By Teachers, For Teachers
My first year in education was spent teaching fifth grade reading, language arts, and social studies. I didn’t know the first thing about teaching a fifth grader how to read or write, but there I was, expected to have them ready for middle school in nine short months! For the sake of my students (and my budding career) I could not fail, so I began researching how to teach reading and writing and immediately stumbled upon the balanced literacy model.
Balanced literacy is an instructional approach that combines differentiated instructional strategies to meet individual student needs as they develop reading and writing skills. This approach emphasizes the daily development of oral language, thinking, and collaborating as the foundation of literacy learning. The balanced literacy framework combines the explicit reading and writing instruction of the whole language approach with historically isolated phonics-based instruction to gradually release literacy learning from the teacher to the student.
In a balanced literacy classroom students have the opportunity to listen to an adult read every day in order to hear what effective reading sounds like and to develop an appreciation of reading. During the read aloud, which happens during whole group instruction, the teacher stops at planned points to ask questions to elicit student response while modeling fluency, self-monitoring strategies, and comprehension strategies to teach students to think more deeply about text.
During shared reading the teacher selects a grade level text and enlarges it so that all students can see. Reading is shared between the teacher and the students (although the teacher does most of the reading), and the same strategies and skills that were modeled during the read aloud are practiced in the whole group by students with teacher and peer support.
Guided reading groups are small groups of no more than six students who are at the same or similar instructional reading levels. Students read text at their instructional level while the teacher explicitly teaches and students practice the reading skills they need to develop. Guided reading is a favorite for many teachers because it gives them the opportunity to work with students in a small setting and gain important information about students’ individual needs.
Students read self-selected texts at their independent reading level to improve fluency and automaticity while practicing the strategies and skills learned during read aloud, shared reading, and guided reading. Having students respond to their reading in a meaningful way (through writing, drawing, or discussing) gives teachers information on how well students are able to access text independently.
Word study, an alternative to traditional spelling instruction, is based on learning word/spelling patterns instead of memorizing how to spell unconnected words. Students are given the opportunity to investigate and understand the patterns in words, which means they don’t have to learn to spell one word at a time, and because it is closely tied to reading instruction, it develops students’ phonics, word recognition, and vocabulary abilities.
Shared writing combines teacher modeling and whole class practice of writing skills. The teacher models the writing process with a specific focus on the writing strategy/skill students are learning. This modeling is done on paper or a surface large enough for all students to see and, like shared reading, students have the opportunity to practice the modeled skill during whole group with teacher and peer support.
Unlike the other components of the balanced literacy approach, guided writing only happens two to three times per week in all grade levels. During guided writing, teachers work with students who are writing at similar levels in a small group setting to individualize instruction based on students’ needs.
Independent writing is the students’ opportunity to practice the skills they have learned while writing about a topic of their choice or writing to respond to a prompt. Writing every day provides invaluable practice and opportunity for feedback to get students to reflect on not only the content, but the structure of their writing.
Although the approach is the same when students get to the intermediate level, the structure for implementing balanced literacy differs slightly from the earlier grades. Whereas the components of balanced literacy take place daily in a primary classroom, only read aloud, independent reading, and independent writing happen daily in the intermediate classroom. Guided reading and guided writing groups meet two to three times per week, depending on the needs of each small group, while shared reading, shared writing, and word study happen once at the beginning of the week to set the focus strategy or skill for the entire week.
Components of balanced literacy are seen in classrooms less and less as students progress through school; however, the benefits of balanced literacy in intermediate level classrooms and beyond are undisputable. The explicit modeling, built-in talk time, independent practice, and consistent feedback that are paramount in the balanced literacy approach are necessary for students’ literacy skills to advance.
If these instructional strategies don’t continue past third grade, what happens to the literacy levels of students? The need for students to one day be fully literate does not vanish when students leave the primary grades! If prerequisite literacy skills are absent, they must be taught regardless of a student’s age, and balanced literacy allows the dedicated time and structure needed for differentiated instruction to take place so the needs of all students can be met and gaps in learning can be filled.
Success with a balanced literacy program begins with having an uninterrupted literacy block with succinct routines and procedures for moving from one component to the next, so having dedicated spaces for each component to take place is important. Teachers must have a wide variety of reading materials in the classroom for use during the read aloud, for students to access during independent reading, and to serve as examples of good writing. Including high/low readers (high interest/low readability) texts in the classroom library helps to ensure that all students find something they can and want to read. Student choice is key! Also, integrating science and social studies concepts into the literacy block allows students to build literacy skills and content knowledge simultaneously.
Micah is an elementary school principal and holds an M.Ed. in Education Administration.