Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Balanced Literacy...the 411 - What is it, exactly?

Throughout the past 10 years in education, I have heard the term balanced literacy used repeatedly in typical teacher lingo.  People have described their curriculum as a balanced literacy curriculum.  I learned about it in grad school.  A supervisor once explained it as a new name for whole language.  I have seen basal reading programs described as a balance literacy approach.  I have seen Reading Workshop used synonymously with the term balanced literacy.  (Although it has many [varied] components of balanced literacy, you can have a balanced literacy block without using the workshop model.)  And, I have seen literacy block schedules made to attempt balance literacy within the classroom.  In every case, balanced literacy looked different.  Its definition was dependent upon the person who spoke of it.  Even articles on the internet each have their own version on balanced literacy. 

So what is it?

In short, think of it this way, “I do, we do, you do.”  I look at balance literacy like this…a model to use in the classroom to teach reading.  It is really a blend and balance of phonics and whole language.  You are moving students from teacher dependent reading to independence.  That’s all.  Reading Workshop, basal programs, and the like lend themselves to the model, but basically, if you stay true to the following components, you will have the basic gist of today’s accepted definition of balanced literacy.  You can balance your writing by following a similar model.  The major components are:
  • The Read-aloud
  • Shared Reading
  • Guided Reading
  • Independent Reading
  • Word Study
How you chose to implement each one of the aforementioned may vary, as will the literature surrounding how to implement it.  Different researchers and authors will all put their own spin on how it is supposed to look.  Just to note, the term “balanced literacy” was first entertained by Michael Pressley, as noted on Timothy Shanahan’s blog.  Explicit instruction for skills and decoding words (phonics) blended with motivating students to read (whole language).

Here is a very basic breakdown and description of each of the components…

The Read-aloud
This is pretty much teacher dependent.  The teacher is reading a story to the class.  As the teacher is reading, they are stopping and modeling their thinking out loud (aka. think-aloud) to show the students how readers should think about and analyze the text.  At some point, these think-alouds should focus on the targeted strategy that is being taught, but it might also include past strategies as well.  Students are listening and observing the teacher model good, fluent reading.  Read-alouds should engage the interests of students when done properly.

Shared Reading
During shared reading, each student has a copy of the text.  If that is not realistic, then projecting the text or reading from a ‘big book’ will do just fine.  Students participate.  The teacher and students may read aloud, students may share their input and analysis, and words and strategies are discussed together as the text is being read.  The responsibility of reading and analyzing the text is split and there is active engagement.

Guided Reading
Guided reading deserves an article of its own.  I have read and seen so many variations, it is almost difficult to determine authentic guided reading.  I tend to stick with Fountas and Pinnell as my ultimate resource for guided reading.  Guided reading groups are very different than strategy groups.  If you have ever listened to your son, daughter, niece, or nephew read, you were probably participating in guided reading without even realizing it. 

Students are placed into small groups.  A story is selected at the students’ instructional level.  You introduce the story and the students whisper read to you.  Each student reads to you individually.  You listen and jot down observations, thoughts, and behaviors regarding their reading.  You help them when they need guidance, and you might pose a question to check for understanding of the text, a particular word, and to gain knowledge as to how they are applying reading strategies to decode and process text.  This is not round robin reading or a comprehension quiz.  This is observing strategies students are applying to gain meaning from the text.  Students do not need to be at the same place in the book at the same time, nor do you listen to the student read the entire story.  The story should be short enough that they can complete it in one sitting, but you are listening to them read a portion of the story.  Also note that you may not get to listen to every child read during the allotted time.  That is ok.  As the teacher, you should make one or two short teaching points based on your observations prior to dismissal of the group.  You should complete guided reading by recapping the story and eliciting feedback about the story from the students.  You may wish to end with additional word work, writing in response to reading, or conducting a running record on a student or two.  Guided reading can be challenging, but with practice, you will become more comfortable with it.  Guided reading is the bridge between dependent and independent reading.

