‘Balanced’ illiteracy

“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.”

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Comments

  1. Roger Sweeny says:

    “The fatal flaw of balanced literacy is that it is least able to help students who most need it.”

    I’m sure Farina has the best of intentions, but it is more important to do good than to mean to do good.

  2. Like coaching a sport? Has Lucy Calkins ever coached?

    Athletes spend an amazing amount of time on boring drill. Time in the weight room, time practicing the same exact move over and over until you can’t get it wrong, and time running or swimming for aerobic conditioning.

    My son is on a cross-country team (NCAA division III) and he’s starting to increase his weekly miles and add cycling. This week is a 55 mile week.

    Good athletes learn how to listen to the coach, how to ask questions. After a couple of disappointing track meets, my son asked for a meeting with the head coach. He switched events to steeplechase and set clear goals. He met them.

    That is how you get good at reading.

    • I was about to post something similar. For every 2 hour game, athletes have done hours of drill, sometimes alone, but at some point with coaches who gave specific directions or physically moved their bodies into the correct stance for batting or throwing. Athletes in some sports also spend time memorizing the plays that the coach draws up or learning the if x then do y rules for their sport, which change as they move to different levels. Coaching is not all sideline encouragement.

    • Mark Roulo says:

      Out of context, I love this:

      He switched events to steeplechase and set clear goals. He met them.
       
      That is how you get good at reading.

      and I thought … you get good at reading by switching to steeplechase??? :-)

  3. How is it remotely realistic to think that kids who aren’t native English speakers or who do not speak/hear standard English are going to “discover” the phonetic code or the grammatical structure and spelling of written English? I’m betting that the only kids who have much chance of doing any of that successfully are very bright, advantaged kids who are serious readers of very high-quality fiction and non-fiction; in other words, very few kids.

    • Exactly. I was the bright kid who read a lot (my mom is a children’s librarian, I may have been the only kid in Bakersfield reading E. Nesbit in those days). I am the poster child for the osmosis theory of learning grammar and writing–I was never taught any, but I absorbed a lot through reading and can construct coherent sentences.

      I struggled with grammar and writing for *years*. As a literature major at a prestigious college, I could barely write papers; it was like trying to make my way through a labyrinth with no map. It turns out that there is a map, and it’s decent grammar and writing instruction. As an adult, I put my kids through 5 years of Rod & Staff grammar and am making them do formal writing instruction. So far so good. Grammar may not be fun while you’re drilling, but it sure is nice to feel confident about the paper (business letter, grant proposal, resume cover letter) you just wrote.

      • My friend’s husband is an excellent businessman working in international markets. Like me, he never got solid grammar/writing instruction (we bond over this). My friend, his wife, went to a prep school and edits all his business correspondence.

  4. Commenters are making some good points. But please remember that in sports and music, it’s the student’s choice whether or not to participate, while with reading we insist that all attain proficiency (with good reason). So it makes sense to mix fun (or at least engaging) activities in with the direct instruction. And don’t forget, in sports and music, there is an enjoyable big payoff too — the performance or the game.

    • But they’re doing it wrong. They’re not teaching the kids to read and write, they’re sitting them in class and hoping they maybe teach themselves to read. That’s stupid. Teach the kids how to read–and this is a job for the teacher, not the students. It’s not even clear that “Balanced Literacy” is actually teaching anything; the teacher quoted admitted that it’s only for kids who *already know how to read.* Imagine a flight school program that only achieved success with pilots who already knew how to fly. What is the point of that school? How does it serve the students who want to learn how to fly? Oh, you mean it doesn’t? How is that situation different from a school curriculum that only works if the parents have done the teacher’s job for her?

      As for fun, there’s no dichotomy between teaching the kids to read and the kids having fun. It’s not as if 6-year-olds are expected to decipher treatises on economics. It’s not as if there’s no Clifford or Madeline or Curious George. There are plenty of age-appropriate *fun* books for the teachers to use in their lessons. Yet time and again the “fun” comes at the expense of learning to read; it’s “instead of” rather than “woven through.” Worse, there’s no payoff, because the kids don’t learn to read. They don’t learn to spell. They don’t learn grammar. They just don’t learn. There’s no excuse for that. All the so-called “fun” isn’t worth that.

      • “They’re not teaching the kids to read and write, they’re sitting them in class and hoping they maybe teach themselves to read.”

