“Balanced literacy” failed when it was tried in New York City schools, writes Alexander Nazaryan in the New York Times. Yet, the new schools chancellor, Carmen Fariña, plans to bring it back. She also promises to return “joy” to classrooms.
Lucy Calkins, a Columbia University scholar, championed the idea: “Teaching writing must become more like coaching a sport and less like presenting information,” she wrote.
Students’ joyful exploration of reading and writing would be “unhindered by despotic traffic cops,” writes Nazaryan, who taught English. But “studies showed that students learned better with more instruction.”
I take umbrage at the notion that muscular teaching is joyless. There was little joy in the seventh-grade classroom I ran under “balanced literacy,” and less purpose. My students craved instruction far more than freedom. Expecting children to independently discover the rules of written language is like expecting them to independently discover the rules of differential calculus.
The fatal flaw of balanced literacy is that it is least able to help students who most need it.
Middle-class students with lots of enrichment at home may be able to teach themselves to write, he concedes. His students needed to be taught.
Nazaryan was “yanked out of the Soviet Union at 10.” His English-as-a-second-language teacher, Mrs. Cohen, “taught me the language in the most conventionally rigorous manner, acutely aware that I couldn’t do much until I knew the difference between a subject and a verb.”
He became a teacher “to transmit the valuable stuff I’d learned from Mrs. Cohen and other teachers to young people who were as clueless as I had been.”
Update: Fariña is ignoring the research, writes Dan Willingham. Students in New York City’s Core Knowledge schools did much better in reading than students taught with the city’s version of balanced literacy.
Why return to a teaching method that didn’t work well? Marc Tucker thinks Fariña “knows how effective it can be in the hands of highly competent teachers with good leadership.”