Third graders at a mostly black, mostly poor school in Rockford, Illinois aced the state reading tests, coming in second behind a school for gifted students, a few years after their school adopted scripted, teacher-directed instruction in phonics in the early grades. But fifth graders, who’d been taught under the “balanced literacy” method, were reading poorly, so the principal expanded the direct instruction program to all grades. The district relieved the principal of her instructional duties and ordered a return to “balanced literacy,” reports the Rockford Register Star.
Lewis Lemon, along with Nelson and Kishwaukee — three of the district’s most impoverished elementary schools– began its academic climb in 2001.
Former NIU professor Bill Bursuck developed a program called Project Pride for kindergarten through second and third grades at the three schools. The program’s $720,000 in federal funding ended last school year, although teachers in these schools were trained to continue.
From 2000 to 2004, a grant-funded reading coordinator, Mary Damer, worked with teachers to incorporate phonics and drilling called direct instruction: Teachers read from scripts, ask students questions, and they chorus back responses.
Once students had a foundation to decode words, or sound them out as is done in phonics, teachers would move forward with other approaches. This came at the end of first grade or into second grade.
By 2003, third grade reading scores were up dramatically. Principal Tiffany Parker decided to use direct instruction for all grades. The district’s new instructional director, Martha Hayes, said the program won’t work with older students.
Hayes wants teachers to use a variety of approaches like at Johnson Elementary, where reading scores are among the district’s highest. Teachers there use an eclectic approach, including guided reading, with children working in small, ability-based groups where they read books specified at their level. As a teacher works with one group, other groups do more self-directed activities.
Parker maintains that the small groups with book rooms and learning centers didn’t work at her school. Lewis Lemon’s upper elementary teachers used the tactic before the switch to direct instruction.
Parker says she started out as an advocate of balanced literacy, but “got so frustrated over not meeting the needs of my kids” despite teacher training, reading coaches and funding. She points out that Lewis Lemon has high teacher turnover; scripted lessons help inexperienced teachers be effective. Johnson has a more stable, experienced staff and mostly middle-class students.
A school board member asks a good question: “Why mess with success?”
Thanks to The Instructivist, who thanks Professor Plum, who quotes a subscribers-only story in the New York Sun by Andrew Wolf. The Sun story warns readers that New York City schools also are using “balanced literacy,” which Wolf calls “a revisionist term for the increasingly unpopular whole-language programs that research has proven don’t work for the lowest performing children – those most at risk – typically minority children.”