The concept of ‘Balanced Literacy’ is interesting. If you look for a definition then you may be disappointed. The Wikipedia entry on Balanced Literacy ‘has multiple issues’ but offers this:
“A balanced literacy program uses research-based elements of comprehension, vocabulary, fluency, phonemic awareness and phonics and includes instruction in a combination of the whole group, small group and 1:1 instruction in reading, writing, speaking and listening with the strongest research-based elements of each.”
This sounds good. It aligns, for instance, with the ‘Big Five’ areas of focus set out in the U.S. National Reading Panel report (2000) into the effective teaching of reading. So why do we tend to see proponents of Balanced Literacy on one side of the argument and proponents of systematic phonics teaching, who often draw on the National Reading Panel report, on the other?
This is not a new problem. The concept of Balanced Literacy was put forward by Michael Pressley in 1998 in an attempt to resolve the ‘reading wars’ between those who focus on the central role of phonics and those who stress the importance of a ‘holistic’ whole language approach where children are immersed in a literature-rich environment. Already, by 2002, Pressley and his colleagues were noting how the term, Balanced Literacy, had been distorted by those with an agenda:
“…in the past several years, many other books have used the phrase “balanced instruction” or some variation of this phrase. Some of these recent books suggest heavy doses of skills, with many pages devoted to conceptualizing, describing, and defending skills instruction while mentioning holistic opportunities only in passing. Others devote many pages to conceptualizing, describing, and defending holistic teaching, and recommend skills instruction as something that can be done in the context of holistic reading and writing and only when the need arises.”
Over the years, it seems like the latter distortion has gained the most ground. Much as the term ‘whole language’ appears to encapsulate all elements of reading but became associated with an approach largely lacking in phonics instruction, Balanced Literacy has become its successor.
For instance, the body of the Wikipedia article describes the ‘Reading Workshop’ model of instruction. There is little in this to suggest the systematic teaching of letter-sound relationships, as recommended by the National Reading Panel. The focus is more on read-alouds with ‘word study’ as a separate afterthought.
Anecdotally, schools that describe their practice as ‘Balanced Literacy’ tend to send out long lists of ‘sight words’ for students to memorise by sight rather than decoding them using phonics. There are also plenty examples of ‘three-cuing’ or ‘searchlights‘ strategies that ask children to guess unknown words from context rather than sounding them out. This is not a good approach because it effectively teaches children to do what bad readers do, crowding out space for the phonics decoding strategy recommended by the National Reading Panel.
I cannot be definitive, however, about what Balanced Literacy looks like in every single classroom. And I wonder whether there is method in this. Is it useful to keep the definition vague? Perhaps. That way, if Balanced Literacy instruction fails young readers, we may always insist this is because it hasn’t been done properly without the difficulty of having ‘properly’ clearly defined. Here’s Paul Thomas, an education professor from the U.S. using exactly this fallacious reasoning:
Notice the reference to the Trumpian construct of the mainstream media (MSM). This is because a journalist, Emily Hanford, has sparked a debate about reading instruction in the U.S. and the professors do not like it.
Hanford has written a number of articles about the inadequacies of reading instruction in American classrooms, be it ‘balanced’ or otherwise (e.g. here). Her criticisms will be familiar across the English-speaking world – the lack of a systematic approach to phonics instruction and the inclusion of flawed strategies such as guessing words from context. Commendably, and perhaps unexpectedly, this has struck a nerve with the American public and led to a larger debate.
The latest volley has been a ‘policy statement‘ by the official-sounding National Education Policy Center, which appears to be run by academics at the University of Colorado. They have taken issue with supporters of systematic phonics using the term ‘science of reading’ and claim:
“…there is no settled science of reading… the research base and evidence base on reading and teaching reading is diverse and always in a state of change.”
Daniel Willingham, a psychology professor who has written extensively about the application of psychology to education, took issue with this statement, noting, among other points, that there is no ‘settled’ science of anything. Science is always contingent. That’s how science works. That doesn’t stop the contingent science of today being something we should pay attention to when it is pertinent to questions such as the most effective ways of teaching reading.
Paul Thomas then fired back in a most extraordinary post: Willingham is a psychologist not an education professor and it’s a form of bullying for psychologists to comment outside of their field. How disrespectful! Don’t you know there’s a long history of education scholarship? Anyway, psychology is facing its own replication crisis so what do psychologists know? And what about the fact that Willingham missed all the nuance and complexity in the National Education Policy Center statement? Oh, and trespassing in other fields is often a veneer for ‘academic sexism’.
I can only conclude that Thomas could not think of a way of obliquely accusing Willingham of racism or transphobia. Perhaps next time…
Where does this leave the positive case for Balanced Literacy? Well, I’m not entirely sure what Balanced Literacy is and I’m not entirely sure that there is one.