Independent Reading
This is the ultimate goal.  A classroom of independent readers are applying all the strategies and methods you taught them.  They are reading a self-chosen text that is comfortable for them and doesn’t require assistance from the teacher.  They are reading the text accurately and can independently determine its meaning.  As the teacher, you may wish to conference with each student to ensure they are reading a book at the appropriate level and correctly applying reading strategies, but beyond that, you are not helping the student with the book.  I believe conferencing during independent reading is a component of Reading Workshop.

Word Study
As you may have noticed, the above focused on reading, reading strategies, and fluency and comprehension.  Little, if any, time has been given to word study, phonemic awareness, and phonics instruction.  Vocabulary should have been touched upon during the other components of balanced literacy, but should be revisited for specified, explicit instruction during this time providing additional strategies for students to discover new vocabulary.  Everything mentioned prior might be very closely related to whole language (learning the skills through authentic text), if I didn’t mention Word Study as a component of balanced literacy.  The word study portion is what allows you to integrate explicit phonemic awareness, phonics, and vocabulary instruction into your literacy block, thus pulling away from whole language and maintaining the integrity of a balanced literacy model.  Of course, phonemic awareness and phonics would have a stronger presence in kindergarten, first, and possibly second grades.  This is the balance of whole language and phonics and must be part of your literacy block on a regular, daily basis.

Writing
Writing is an essential part of literacy.  You will find, that when researching balanced literacy, some authors will choose to acknowledge it while others choose to focus only on reading. I find it difficult to say whether writing should be part of balanced literacy as I do believe balanced literacy is the balance between phonics and whole language.  It is leading children to become independent readers. 

However, for those who believe that writing should be considered part of balanced literacy, understand that you can follow the same model with writing that you would with reading.  It would consist of the write-aloud, shared, guided, independent writing, and word study.

Final Thoughts
Those are the basic ideas to focus on when saying that you have a balanced literacy block.  Each component could truly be an article within itself discussing the intricacies and nuances of what it looks like and strategies to use.  Perhaps that is to come.  Remember to keep the instruction student-focused and appreciate the freedom to make instructional decisions for each component based on your students’ instructional needs.


Sunday, February 26, 2017

The 5 Components of Reading

A colleague once asked me about the creation of literacy centers.  What should they be?  What should they include?  I advised her to devise literacy centers that focused around the 5 components of reading.  After a brief conversation, it was apparent that there was confusion as to what the 5 components of reading were.

Before anyone can discuss balanced literacy, reading strategies, Reader’s Workshop, or Writer’s Workshop, it is important to understand what the components of reading are.  According to the Reading First Initiative, 5 essential components of reading were identified.  They include:
  • Phonemic Awareness
  • Phonics
  • Vocabulary
  • Comprehension
  • Fluency
Often confused is the difference between phonemic awareness and phonics.  Therefore, a basic breakdown has been given below.

Phonemic Awareness
A wise professor of mine once said that phonemic awareness can be taught in the dark.  What she meant is that, phonemic awareness simply concentrates on sounds.  The student is identifying an manipulating sounds.  An example of this would be, “What sounds do you hear in the word hat?” 

If the student possesses mastery, they would be able to respond, “/h/ /a/ /t/.”

Phonics
When students begin identifying letters with sounds, they are then engaging in phonics instruction.  Both phonemic awareness and phonics instruction are relevant to kindergarten through second grade teachers, as well as teachers who work with struggling readers.  Although reading programs will touch upon phonics instruction in third grade, mastery is normally accomplished by the end of second grade.  If you are using Common Core, you will notice that the phonics standards sort of transition to word recognition-type requirements when the student reaches third grade.  Of course, practicing phonics skills through the upper elementary grade levels could be beneficial when supporting struggling readers.

Vocabulary
Often neglected, and often taught in isolation, vocabulary is critical to comprehension.  If the student does not have the ability to understand the words, or derive meaning from context, they are not going to understand what they are reading.  Word-rich classrooms and strategic vocabulary instruction are very important during the scheduled reading block.

