Back to Balanced Literacy in NYC?

To those familiar with the history of New York City schools, this should come as no surprise: NYC schools chancellor Carmen Fariña is pushing for a return to Balanced Literacy, which she has long supported and which she sees as compatible with the Common Core.

Some dispute her claim; a New York Times article by Javier Hernández  quotes Common Core architect Susan Pimentel, who says that part of the Balanced Literacy philosophy is “worrisome and runs counter to the letter and spirit of Common Core.” Later, it states that she sees the two as potentially compatible. Compatibility aside, is this return to Balanced Literacy a good idea? I say emphatically no–and will give two reasons that weren’t mentioned in the article. It was in large part my objection to Balanced Literacy (as dogma) that spurred me to write Republic of Noise.

Balanced Literacy, which traces back to initiatives of the 1970s and 1980s, rests on the premise that children learn best when allowed to teach each other and themselves. The teacher is a “guide on the side,” not a “sage on the stage”; students have frequent opportunities to choose their own books; and most lessons involve small group work (or sometimes independent work). The program was extensively developed in NYC schools in the 1990s. Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein mandated it throughout NYC schools in 2003. It is the foundation of the Reading and Writing Project, founded by Lucy Calkins.

While certain elements of Balanced Literacy, applied prudently, could be part of good teaching anywhere, the program as a whole has dangerous weaknesses. Many critics have pointed to the lack of curricular focus and the implied disparagement of direct instruction. The NYT article quotes Robert Pondiscio, who became an eloquent and passionate critic of Balanced Literacy as a result of teaching it in the South Bronx:

“One of the best things you can do to build reading proficiency is to build a strong base of background knowledge,” said Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow and vice president at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a research organization. “When you have 24 kids reading 24 books, you’re not accounting for that.”

Indeed. Moreover, when there’s no specific content that the students are learning together, what do they get instead? Strategies, strategies, and more strategies. Reading strategies, writing strategies, strategies for remembering your strategies. In the absence of content, such strategies become vapid. Forget about holding a candle; they can’t even hold hot air to subject matter. Also, some of these “strategies” involve sidestepping the text–for instance, a teacher might encourage students to figure out unfamiliar words (that is, to figure out what they actually are) by looking at the pictures.

Here’s my contribution to the discussion: Balanced Literacy is to be distrusted because it is an all-encompassing pedagogical package that comes with both a worldview and a fever. Moreover, its emphasis on group work discourages high-level, sustained, and original work and thought.

Balanced Literacy begins with a belief in the ultimate expertise of the child. The child is already a reader, a writer; he or she just has to learn how to be “professional.” To that end, a lesson will present some nugget on “what good readers do” or “what good writers do” and then put the children to work in groups. They will all do this good thing that they’re supposed to do–maybe well, maybe poorly–and come back together again at the end of the lesson to share the fact that they did this good thing.

The irony is that the advanced and motivated student will suffer in this setup, because everyone’s talking about the process, the strategy, not the subject matter itself. And there is no escape.

Charts and slogans on the walls, mantras at professional development sessions; these things and more remind students and teachers that this is the way to do things and that other methods are relics of the industrial era. In a blistering article in City Journal, Sol Stern notes:

Under the rubric of “professional development,” DOE central headquarters launched an aggressive campaign to force teachers to teach literacy and math only one way—the progressive way. Each of the city’s 80,000 teachers got a six-hour CD-ROM laying out the philosophy behind the new standardized curriculum and pedagogy. The CD portrayed the world of progressive education writ large, with all its romantic assumptions about how children learn.

Nothing wrong with having a touch of the romantic in you; most teachers do. But Balanced Literacy insists you do, in a most unromantic and industrial way.

Now for the group work. When everyone’s talking at once, in multiple groups, the emphasis is on talking itself, not on the substance of what’s being said. In contrast, whole-class discussion allows for sustained, focused pursuit of an idea. There’s room for listening and thinking; there’s room for pitching in. One of the great gifts of the whole-class discussion (if conducted properly) is that it helps students learn to determine when they have something to say and when they don’t.

In addition, small group work (taken too far) drags down the intellectual level of the lesson. Because it can easily turn into plain socializing, Balanced Literacy teachers keep the students accountable by giving them a “task”–and sometimes assigning specific roles, such as note-taker, timekeeper, etc. Instead of discussing what’s subtle about Robert Frost’s poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” students might have to make a list of images and their own associations with them. Because there’s pressure to get the task done, unusual ideas may be shut out. (John Jewkes alluded to such a danger in a fascinating 1958 article on the nature of invention.)

