Balanced literacy not only means meeting students in groups based on assessment results as Nancy Frey pointed out in her blog post, it also means varying the types of groups you routinely use during instruction each week.
Teachers group students by whole group, small group or independent work when they follow a balanced literacy approach. Varying the three types of grouping often doesn’t occur routinely during the week, but when you implement a balanced literacy approach grouping becomes central to the teaching delivery. In order for students to be independent readers and writers, students need instruction that follows the gradual release of responsibility model. Different types of grouping ensure that the responsibility of learning is released to students.
The gradual release of responsibility model includes four phases of cognitive work during a lesson. The model focuses on the cognitive engagement of students and suggests that the ownership of learning, and the cognitive engagement should shift intentionally from direct instruction with teacher modeling, to joint responsibility between teachers and students, to collaboration amongst students and independent practice and application by the students (Fisher and Frey, 2007). Balanced literacy revolves around the balance of cognitive work through the implementation of different grouping structures, aspects of reading and writing instruction and assessment for learning. The gradual release of responsibility model is a way to think about how to release authentic and powerful learning opportunities to students for student ownership.
The gradual release of responsibility model shifts the responsibility role from teacher to student incrementally as students are ready. The model tapers the role of the teacher and increases the role of the student. This shift in responsibility of the cognitive load can masterfully be implemented by employing various grouping structures in the balanced literacy classroom.
A balanced classroom has a balance in how and when the teacher meets with students. The teacher meets with student in whole group, small groups and individually. During whole group instruction the teacher may work with the students on a skill or strategy that all students need to work on. She may form a small group based on what assessment results indicate certain students need to work on or she may meet with students individually to confer with students about their reading or writing. During conferences, the teacher may make specific suggestions for students to increase their learning when working on their own.
During whole group instruction the teacher will follow the gradual release model, beginning by modeling through direct instruction and then releasing to students as they work in groups or on their own. He might use a variety of teaching approaches during whole group instruction but his focus will be on transferring the ownership of the learning to the students.
In small group instruction the transfer of responsibility from teacher to students happens more rapidly as small groups usually meet for only about 20 minutes. A small group lesson starts with the teacher directly teaching a skill or strategy and then moves to the teacher coaching students in the group as they practice the skill or strategy. The small group work sets students up to take responsibility for their learning fully during independent reading and independent writing.
Independent reading is an important part of the balance in balanced literacy. Students who read independently regularly for an extended amount of time develop greater word recognition skills, read more fluently, and have larger vocabularies. The more students read independently, the better readers they become. Balanced literacy classrooms include independent reading because it is the ultimate expression of the gradual release of responsibility model. During independent reading, students practice the skills and strategies they learned during whole and small group instruction and they own the cognitive load for their work with text.
Independent writing is also a facet of a balanced literacy classroom. During independent writing students work on pieces of writing on their own, employing choice and creativity. Students practice the strategies and skills that the teacher taught during whole and small group instruction. Independent writing includes writing in a variety of genres and for a variety of purposes. Students may be writing to learn, pairing their writing with their reading. They also may be writing to report information, share a story, or persuade a point of view. Having regular sessions of independent writing during the week signals to students that they are responsible for their learning and they have voice and choice on what they are writing about.
Balance means a balance in the how the content is taught. Direct instruction is as important as dialogic instruction. It also means that there is a balance between assessment and instruction, with assessment forming the choices the teacher will make in what to teach, how to teach it and to whom. Balance also means that the teacher uses a variety of grouping options focusing on the release of the responsibility for the cognitive work of learning from teacher to students.