asked why, we hear stories about the lack of direct instruction or the expectation that students discover sound-spelling relationships or that breaking the code occurs naturally. Given how far our profession has come since the reading wars, this is disheartening. We know enough to know better. Children’s learning is at stake.  

Let’s reclaim the term balanced literacy and commit to the full range of balance required for students to learn at high levels.   

  • Yes, phonics instruction matters because it helps students make meaning from print. 
  • Yes, reading authentic texts matters because students need to practice and enjoy reading.   
  • Yes, direct instruction matters because some things are faster to teach this way. 
  • Yes, student collaboration and interaction matters because students need to apply their learning. 
  • Yes, expository and informational texts matter because students need to read for information. 
  • Yes, narrative texts matter because they help students’ develop social and emotional skills and answer big questions in life. 
  • Yes, reading matters because it’s a gateway to other learning. 
  • Yes, writing matters because it allows people to share their thinking with the world.

Written by

Douglas Fisher, Ph.D., is Professor of Educational Leadership at San Diego State University and a teacher leader at Health Sciences High & Middle College. He is the recipient of an IRA Celebrate Literacy Award, NCTE’s Farmer Award for Excellence in Writing, as well as a Christa McAuliffe Award for Excellence in Teacher Education. He has published many books with Corwin, including This is Balanced Literacy (publishing this September), PLC+: Better Decisions and Greater Impact by Design, The Teacher Clarity Gradebook, Grades K-12, and Engagement by Design: Creating Learning Environments Where Students Thrive. You can find his other published works with Corwin here.

Latest comments

  • Doug,
    Thank you so much for this! I think the struggle is having a common language across the nation. True balanced literacy is what you have stated in your bullet points! According to some principals from my school district, Irene Fountas (who they met with this Summer) has said she’d like to call it “Responsive Literacy” instead, so there are no questions.

  • Hi Doug, I am so glad I got to read this today. I have been having many conversations on this subject. I have shared this on my professional FB page for the teachers in Tasmania, Australia!

  • While I agree with your definition of ‘Balanced Literacy’ I feel how it is typically used in most schools does not meet these definitional criteria. I think it would be easier to rebrand than to continue to use the term Balanced Literacy because this will allow for better communication of what instructional approach is being used.

  • Oh, thank goodness for a voice of reason and an article that proposes a way of teaching that is not partisan. Thank you!

    • I appreciate your support!

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