Comprehension
Ah, comprehension.  Numerous strategies and skills.  Teachers may feel that comprehension instruction is always lagging.  So much to teach, and never enough time to get it done.  I understand.  I have been there.  I remember at the end of each year, reflecting on the quality and quantity of my instruction wondering if I prepared my students with the strategies and skills needed to comprehend text and be successful, future readers.

If you are a reading specialist collaborating with others, you may often hear the infamous phrase, “The student is not comprehending the text.”  Comprehension is incredibly challenging for all readers.  With strategic lesson planning, researched reading strategies, continuous practice, and sound methodologies, people of all ages will find success.  A variety of texts and genres will help as well.  However, there are so many things that must happen in the brain in order for humans to comprehend, it is pretty impressive that we are able to do it at all.  Comprehension can be a challenge.  But, we have been doing it for centuries and will continue to do so. 

On another note, keep in mind that when it appears that the student is unable to comprehend the text, it could be difficulty in understanding and gaining meaning from the text.  However, more often than not, the student may not have mastered another component of reading that is preventing them from comprehending the text at the appropriate level.  If you have the luxury of working with a reading specialist, seek them out.  They will be able to assist you in getting to the root of the comprehension issue.

Fluency
In order for students to comprehend, it is said that they must be fluent.  This rings true in many situations.  Poor fluency will lead to weakened understanding (comprehension) of the text.  If students are stopping to decode and figure out words too often, they will not be able to concentrate on what the meaning of text.  If they are making too many mistakes when reading (less than 95% accuracy), they may also struggle understanding the meaning of the text.  Note that some benchmark assessment kits may even require a higher accuracy score for the text level to be considered independent. 

There have been cases where I have seen student fly through a list of literal comprehension questions even with poor fluency.  They must have developed a coping strategy to allow them to comprehend what they are reading even if they are stopping at every third word.  I have often found that their level of comprehension will not go beyond the basic, literal comprehension question.  When answering higher-level, analytical, open-ended type questions, they will often falter.

Wrap Up
There you have it, the five components of reading.  If you live in NJ, or some other states in the nation, the Department of Education has also adopted Motivation/Background Knowledge as another essential component.  And in some instances, writing may have been thrown in there as well.


As you move forward, challenge yourself when planning and think about how you will connect these five components to help develop young readers.  How will this change the look of your lesson plan?  How will this change the lesson style and the way in which you teach children to read?  How will you change the way in which you communicate reading instruction?  They are all interconnected.  I encourage you to work with your colleagues, your reading coach, and your reading specialist.  It takes the expertise and experience of everyone to help children succeed.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Easy Start Word Walls

Having just posted about anchor charts, I felt Word Walls would be the next logical topic.  Word Walls are literally walls of words that are visible in the classroom.  They are displayed in pocket charts, on bulletin boards, or simply taped to an empty wall.  They provide another reference point for students.  They are words introduced to the student that are displayed in hopes that they start to use them in their language and writing.

I have seen them set up in a variety of ways.  I have seen teachers post a word of the day and add it to a list of other difficult words on their Word Wall.  I have seen words displayed in pocket charts that normally reside somewhere near the reading table.  I have also see teachers divide their bulletin board up into 26 sections.  One section for each letter of the alphabet where they categorize new vocabulary that students are encouraged to use.  However you choose to organize its display, keep in mind that choosing which words to include is one of the most important factors.

Before we dive into it, here are a couple of key points to remember when developing Word Walls…
  • They are student centered
  • It is a collaborative effort between the students and the teacher
  • They can be used across multiple subject areas
  • They are a reference point for students
  • They should be developed at student eye-level
  • Students should feel empowered to leave their seat and reference the Word Wall when necessary
  • It is another tool and way to explore vocabulary
  • Words should be challenging, but not so challenging that they are not used because the meaning does not translate or carry over
  • Words may need to be removed simply to make room for news words
Developing Your Word Walls With Your Students
Although they are many ways to organize your Word Walls, a few key points should be followed to ensure the quality of the Word Wall and their effectiveness.

