If your child is learning to read or about to learn to read, then you may have heard of the term “balanced literacy.”
In fact, the balanced literacy approach to teaching reading is still widely used in the school system across English speaking countries.
But, why does it have that strange name: balanced literacy? What exactly are we trying to balance out here?
By the end of this article, you’ll have a very clear understanding of what balanced literacy is, and also what to expect if your child is being taught to read using this approach.
While we’ll delve into some theory and look back at the past to understand how and why the balanced approach has become dominant in our school system, we’ll also illustrate the concepts with plenty of real-life examples.
So, let’s get started!
England is an exception to this. In general, schools in England use a more systematic/structured phonics-based approach in early reading instruction. Significant changes in reading instruction happened in English after the findings and conclusions on the Rose Report (2006)
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What is the balanced literacy approach exactly? A bit of background information
At the beginning on this article, I kind of joked when I said “what is it that we are trying to balance out with the balanced approach?” Well, actually, this is no joke at all! There are two things that are being balanced out here: the whole-language approach to teaching reading with the phonics approach.
If you didn’t know, phonics and the whole-language/whole- word approach are radically different methods for teaching reading, and these systems they have been fighting with each other for decades.
There’s even a term for this: “Reading wars.”
And even though the war seems to be sort of over now, in the past this was no joke…
Experts on both sides had very strong ideas about which approach was best. In fact, just to illustrate how heated all of this got, listen to this story:
Back in 1990 at a conference a phonics proponent (M. J. Adams) indicated that phonics and phonemic awareness were essential for becoming a truly skilled reader. A whole-language advocate who was at the conference got so upset by Adam’s presentation that said: “Someone get a silver bullet and shoot this woman, she’s a vampire.”
Apparently three witnesses at the conference recounted the story, and this is documented on the book “Essentials of Assessing, Preventing, and Overcoming Reading Difficulties” by David Kilpatrick, which is where I found out about the story myself.
However, this fight between phonics and the whole-word approach goes way back than that.
The book is based on Flesch’s personal experience. He offered to tutor a boy who had been held back in sixth grade because he couldn’t read. The boy, Johnny, couldn’t even read a simple word like “kid.”
Well, R. Flesch realized that no-one had told Johnny how to sound out words, how to decode. In other words, no-one had taught Johnny phonics, as the preferred strategies for teaching reading at the time in American schools were based on the whole-language method.
Even though the book became a best seller, it didn’t move the needle for real changes in the school system.
As you can see, positions were rigid, the air was extremely tense and the issue was even political!
So, how did the reading war end? Did one side win?
After years of whole-language/whole-word domination in schools, many people advocated for changes because, as mentioned before, Johnny STILL couldn’t read.
It was evident that something was simply not right with reading instruction, as reading scores were static and poor.
This worrisome situation led to major inquiries into how teaching reading was carried out. Inquiries are addressed to policy makers, so they can assess a situation and make changes.
For instance, the 1998 report “Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children,” written by Catherine Snow, Susan Burns and Peg Griffin, which normally referred as to “The Snow Report.”
One of the main recommendations of this report was to stress out the importance of phonics. According to the report, the alphabet code should be taught from the first year of instruction and children should have regular and systematic practice to gain mastery in phonics, vocabulary, fluency and comprehension.
Another MAJOR report was the meta-analysis from the National Reading Panel, in the year 2000.
This report, again, concluded that phonics and phonemic Awareness were KEY elements for reading success.
I know you are thinking now…
Ok, so, how were these findings implemented in the classroom setting? Because… Phonics won the war, right?
And… What does this all have to with Balanced Literacy?
Let’s find out…
Did phonics really win the war? And what does this all have to do with Balanced Literacy?
Did phonics win the war?
Well, yes and no!
The issue was still hot and political. The proponents of the whole-word/whole-language approach did not really change their mind!
And we are not talking about a minority group here: there were many, and they were very influential!
So, to calm the waters came… Balanced Literacy.
The balanced literacy approach to teaching reading is the middle-ground solution, the compromise that was taken, to keep both sides happy.
If you want to understand more about the radical differences between phonics and the whole-word approach, check this post out.
So, great, compromise! Right? That’s good. It’s always good to sort out differences, try to find middle ground, etc. etc.
The balanced literacy approach takes bits from phonics instruction and bits from whole-word/whole language approach.
So, children are going to learn the alphabetic sound code, but -at the same time- are going to be introduced to other whole-word/whole-language strategies, such as word guessing or memorizing words.
How does the balance approach work in practice?
How can you go about unifying these approaches?
Being so radically different, is it even possible?
Well, I think it’s time to see real-life examples.
Nowadays, in most schools across English-speaking countries children receive some phonics training from the very first year of instruction. This can be in the form of alphabet warm-ups, songs, lessons and activities around letters and sounds, etc. It is also quite common to have “the letter of the week,” especially in pre-school settings.
This all sounds great and good, right?
Well… Remember, we have balance this out with the whole-word approach, though!