Now, group work has its place; it is well suited to certain kinds of lessons and topics. I use it sometimes. I would not call for abolishing it. But Balanced Literacy insists on it–and thereby constrains instruction and makes the classroom noisy. One of the noisiest manifestations is the “turn and talk” activity–which may be fine for some situations but which, when overused, emphasizes talking over thinking.

For all these reasons and more, Chancellor Fariña should not call for more Balanced Literacy in NYC schools. Instead, she should call for attention to the subject matter–because when the substance is at the center, good methods and approaches can form around it.


Note: I made a correction to the second paragraph after posting this piece.




  1. Elizabeth says:

    Why, oh why do they keep recycling this garbage – everytime people catch on to its failings, its scuttled, then shortly resurrected under slightly different packaging.

    • Because it’s easier than teaching phonics, grammar and composition? Because it allows the pretense that “all” are learning (particularly the pair and group work)?

      • I think you’re right on both counts. It is easier (in that it requires far less content knowledge), and it allows the pretense (or even fosters the illusion) that “all” are learning. (I hope to say more about this “all” business soon.)

        • My younger kids had a young 6th-grade English teacher, in the 90s, who was very up-front about the uselessness of diagramming sentences and her inability to do it. (fortunately, one very elderly 7th-grade teacher made up for her lack) – and I’ve not heard of any great resurgence in teaching serious grammar and composition since then. I wonder how many teachers actually know grammar well enough to teach it effectively? At the ES-MS level, I’m guessing far too few – likely in HS as well.

          • Michael E. Lopez says:

            Well, to be fair, momof4, when some people say “diagramming a sentence” what they mean is following a very particular formula with very particular notations.

            I don’t know the “accepted” or “traditional” method for diagramming a sentence, but I think I understand the structure of grammar well enough that I could very easily create four or five different plausible systems for doing so.

            At some point in my education, I remember diagramming sentences. I don’t remember the technique we used, but the theory stuck with me very strongly.

            One might reasonably wonder whether any particular technique is, indeed, a waste of time or useless insofar as it is taught *for the sake of learning the technique*.

            But one might also wonder whether the theory of sentence structure can be taught without resorting to some concrete technique of sentence diagramming or another. I suspect it cannot.

        • “Emphasis on group work discourages high-level, sustained an original work and thought”. I agree, but the politicians, media and most of the ed world are unwilling to face the fact that not “all” kids are capable of the above – regardless of the resources provided – and some reject the idea of attempting same. By HS, I don’t think the latter group can be reached.

  2. There’s been quite a bit of recent discussion on the Kitchen Table Math website (link at left) about kids’ struggling with comprehension of serious texts; often because they don’t understand the sentence structure (passive voice, anaphora, subjunctive mood, multiple clauses etc.). Most kids need explicit grammar instruction and lots of exposure to such works – and few get either. The need is particularly urgent for kids who do not hear standard English at home or in their community.

  3. “Balanced Literacy… rests on the premise that children learn best when allowed to teach each other and themselves. ”

    Substitute sex education for balanced literacy and it becomes clear how inane this strategy really is. It is pretty obvious that if we rely on students to teach one another and themselves about sex, we wind up with a lot of pregnant teens. The last thing any responsible parent wants is for their child to learn about sex and birth control from other children. Why should we believe that children are any better at teaching each other reading than they are at teaching about sex?

  4. I hated diagramming sentences in English I/II, but in reality, I find that my communication skills are far more useful than my technical ones in I.T.

    I’d suggest getting back to phonics, grammar, and basic math concepts in a hurry. If we had to use this stuff in the 1940’s while educating our youth, we’d have never succeeded in landing a man on the moon in July of 1969.

  5. My dislike of balanced literacy comes from the phrase ‘what good readers do’. That is not a phrase that young children understand. How can a student become ‘good’ if he only hears a list of attributes that ‘good readers’ have and never receives instruction in developing the attributes himself? And why are fluent kinder readers told to ‘use the picture clues’, instead of being taught to use the dictionary or phonics? ‘Good readers’ at dra32 shouldnt be directed to use the same techniques as children at dra 3.