‘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.”

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. [Read more...]

Core Knowledge kids learn more in NYC pilot

Second graders scored significantly higher in reading comprehension at New York City schools using the Core Knowledge curriculum compared to similar students at other schools, reports the New York Times. Core Knowledge students also did better on tests of social studies and science knowledge.

The pilot tracked 1,000 students at 20 schools from kindergarten through second grade. Most of the comparison schools used “balanced literacy,” which mixes phonics and comprehension strategies and stresses reading fiction.

. . . children are encouraged to develop a love of reading by choosing books that are of interest to them. Teachers spend less time directing instruction, and more time overseeing students as they work together.

Reading nonfiction writing is the key component of the Core Knowledge curriculum, which is based on the theory that children raised reading storybooks will lack the necessary background and vocabulary to understand history and science texts. While the curriculum allows children to read fiction, it also calls on them to knowledgeably discuss weather patterns, the solar system, and how ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia compare.

Balanced literacy works well for children whose parents read to them daily,  said Katie Grady, principal of Public School 104 in Far Rockaway, Queens. “For my children, who are economically disadvantaged, they needed something more, and the Core Knowledge pilot had it,” Ms. Grady said.

Core Knowledge will mesh well with the new Common Core Standards, which call for teaching as much nonfiction as fiction.

I’m tutoring a first-grade boy this year. He loves to read about science: He likes bugs, the slimier the better. He also likes sci-fi: Star Wars, super-heroes and robots. He used the word “predator” correctly.

A return to “Death and Life”

I have been enjoying my recent return to Diane Ravitch’s latest book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System (Basic Books, 2010). I have read the book many, many times; I edited it and was research assistant during the final stages of revision. After dozens of readings, the book remains absorbing, invigorating, and beautiful.

As I read it this time, it occurs to me that the central error of Balanced Literacy is very similar to the error of implementing Balanced Literacy (or any other model) across a system. Ravitch’s book draws an implicit and compelling parallel between the two errors.

Balanced Literacy makes the mistake of putting the “strategy” at the center of instruction. Ravitch describes the approach in chapter 3:

Teachers are supposed to teach the prescribed strategies and procedures, and the students (alone or in groups) are expected to practice their reading strategies and refer to them by name. A student might say, for example, “I am visualizing,” “I am summarizing,” “I am making a text-to-self connection,” “I am making a prediction,” or “I am making an inference.”

The emphasis on strategies is misguided (in my opinion). Reading strategies, taught and applied generically, can distract from the text and distort its meaning. What’s more, one learns much more about literature from close reading of specific literature than from instruction in the strategies themselves. The strategy approach is supposed to apply to all students and texts, but each text should be approached on its own terms. Of course, patterns and general practices do emerge, but they come out of the careful reading and attentive listening.

So there’s the central error: taking a so-called strategy, which is ill-defined to begin with, and applying it to an array of situations, without carefully considering the specifics.

A similar error can be found in the very act of mandating Balanced Literacy across a district. Ravitch describes how Balanced Literacy migrated from District 2 in New York City to the entire school system of San Diego and then back to New York City as a whole. [Read more...]

Teachers still have genres in Minnesota

Schools have decided to adopt Balanced Literacy in District 719, Prior Lake-Savage, Minnesota.

But it’s not all bleak. Teachers will still be able to assign some books. According to the Savage Pacer,

Every reading class – which includes all K-5 classrooms and grade six through eight reading and English classes – will receive a “classroom library” consisting of around 250 age-appropriate fiction and nonfiction books from a variety of genres, said Greene. But despite the new approach to give students an array of reading options, teachers still will be able to assign some texts to entire classes.

“There’s going to be a balance,” the coordinator said. “It’s not going to be always that free-for-all reading. Teachers still have genres and they still have to introduce students to different things.”

What’s wrong with the existing curriculum? It’s “one size fits all,” says Greene.

Well, so is Balanced Literacy, but in a different way. Balanced Literacy focuses on reading strategies. Dan Willingham argues–and I agree–that content knowledge affects reading comprehension more profoundly than reading strategies do. But teachers under BL must focus on strategies nonetheless.

The phrase “one size fits all” is another example of the “witchery of words.” Anything can be called “one size fits all.” We must ask, one size of what? And all of whom?