Much like anchor charts, words walls should be student centered.  The teacher may be working with students with a particular group of words.  The teacher may find that she/he wants certain words to appear on the Word Wall.  But, through your vocabulary study and discussion of the word, students should help in deciding whether the word should appear on the wall.  Teachers may need to use guiding questions to arrive at this decision, but this is a wall of words that the students are building so that they have a reference point for future learning.

Teaching Point
When taking a look at a couple new words, I might ultimately make a decision of putting the first word on the Word Wall.  I might say, “We have talked about the word exaggerated in great detail.  This is an excellent word that we might be able to use in our narrative writing.  It helps explain how a person is speaking to another person.  It is a great word to use when trying to use dialogue in your writing.  I think I am going to add this word to the Word Wall.”

In that situation, I modeled a think aloud explaining why a word belongs on the Word Wall.  It is a word that I think is appropriate for the grade level, a word that can be used in writing, and has a purpose in dialogue.

Moving forward, I would encourage students to think about words in the same way and arrive at their own consensus in determining if the word should be posted.  They are not only making decisions for their own success, but they are exploring the word in great detail simply by talking about it.  They are exploring the meaning, its usefulness and relevance, and when it is appropriate to use the word.  They are also determining if this is a word they think they could use in their writing.

On the flip side, I have seen teachers choose words at random way above grade level.  I think that introducing students to complex words and text is imperative in meeting the rigors of the Common Core.  However, if the word it too far ahead of their current level, the word meaning may not resonate, and might get lost among a myriad of other difficult words.  SAT words in a 5th grade classroom may not translate into future conversation and writing.

Across Subject Areas
Word Walls may not be vocabulary from the story, but they may also be literary terms that students are learning as part of their LAL instruction.  Word Walls need not be pigeon-holed to Language Arts/Literacy (LAL).  Word Walls lend themselves as a useful tool in all subject areas.  After all, using domain specific vocabulary is one of the Common Core State Standards. 

When setting up my classroom, each subject would have a section of the room.  There, I would display the anchor charts relevant to that subject as well as the Word Wall.  LAL and writing would be built relatively close together because so many of the skills work in tandem.  The vocabulary in student textbooks might lend itself to be the best resource when determining Word Walls for specific subjects, however there is no reason to just use those words.  If there are words that you or the students think are relevant and worthy of being posted, discuss the word and post it.

Word Walls Specific to Math
I have heard many teachers talk about how students struggle solving word problems and constructed response problems in math.  After much discussion, I have observed time and time again that one of the main reasons for the problem lies in the fact that the students have a limited repertoire of math vocabulary.  What better way to build that vocabulary than to create a math Word Wall.  It will serve as a constant reminder of what the students are expected to remember and know when solving word problems.  Improvement in work was noted in my classroom when math Word Walls were available.  They had a reference point and list of math words they could use if they found it relevant to the practice problem they were working on.  After much practice, these math words naturally found themselves as part of daily math conversation and daily work.

Changing Word Walls
I have found that Word Walls tend to change less frequently than anchor charts in my classroom.  Of course, if you are running out of room, you may need to make a decision to remove some words in order to make room for others.  However, the words should be used regularly throughout the year.  If you find you need room and need to remove words from the Word Wall, take 5 – 10 minutes during a morning meeting, and include the students in deciding what words should come down.  They decided which words to include, and they should decide which words to remove.  Talk about it, collaborate, and ensure students are able to give examples of their use of the word without referencing the Word Wall so you know that it has become part of their lexicon. 

Final Thoughts
Like anchor charts, students should feel a sense of ownership in the development of the Word Wall, as well as empowered to leave their seat and reference the Word Wall when they are stuck, need a point of reference, or need additional assistance. This is another way of encouraging independence and problem-solving if students are experiencing a small writing block.  Don’t forget to keep the Word Wall at eye level.


Word Walls are a must in creating a word-rich environment.  Just about everything we do involves literacy and words in some capacity.  The classroom must be designed as a literacy classroom because all subjects will use reading strategies during instruction at some point.  Word Walls contribute to this.  Every subject contains new vocabulary that students need to use in conversation and writing.  What better way to address it than using Word Walls.