Balanced Literacy Instruction: A Truce For The Reading War?

Children playing tug of warUnless you’re an elementary teacher, balanced literacy instruction may be a new concept to you.  What is it, anyway?  What happened to phonics?  What about whole language?  Which is better?  Why does the pendulum continue to swing from one method to another? And why can Johnny still not read?

Welcome to the reading war.  These questions have been the heart of heated controversy for decades.

Before balanced literacy instruction appeared on the scene, you could say reading instruction was rather “unbalanced.”  First there was the “look-say” method, then phonics, and then whole language made a grand appearance in the 1980’s.  Each was met with some resistance… and war raged on. But why?

Surely there is a “best” way to teach reading?

It’s not as easy as that. There have always been arguments over how to best teach young children to read. And with good reason.  Reading is such a critical skill and without a strong foundation, children simply can’t flourish in school.  For this reason, for much of the 20th century choosing the best program to implement in schools has been a hot topic among administrators, teachers, and parents alike.

The Phonics Camp

On one side of the fence, there are proponents of phonics who believe that understanding the relationship between letters and sounds they make is essential for comprehension. In order to comprehend, readers must be fluent and quick readers. Phonics emphasizes important skills such as decoding words through sound and spelling so they can move smoothly through a passage.

Does phonics work?  Well, yes.

Children who are analytical and auditory learners seem to do best with phonics instruction.  Decoding words through sounds comes easy. To them a whole language approach isn’t structured enough. The result is they often fall behind and are left to struggle without the strategies they need to deconstruct or decode new words.

The Whole Language Camp

On the other side of the fence are those who believe whole language is the philosophy to base instruction upon. Here the emphasis is on constructing meaning through the written word and then expressing the meaning through writing. Advocates of whole language state that learning to read through phonics alone results simply in word recognition – meaning is left to chance.

Does whole language work?  Well, yes.

Students who thrive in a whole language environment are global learners meaning they learn best through hands-on learning and interacting with peers. They tend to be tactile and visual learners.

Those Left Behind

But with an either/or approach, there will always be someone left behind. And obviously there are pros and cons of each side.  However, now that we’re 10 years into the 21st century, proponents from both camps seem to have found a middle ground. The truth is that children often learn best through a combination of strategies.  That’s why balanced literacy instruction is thought to be the key.

The Balancing Act

Just as the name implies, balanced literacy instruction is a program that strikes a balance between both whole language and phonics. The strongest elements of each are incorporated into a literacy program that aims to guide students toward proficient and lifelong reading.

Here are 5 components of balanced literacy instruction:

Balanced literacy is a framework for reading instruction. It involves teaching  by reading to students, having students read independently, and reading with students. This is accomplished with five basic components.

Balanced Literacy Component #1 – The read aloud

In the read aloud strategy the teacher reads out loud to the classroom. This way the teacher can model the correct strategies and behaviors. It’s important that teachers read with enthusiasm, rhythm, and the proper intonation. This way students can experience the joys of reading long before they can read on their own.

Balanced Literacy Component #2 – Guided reading

Through guided reading teachers are able to work with students who are on the same level. Students are put into small groups, given their own book, and the teacher works with each student to help develop the skills they need.

Balanced Literacy Component #3 – Shared reading

During shared reading the students and teacher read together. This is an opportunity for students to discover new words and their meanings.

Balanced Literacy Component #4 -Independent reading

During independent reading students are allowed to choose the books they want to read. This is important for many reasons — one being that reading becomes a more enjoyable experience. Also, when students realize teachers value reading time, they begin to realize that reading must be an important skill.

Balanced Literacy Component #5 – Word study

Students work with words through fun and engaging activities. Through word study students learn letters and the sounds they make. They then move on to root words, suffixes and prefixes, and how to derive meaning of words.

As the balanced literacy approach becomes more widespread, the whole language method that was so popular during the 1990’s fades. Since the enactment of No Child Left Behind, phonics has moved back into the spotlight.  Whole language is receding into the shadows and is no longer the dominant literacy model.  Many teachers (and parents) are excited about what balanced literacy instruction could mean for students. For now, this balanced literacy approach seems to be the truce for the reading war.

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