        No, they aren’t. The author explicitly refers to the independent reading and writing period, or SSR and SSW. It’s during this time that the students pick their own work.

        I agree it’s a waste of time, but there are better things to do than whine about it, which I hope the author tried.

        But anyone who thinks that the kids are handed a book and expected to learn how to read is ignorant. There are real issues with Balanced Literacy, but your description is ludicrously uninformed. The debate and tradeoffs are far more subtle than that.

        Most of the rest of the commenters are equally ill-informed.

        • Michael E. Lopez says:

          Cal’s mostly right.

          Mostly.

          There are some teachers who use these sorts of “techniques” as an excuse to get the kids to shut up for a few minutes. But they are a small minority.

          • Perhaps. However, as we’ve repeatedly seen, Balanced Literacy is a method that works best with kids who already know how to read and have their parents or their tutors doing the bulk of the work. It does not work for kids who need to be taught, which defeats the whole purpose of sending those kids to class.

          • J.D. Salinger says:

            Glad you and Cal have fun whining about commenters.

  5. This is why the denigration of “tracking” is flawed. It assumes that an efficient and effective use of teacher time is to either:
    - teach at a variety of levels, with multiple inputs from teacher to assist the struggling students, while ignoring the misbehavior/”tuning out” of students who are NOT getting any attention
    - one lesson, one way – aimed at the middle group. Both the low-end learners and the high-end learners have to adapt.

    How about a Modified Tracking? Just limit the range of skill levels the teacher has to deal with, with multiple opportunities to move ahead, if the student’s progress warrants it. No “sentencing” any student to a particular track, but moving between tracks, as SKILL level dictates.

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      Though educators wish it weren’t true, reality seems to be that students learn more when you “limit the range of skill levels the teacher has to deal with.”

      However, I see two big problems with Modified Tracking.

      1) Lots of people worry that the group you start in in first grade is the group you’ll stay in forever, that it will turn into a sort of academic caste system. If higher skill groups move ahead faster, anyone trying to move from a lower to a higher group will enter behind and will have to make up work. It seems to me that the school would have to do something between the time the student leaves the slower group and the time the student joins the faster group to get the student
      “up to speed.” Some students (how many?) may not want to advance because it means leaving people they know.

      2) The rate at which students can pick up school knowledge differs tremendously. Some groups will fairly quickly move past their “grade level” and others will fall below. This would require breaking the present system where students stay together and move ahead one grade each year.

      It would be even more complicated to the extent that the same student moves ahead at different rates in different subjects. No doubt I suffer from a failure of imagination but I’m not sure it would even be possible to get the right students to the right places with the right teachers through the day and through the year.

      • Mark Roulo says:

        No doubt I suffer from a failure of imagination but I’m not sure it would even be possible to get the right students to the right places with the right teachers through the day and through the year.

        For the earlier grades (K-5 maybe), couldn’t you just have all the teachers teach subjects at the same time of day. So:
         
        8AM – 9AM: Math
        9AM – 10AM: Reading
        10AM-11AM: History
        etc.
         
        Give kids five minutes to switch from Ms. Barley’s class to Ms. Wheat’s class because one is teaching bluebird Math and the other is teaching redbird Reading.
         
        The kids would have a few different teachers rather than one for the entire day, but this seems like it would work. For K-5

        • This is exactly what happened to me in Elementary school. There were three fifth grade teachers, and we were divided into three homerooms, three different groups for Math, and three different groups for English.

        • palisadesk says:

          I’ve been in several schools that do this, to a limited degree, but it’s less practical than it sounds. It is impractical in a very small school (with perhaps one classroom per grade) and works best if there are several classrooms per grade, and these can be scheduled to have math and language at the same times. Then the teachers can organize homogeneous groupings in those subjects and the students can move between the two or three classrooms accordingly.

          But this is not always feasible due to scheduling other subjects: gym, art/music (especially if taught by a specialist teacher), computer lab, library, science, social studies etc. It can be impossible to schedule compatible classrooms for this kind of grouping at the same times.

          This kind of grouping has a name: the “Joplin plan” which has some, but not a huge amount of, evidence of effectiveness. A major problem I have seen is that teachers often do not know how to teach the lower performers effectively. It is a specific skill set and can certainly be learned but there’s no readily accessible way to learn it. Without intensive, effective instruction the low performers will do worse in a homogeneous grouping than they will in an “included” setting. A number of meta-analyses have shown this.