So, at the same time children learn about the alphabetic code, are taught letter sounds and even how to sound out words, they are also encouraged to memorize words and guess words.
In fact, the tips that you can find in the classroom, and that are given to parents -sometimes very beautifully laminated- to support their children when reading at home are all over the place because we have to please both sides, remember?
Let’s go through them one by one. But if you’d rather watch me reacting to them on video, watch this one on the Learning Reading Hub YouTube’s channel.
So, let’s have a look one by one to typical “word-solving” strategies that are given, handed out to parents and even beautifully laminated!
These are, by the way, a type of word-solving strategies normally associated with Fountas and Pinnel. Fountas and Pinnel have been connected to the balanced literacy approach since publishing the book “Guided book” (1996). In this book, they used the term “balanced” to describe the type of literacy instruction they believed was high-quality. In fact, many people consider them the founders of the balanced literacy movement. They are also big proponents of the use of leveled readers (more about that later in the article!)
- Checking: Check the picture to help figure out the word. Look at the picture, guess… Not a great strategy, ok?This tip sometimes is combined with some phonics: “Look at the picture, think what’s in the picture that starts with this letter sound, and make a guess.”I do not like that version either. It is a strange combination of whole word-language and phonics. But, still, not great phonics! Looking at the first letter and making a guess is not reading!
- Chunking: Look for “chunks” or patterns. Is there a little word inside the big word?Ok, this could work sometimes, but not all the time!I won’t go into a lot of detail here as to why. I must say that I sometimes use the strategy of smaller chunks with longer words, but you need to know what you are doing and when you should encourage your child to do this, since those smaller chunks are not always read the same.Think for instance of the words “mat” and “mate.” The kid maybe finds a familiar chunk “at,” but it turns out to be read in a completely different way… Super confusing for a beginner reader, ok? You need to be careful with this one! I mean, I’d rather just ask them to blend the sounds before attempting to do this…Ok, don’t worry, because that’s the next one!
- Sound it out—Stretch the sounds in the word; sound it out.Yes! Finally!
- Monitoring: Stop and think about whether the word makes sense, sounds right, and matches the print. Ok, another form of guessing!
- Skipping: Skip a hard word and read on; sometimes the rest of the sentence will help you with the word.Ok, skip the word now and guess later on… Again, this is whole-language at its finest, ok?
- Re-reading: Go back to the beginning of the sentence and start again. Ok, but what are you going to do when you go back to the beginning of the sentence and start again, guess or sound out?
- Fixing: If a word is read that doesn’t make sense, sound right, or look right, go back and fix it up.I mean, again, if you can’t read it, fix it… Sorry, not a good tip!
- Guessing: Guess what word might make sense in the sentence.See if the sounds match the letters on the page. Ok, great, at least, we call things by its name. This is guessing!
As you can see, we have a strange jumble of whole-word/ whole-language tips mixed with phonics tips.
In fact, in this list sounding out words is strategy #3, and it is the only phonics-related tip, out of eight tips in total!
Apart from that one, these tips are all about telling our children that reading is guessing, looking at pictures, skipping words…
We shouldn’t be surprised if our children end up believing that reading is all of those things, instead of decoding.
There’s even more!
The role of sight words and leveled books in the balanced literacy approach
So so far we’ve learned that with the balanced literacy approach to teaching reading children will receive some phonics instruction -and, by the way, how much strong/ how good this phonics instruction is/ how much time is devoted to it, varies A LOT from school to school, and from teacher to teacher- but, at the same time, they are given tips that encourage them to guess.
Apart fro that, two other KEY components in the balanced literacy approach are:
Sight words lists
When it comes to sight word lists, the common approach is to simply tell children that they have to memorize them.
Telling children they can use their phonics skills to read these words is not the the norm.
This is a real pity, since many of these words can be easily sounded out.
Again, imagine how confusing this that must be for children! This is completely contradictory with what they are being taught in their phonics lessons!
Why is it that our kids are being told that they have to memorize these words at school? Because the belief that these words don’t make phonetical sense is still commonplace. We’ve heard it so many times that we’ve accepted it as the truth! I’ve been a witness to that exact statement by a primary school teacher in a literacy meeting to parents. However, even if that’s what we’ve heard over and over, it doesn’t make it true. This belief has its roots in the whole-world ideology, and not on a proper analysis of these words. Learn more here.
These words are really important. They make up to up 75% of the words used in school books, children’s books and magazines, so we definitely need to teach them to children!
What’s unfortunate, though, is that there’s this total disconnect between phonics instruction and this second major component in reading instruction (high-frequency words.)
This disconnect is the result of this balance that we have been told we need to have between phonics and the whole-word approach.
Our analysis of the most commonly used high-frequency words (Dolch words) found that more than 70 % of high-frequency words are, in fact, decodable, and almost 40% follow very simple phonics rules.
So, why not align the introduction of high-frequency words with the phonics lessons children have?
Or, did you assume they were aligned?
