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 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.

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