Backwards Balanced Literacy

Fostering a love of reading in students is a common mission of reading teachers. This legitimate desire undergirds the philosophy of whole language and its progeny, balanced literacy. In both of these approaches, the ideal is confused as the methodology; the actual instruction consists of immersing students in rich literary experiences with the idea that if you expose students to great stories, they’ll naturally fall in love with reading and thereby become readers. The formula of balanced literacy looks something like this:

quality literature + volume = enjoyment of reading = literacy

This is akin to assuming that if you handed me a football and placed me in a stadium all day every day, I’d learn to not only enjoy the sport but understand how to play it.

Here’s reality: reading is not natural. No one is born with a brain wired to automatically develop literacy any more than I was born a football star. It takes a complex restructuring of existing areas in the brain, or “neuronal recycling” as Stanislas Dehaene defines it, to develop print abilities. And, despite what the myriad of Hallmark movies and love ballads might have you believe, passion, alone, is not enough. To develop the neuronal pathways necessary for successful reading, children need systematic, explicit instruction in all areas of language, not the least of which is phonology and phonics.

It’s certainly true that some children do possess an innate love for reading. Let’s think about what type of children they tend to be. As a generalization, students who do not experience challenges with print tend to be the ones who develop an enjoyment of reading. What of the those who do experience challenges with print? Well, they tend not to enjoy reading, just like I, one of the least athletic people in the world, don’t care much for sports.

It seems rather obvious to state, doesn’t it? We don’t tend to love things that are incredibly challenging for us.

However, it’s important to spell that out explicitly because, remember, at the heart of balanced literacy is the idea that you just have to get kids to enjoy books to spark literacy. How do you get them to enjoy books? By reading lots and lots of them. If the ones who enjoy books are the ones equipped with the foundational language components necessary to attain literacy, what happens to those who lack those same foundational components of language?

Balanced literacy’s philosophy and its derivative pedagogy wreaks devastating consequences for these students with underlying language deficits, such as dyslexia (a deficit in the phonological component of language) or developmental language disorder (deficits in the semantic and morpho-syntactic components of language) because it never properly addresses the underlying language needs.

It’s the classic Matthew Effect, in which the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Those who have strong phonological proficiency go on to develop strong word recognition skills as their brains are wired to engage the orthographic mapping process and glean from statistical learning. Those who have well-developed oral language go on to comprehend text effectively. But those who are lacking? They are robbed.

Every year, these children fall more behind in school and are sent the message that they are deficient in some way. The problem is not the child; the problem is that teachers are not actually teaching. They are enthusiastically and lovingly shoving students into literature circles and guided reading with the assumption that if they just give kids enough exposure, the whole reading thing will eventually click. The fault doesn’t originate with the teacher; they, themselves, have been robbed in their teacher preparation programs where schools of education gladly took their tuition while largely failing to actually equip teachers with the science of reading.

The problem is further exacerbated by mandated standards that send teachers scrambling to teach comprehension as a skill rather than a result. Students instead need to be explicitly taught and trained in phonology, morphology, phonics, syntax, grammar, background knowledge, vocabulary, and prosody. When students have those skills, fluency and comprehension develop because students will have the ability to decode and extract meaning from the text. When they can do that, they are equipped to be able to think about what they are reading, which is ultimately the goal of becoming a literate citizen. This is when love can blossom. It’s through structured language and literacy.

To return to my football analogy, if you give me a well-trained coach who can guide me step-by-step through how to hold a football, the rules of the game, strategy, and specific targeted practice, I may still never totally love the sport, but I may be able to actually play. And that, my friends, is the most important point.

Our goal is for our children to be able to read. Period. We’d like for them to enjoy reading, but that is secondary. As educators, we must get beyond the fluffy, feel-good, romantic notions of reading based on faulty theories long debunked and instead engage in the hard work of becoming brain engineers, experts in how the brain learns how to read.

Balanced literacy has it all backwards.

Let’s transform the equation.  

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