I recently finished reading Dan Willingham’s book, Raising Kids who Read: What Parents and Teachers can do. Of particular interest to me (Zach) was the chapter in which Willingham described the infamous “Reading Wars”. Having just facilitated design thinking around literacy at my school, during which we started a discourse (Described in this recent post) around what constitutes “Balanced Literacy” – the compromise that was struck between the phonics-heavy and whole-language literacy camps – it’s become clear to me that how “Balanced Literacy” is actually interpreted by practitioners largely depends on who you’re talking to. Willingham acknowledges the fact in his book that your child may end up having a teacher who teaches a pretty thin program of phonics despite being in a district that brags of having adopted “Balanced Literacy” materials.
It seems that this misunderstanding or misuse of the term “Balanced Literacy” is confirmed by the literature (See, for example, Bingham & Hall-Kenyon, 2013). In Cunningham, Zibulsky, Stanovich and Stanovich’s fascinating study, “How teachers would spend their time teaching language arts” (2009), the researchers found that, despite increasing agreement by reading experts on empirically supported best practices for literacy (p. 418), there is a mismatch between agreed upon best practices and what teachers report they are spending their time teaching in the classroom. Basically, it was observed that teachers who highly valued a particular approach to reading instruction reported spending most of their time on instructional activities associated with that approach. A notable example is how Cunningham et al. found that teachers who privileged reading literature over other activities were not in keeping with current research and policy recommendations; i.e. they taught literature too much at the expense of, say, phonics. When left to their own interpretations of the meaning behind “Balanced Literacy,” teachers create literacy instruction that is unaligned with research and more in line with their own biases, skillsets, and preferences.
Not to go too far off-topic here, but it’s always confused me how curriculum design in general is often performed by treating every skill, standard, or concept as if each is equally important. In my experience, there’s usually no weight, hierarchy, or even the loosest of guidelines for how long a teacher should dedicate to each individual component of the curriculum to ensure that it is properly taught. Without any sort of weighting guidelines, a 3rd grade teacher in a school that uses the Common Core, for example, might mistakenly think it’s sensible to dedicate the same amount of time to teaching number facts, the building blocks for all of numeracy (Codding, Burns, & Lukito, 2011; Burns, Ysseldyke, Nelson, & Kanive, 2015), as they do to teaching the concepts of line, ray, and line segment. Clearly such geometric knowledge is comparably of less importance to a child’s success in future math than a developed sense of numbers! The conventional implementation of the PYP/IB (the curriculum framework I’m charged with teaching) follows the same flawed, weightless system. In fact, many PYP/IB schools find it’s their duty to periodically amend their planners to ensure that they arrive at a perfectly equal representation of each of the Learner Profile traits, as well as the key concepts and other PYP/IB curricular components. If we operate under the assumption that each of these components cannot possibly be exactly equivalent in value to one another, then ensuring that each is taught with equal footing makes little sense.
Looking back to how we do or don’t “balance literacy”, in the end I think my own conclusion for how to teach kids to read falls in line with Willingham’s (2015) recommendations, The National Reading Panel’s (2000) recommendations, and my findings from the research literature (Too many to count, but here are a couple of meta-analyses: Jeynes, 2008; Sermier Dessemontet et al., 2019); Teaching phonics should be a prioritized and emphasized instructional activity in K-2. These are the grades when students need to learn how to crack the code of how to read words. Perhaps counterintuitively, teachers should also at the same time decrease the total amount of time spent on Language Arts during these grades to give way for the other subjects: science, social studies, drama, design and whatever other subjects we teach (Willingham, 2015, referring to the data on how teachers often over-prioritize reading instruction from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development & Early Child Care Research Network, 2002). Teaching the content from a variety of subjects will help students to build the background knowledge necessary for reading comprehension in grades 3, 4, 5 and beyond (Schneider, Körkel, & Weinert, 1989). Phonics instruction “every once in a while”, or “as a last resort” just won’t cut it, and it sure ain’t “Balanced.”
Thank you for following this blog. You may have noticed an uptick in the amount of research cited in these posts. It’s been a worthwhile task, but it is certainly more time-consuming than what I was doing before! You can check out my (Zach’s) thoughts on embracing teaching as a research-based profession here, and follow my journey by following me on Twitter, @MrZachG.
Bingham, G. E., & Hall-Kenyon, K. M. (2013). Examining teachers’ beliefs about and implementation of a balanced literacy framework. Journal of Research in Reading, 36(1), 14–28. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9817.2010.01483.x
Jeynes, W. H. (2008). A Meta-Analysis of the Relationship Between Phonics Instruction and Minority Elementary School Student Academic Achievement. Education and Urban Society, 151–166.
National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and Early Child Care Research Network. (2002). The Relation of Global First-Grade Classroom Environment to Structural Classroom Features and Teacher and Student Behaviors. The Elementary School Journal, 102(5), 367–387.
National Reading Panel. (2000). Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction. NIH Publication No. 00-4769. https://doi.org/10.1002/ppul.1950070418
Schneider, W., Körkel, J., & Weinert, F. E. (1989). Domain-Specific Knowledge and Memory Performance: A Comparison of High- and Low-Aptitude Children. Journal of Educational Psychology, 81(3), 306–312. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-06188.8.131.526
Sermier Dessemontet, R., Martinet, C., de Chambrier, A. F., Martini-Willemin, B. M., & Audrin, C. (2019). A meta-analysis on the effectiveness of phonics instruction for teaching decoding skills to students with intellectual disability. Educational Research Review, 26(December 2018), 52–70. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.edurev.2019.01.001
Willingham, D. T. (2015). Raising Kids Who Read: What Parents and Teachers Can Do.