They are not. The way in which we introduce these sight word lists is by frequency order, rather than by how easy or difficult they are from a phonics perspective, and how they match our children’s level of phonics.
What about trying to close that disconnect and introduce the phonetically decodable ones first, by order of difficulty?
And maybe add, little by little, also introduce a few irregular that are also very important extremely prominent. For instance, “the”, “a”, “has” or “have.”
Wouldn’t it make more sense? Wouldn’t it make things easier and less confusing for our children?
If you want to understand more about how to teach high-frequency words in this alternative way, I’d recommend you read this post, you download our freebie the Golden Document for understanding high-frequency words, and you check out this video. Hopefully, they will be eye-openers!
Leveled readers are the beginner readers’ books that are used at school during reading sessions and normally also sent home, so children can read them alongside their parents.
These readers are the third leg that we base our reading instruction upon. Remember: we have phonics, we have high-frequency word lists, and now we have leveled readers.
These are the books that our children use to practice their reading skills, and get fluent at reading, and get a chance at sounding out words.
Let me ask you a question…
What do you think is the MAIN FACTOR that is taken into consideration in these books?
The level of phonics that children have?
Yes, right? That should be the logical answer to this question. Makes sense that the phonics level is the main factor.
However, as weird and even crazy as this may sound to you, the level of phonics it’s not.
These leveled readers contain what’s called “predictable text,” rather than phonetically decodable text.
I’ve written about this topic a few times already, but I’ll repeat it again anyway, because it is SO important! However, I won’t go into a great level of detail, because if you want to know more I’d recommend you read this post and this post.
When it comes to beginner readers books there are basically two types of books: leveled books and phonetically decodable books.
Even though on the surface they look very similar, they present substantial differences.
A decodable reader is a book with text that your child can easily read just by sounding out the words in it.
Decodable books only contain words with patterns, phonics rules or sight words that your child has already been taught.
So, for instance, if you child has only been introduced to the most common sound of the letters m, s, t, p, a, that book will only use words that contain those sounds.
Irregular words (phonetically speaking) are kept to a minimum, especially at the beginning of your child’s reading journey.
On the other hand, leveled books use predictable text. The predictability of the text together with the presence of supportive pictures make it possible for the child to figure out the words just by looking at pictures, by the context or simply by how predictable the text is.
They can “read” by guessing instead of by sounding out words. In other words, levelled books are purposely made to make children guess. This is by design.
Why are there so many differences between decodable and levelled books?
They are a tool for different teaching methods, and I am sure that you’ve guessed which method prefers decodable readers and which one prefers levelled readers...
Levelled readers are the favourite tool of advocates of the whole-word approach to teaching reading. On the other hand, decodable books are an essential tool for any good-quality phonics program.
But why are we teaching phonics and then asking children to practice their sounding out skills using predictable text?
I guess that is to keep again both sides happy.
It could also be because at the beginnnig leveled books can give us the false impression that children are really skilled readers, that they are able read more difficult text, that they are also very fluent and very fast at reading.
Unfortunately, many times this is all sort of fake, and that sham only starts to be evident later on…
Also, buying new books (phonics books/decodable readers) is an investment for the school. Some schools simply don’t have the budget for it.
Finally, there’s also the difficulty of writing interesting stories when you are quite limited with the sounds that you can used, with the words you can pick. Remember, these have to align with the level of phonics. That is why decodable books sometimes get a bad rap of being boring, not as engaging for children, etc.
Anyway, in response to that, I’ll just share a couple of points. Don’t judge these books with your adult’s eyes, but from a children’s perspective. Sometimes, you may think that they are silly books, that the story is not interesting, but for the children it is. Beginner readers don’t need a complicated plot. In fact, they need something simple and maybe funny.
Second, as with everything, the quality of phonics readers varies a lot: go for good-quality decodable books. And if you want a handy (a very comprehensive) list of good quality decodable book options, check this article out!
To wrap up this article about the balanced approach, I also wanted to stress out that the quality of the phonics instruction, how much time it is devoted to it, how organised it is, how aligned it is with the rest of the factors we’ve seen, how far it goes (is it only about teaching letter names and sounds or do they also teach more advanced phonics rules?) varies a lot from school to school.
What I’ve explained here is the most common scenario for the balanced approach, but phonics instruction differs from school to school and, as mentioned before, from teacher to teacher.
Also, please, don’t assume that because the school is fancy, they’ll have it all figured it out and will be using the best methodologies. That is not always the case!
At the end of the day, it all comes to the human factor: the teachers, the mentality of the people running the school, etc.
On the other hand, if you are planning to homeschool, I’d say that then you are going to be able to influence this much more.
If you want to follow the homeschooling road, I’d recommend that you also check out our ranking of the top Synthetic Phonics Curriculums in 2023.
Also, don’t forget that our guide “How to Teach a Child to Read from Scratch Step-by-Step?/The Simple Roadmap to Reading Success” is a really good starting point. You can download it for free as an ebook (pdf format) here.
Also available on Amazon Kindle here!