Last week the New York City Board of Education announced that it is abandoning its relationship with the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project and revamping their curriculum to be more aligned with the Common Core Standards. As a result, the balanced literacy framework, which grounds the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project curriculum, has come under fire.
In a New York Daily News article, Robert Pondiscio blames stagnant growth in reading achievement to balanced literacy. In his limited definition of balanced literacy, Pondiscio notes that within a balanced literacy framework, students only read texts that are “just right” for them and that are of interest to them. He claims that literacy pioneers like Lucy Calkins ignore what kids need to develop literacy skills and build knowledge and vocabulary, which is especially necessary in areas where students may have large gaps in background knowledge.
What Pondiscio, and others who have responded in a similar way, fail to realize is that a balanced literacy framework is much more than just letting students read out of texts that are interesting and at their level. In fact, a more informed explanation would be:
A balanced approach to literacy development is a decision making approach through which the teacher makes thoughtful choices each day about the best way to help each child become a better reader and writer. It is an approach that requires and frees a teacher to be a reflective decision maker and to fine tune and modify what he or she is doing each day in order to meet the needs of each child. (Spiegal, D.L., 1998. Silver Bullets, babies and bath water: Literature Response groups in a balanced literacy program. Reading Teacher, 52(2))
There are three blocks that fall within a balanced literacy framework: reader’s workshop, writer’s workshop, and language and word study. The key is striking a balance between all three on a regular basis, as well as balancing the types of texts used.
Click on “View the List” to read more about those three blocks.
Clearly there needs to be a balance when trying to raise the rigor of our instruction. We want to challenge our students, but we also need to meet them where they are and build those skills in a scaffolded way. We have to provide plenty of opportunities to interact with texts in a variety of genres and at a variety of levels, which adheres to the staircase of complexity the CCSS calls for. The most effective way to meet the demands of the Common Core Standards and ensure that balance within our instruction is to establish a balanced literacy framework, from kindergarten through 12th grade.
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In the reader’s workshop block, students read in a variety of texts with a range of teacher support. Texts used are not only those that are “just right.” Rather, complex texts can be used as well, which is a key piece to the Common Core Standards. The teacher may engage in literature study, where the class looks closely at a piece of literature or informational text and analyze it deeply. This can be done as a read aloud or shared read, where the teacher can build on that background knowledge or vocabulary that students need. When thinking about the Common Core Standards, this is where complex text can and should be used. The teacher may also engage in guided reading, where students work in instructional, or “just right,” text to build fluency and comprehension skills. Here, the teacher works to bridge that gap that may exist in terms of reading achievement. This can be done in small groups through literature circles or book clubs at the upper grades as well. Finally, the teacher may engage in independent reading, where students build fluency and stamina in books that are at their independent reading level. This idea of building stamina is crucial given the demands of the Common Core Standards.
In the writer’s workshop block, students learn the craft of writing through various genres, formats, audiences, etc. During this block the teacher may engage in guided writing, which operates similarly to guided reading. Students build writing skills in a teacher-directed manner. The teacher may also engage in investigations, where students work independently, in pairs, or in small groups to conduct research. This aligns directly with the Common Core Standards, which requires students to research on a consistent basis. Finally, the teacher may engage in independent writing, during which time the teacher can conference with students individually to provide instruction exactly where they may need it. This also develops writing fluency.
Language and Word Study
In the language and word study block, students investigate our language and how it works, and learn about the conventions of writing and grammar. During this block, the teacher may use read-alouds or think-alouds to model various conventions of language. In addition, the teacher may engage in word study, where students work on various features of words that are appropriate to the developmental stage within which they fall using activities such as word sorts.