          • Roger Sweeny says:

            “A major problem I have seen is that teachers often do not know how to teach the lower performers effectively. It is a specific skill set and can certainly be learned but there’s no readily accessible way to learn it. Without intensive, effective instruction the low performers will do worse in a homogeneous grouping than they will in an “included” setting.”

            I’m not following. If teachers in both “inclusive” and more homogeneous classes don’t know “how to teach lower performers effectively,” it wouldn’t seem to matter which kind of class they were in.

            Is it a behavioral or motivational thing? Perhaps putting the lower performers together lowers their motivation and/or concentrates many of the kids who are disruptive.

          • palisadesk says:

            Roger Sweeny, the issue is multifaceted, but you’re on the right track — the dynamics of instruction change greatly when you have the lower performers as a discrete, separate group. Behavior and motivation can factor in — and often do — but the whole interaction in the learning environment is very different and calls for different pacing, strategies, technique, presentation and feedback, among other things.

            Outstanding teachers of a diverse group will often find teaching a homogeneous group of lower performers a frustrating and difficult experience. It takes a certain skill set and perhaps personality type to excel at teaching the lower performing kids effectively (so that they make good progress, at a much more accelerated rate than in a heterogeneous setting).

            Thus many kids with lesser ability or with learning issues do far better with an outstanding teacher in an “inclusive” classroom than when withdrawn for instruction in a homogeneous group — there is, unfortunately, plenty of data on this.

            Speaking only for myself, I was well aware of being a very mediocre teacher of the gifted and talented, average at mixed-ability general ed classes, and spectacularly successful with low performers grouped homogeneously. Unfortunately, elementary education is not regarded as one where teachers are allowed to have special talents. They are supposed to be interchangeable widgets.

  6. Elizabeth says:

    Of course this will be pushed, with the full backing of as much $ as possible – the ultimate definition of hyperbureaucracy – the poorer the results, the more resources are devoted to it.

  7. palisadesk says:

    “Balanced Literacy” is frequently poorly understood as to its exact practices. It is *not* “Whole Language” or a “discovery” approach, nor is it one where there is little or no direct teaching of reading skills. Once can argue (as I do and have frequently done here and elsewhere) that it is not an effective or parsimonious way to teach reading to younger children (it has better results at the middle school level with normally achieving kids).

    The most frequent incarnations of “Balanced Literacy” are the Fountas & Pinnell model, the Four Blocks model, and the Literacy Cafe model (you can google them) but all have a definite teacher-directed instructional component that includes phonics skills, vocabulary,comprehension skills, spelling and writing. Some is whole-class, most is in “leveled groups” which are within-class groupings based on a balanced literacy assessment such as the DRA (Developmental Reading Assessment) which is a holistic measure based on “leveled texts” as developed by Fountas and Pinnell. YouTube has videos of the DRA for anyone who wants to watch.

    Rather haphazard skills instruction has always been the norm; even when “phonics” was expressly taught, largely through workbooks, it was not spectacularly successful because there was limited in situ practice with feedback and it was divorced from most real reading and writing contexts. No less an expert on early reading than Marilyn Jaeger Adams said, “We know that phonics worked better than Whole Language, but not all that much better.”

    BL attempts to address this, with middling success with higher performers, much less with ELL students or students who need systematic instruction (these are often bright kids with no LD, just ones who need the structure and sequence, as most do in music and sports); lower ability and kids with language disorders are even more at risk with the less-structured approach of BL.

    It is possible — I know because I have done it — to combine some of the better elements of BL with an instructivist, direct teaching approach to phonics, spelling and grammar, but it takes a lot of effort on the teacher’s part and one has to be prepared to buy on one’s own dime the needed materials. I was fortunate in that I worked in schools where administrators were busy with multiple “issues” and since my students learned well and parents were happy I had no complaints.

    The “accountability” movement, however, has made it harder to do this, as teachers are more stringently required to toe the policy line and use only approved materials etc.

    There’s a marketing opportunity out there for someone who wants to develop a more direct-instruction format that still keeps the more positive aspects of “balanced literacy” — and even its name. Who would go for “unbalanced literacy,” after all?