Let me tell you a story.
Many years ago, there were two great armies. One army consisted of starry-eyed dreamers who believed in a whole language approach to teaching reading. The other army was made up of drill-em-and-kill-em phonics obsessives who mostly had a commercial interest in selling phonics programmes. These armies battled and skirmished until, one day, academics and bureaucrats negotiated a settlement. “Best practice involves a balance of approaches,” they proclaimed. And thus the sensible, pragmatic, utterly reasonable and measured ‘balanced literacy’ was born. And this is how we teach reading in Australia.
It’s a good story. It’s an uplifting story. But it’s a story nonetheless. And it is a story that has been manufactured quite deliberately.
Systematic synthetic phonics (SSP), the approach championed by those phonics obsessives, is supported by the best scientific evidence available. Despite the alternatives to SSP grabbing hold of words like ‘whole’ and ‘balance’, SSP is a complete approach to teaching early reading and not a dry worksheet shuffling exercise. Three English speaking governments have commissioned expert panels to review the evidence and SSP was broadly found to be the most effective by all of them (here, here and here).
Balanced literacy achieves its balance by adding in less effective whole language practices such as the three-cuing system (searchlights), asking students to memorise large numbers of sight words and incidental rather than systematic phonics teaching.
Typically, children’s readers are not chosen on the basis of which grapheme-phoneme correspondences they have learnt but on the basis of various approaches to ‘levelling’ books, often based on factors such as sentence length. This can lead to a frustrating early reading experience. Given that much early reading instruction is outsourced to parents, this frustration will play out in the family home.
Balanced literacy appears to have been influenced by Reading Recovery. This is a one-to-one intervention originally designed to mitigate the worse effects of whole language teaching. Latterly, it has added elements of phonics. I have written a number of posts about the relative ineffectiveness of Reading Recovery (e.g. here and here) and it seems to have influenced the current New South Wales L3 programme.
I believe that the story about balanced literacy has been constructed by those who are committed to alternatives to SSP, whether these are proponents of whole language or Marxism-inspired critical literacy. By muddying the waters, the methods that sit at the foundation of many careers can persist in the face of overwhelming evidence.
There is evidence of a deliberate attempt to paint a negative view of SSP in the minds of politicians. In 2009, there was a proposal to run a trial in Australia of Multi-Lit, an SSP programme. One whole language advocate suggested flooding the relevant minister’s office with emails making use of ‘framing theory’. The idea was to associate Multi-Lit with ‘failure’ in the minister’s mind and to coin the term ‘readicide’ to describe it.
So don’t accept the stories you are told at face value. Evidence supports SSP. ‘Balancing’ it with ineffective whole language practices serves only to weaken the teaching of reading and increase the number of children with reading difficulties.