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Teachers Network in the News

Article courtesy of New York Teacher

Reality Check

Standing on a rock or a balance beam?

Looking at the foundations of literacy

by MAISIE McADOO

Let's just admit this: Despite a year long Department of Education promotional campaign, few people really understand "balanced literacy."

The DOE's mandated reading program has been described variously as an "approach" and a"'curriculuin"' "prescriptive" and "open," "phonics-based" and "literature-based." Its chief architect and booster, ex Deputy Chancellor Diana Lam, was dismissed in March. By April, when 3rd graders took the high stakes citywide reading tests, there was still widespread confusion over the DOE's centerpiece curriculum.

Balanced literacy was an effort to "balance" the two factions of the reading wars phonics based vs. whole-language instruction.

Lam's version of balanced literacy borrowed a little from this, a little from that, provided excruciating detail on rugs and rocking chairs, but much looser instruction on literacy skills like letter sounds. Month by Month Phonics, Lam's supplementary phonics program, was criticized as inadequate by national reading experts.

Do researchers disagree about how to teach reading?

Not at all. In fact, there is quite a strong consensus on reading instruction for young children. Studies have repeatedly demonstrated the importance of direct instruction in phonics, especially for beginning readers, while incorporating rich, literature based study into lesson&. Both elements must be there, and the balance of the two shifts as children progress.

Learning to read

For most beginning readers, skills instruction needs to be explicit, systematic and sequenced. "Oral language comes about in a very natural way ... but reading is a skill. It's like piano playing or gymnastics or tennis: it requires the inculcation of a very wide range of complex things," according to Reid Lyon, one of five featured speakers at a Reading Summit sponsored by the UFT and the Teacher Center March 6.

Lyon, chief of the Child Development Branch of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development in Washington, D.C., would put himself much closer to the phonics end of the phonics whole language spectrum, but he speaks for most literacy researchers in naming the essential elements of early reading.

Citing the conclusions of the National Reading Panel, Lyon said young readers must master five skills:

  • They must be able to connect the squiggles on a page with sound and meaning (phonemic awareness).

  • They must learn the basic building blocks of words and the tactics they can use to "decode' them (phonics).

  • They must systematically build vocabulary.

  • They must practice reading fluently.

  • Their teachers must directly instruct them on comprehension skills.

"Comprehension does not take care of itself," added Catherine Snow, a second panelist at the conference. Snow chaired the committee that prepared the report on which the National Reading Panel based its findings.

When older students struggle with reading, Snow said, the problem can usually be traced back to a basic ignorance of phonics, and to not having been directly taught such comprehension skills as predicting and asking questions.

Research shows a powerful correlation between kindergarten word-recognition skills and later comprehension ability, "and it gets even stronger over time," she said. By 4th grade, "the rules change on kids. There are new learning demands, the vocabulary load increases," while the speed, vocabulary and comprehension skills needed to pass standardized 8th grade tests are really "huge." Children without the necessary foundation skills tend to lose it at these junctures.

Reading to learn

Of course, phonemic awareness and vocabulary building are not the ultimate goals of reading instruction. Literacy researchers did not set out to build a nation of decoders. Educators want children to go on to read for pleasure, information and enrichment. In other words, they hope to help them make the transition from learning to read to reading to learn.

And here is where the confusion around balanced literacy may lie.

The idea behind balanced literacy is to create a literacy-rich environment that encourages children to read throughout their lifetimes. It would be hard to argue with this aim. But balanced literacy's advocates, by not emphasizing phonics skills, have been identified with the discredited whole-language approach.

The solution may be a matter of emphasis and timing.

"Balanced literacy should always be there, but it is the major approach once children learn to read and are engaged in reading to learn,” said Roni Messer, coordinator of literacy professional development at the UFT Teacher Center. “A balanced literacy approach, along with research based early literacy acquisition instruction, is most effective. It is the balance that will produce proficient readers."

Are they two different things? Not really, said Messer.

"Research shows that emergent readers require systematic and explicit instruction, embedded in a balanced literacy approach."

Balanced literacy revisited

Balanced literacy is getting a fresh boost with the arrival of Carmen Farina, who replaced Lam as deputy chancellor for teaching and learning. At a recent conference in Brooklyn, sponsored by the national organization Teachers Network, Farina, told teachers she is absolutely committed to balanced literacy, but plans to clarify it. It definitely includes phonics instruction, she said. "At no point did I give up on basic skills." But she also encourages a literature-based approach.

For a workshop on literacy that she led at the Teachers Network conference, Farina, a former teacher, principal and superintendent, brought from home a tall stack of colorful children's books. One by one she showed them to the group, telling them when she had used each book and why. "Testing Miss Malarkey" she used to address the stress of testing; "When Sophie Gets Angry" she used to work on classroom management; "The Quiltmakers Gift" she saw as a book about expertise and gave it to her region’s math and reading coaches.

"A Fine Fine School” is a story that speaks to the excesses of school reform, and Farina made it required reading for all her superintendents when she was in charge of Region 8. She even read one book aloud to the teachers in the workshop. She chose "The Three Questions," a story about finding the right answers inside yourself, instead of relying on experts.
Teachers can assume that her message is quite direct.

They, too, not just their supervisors, must develop reading instruction that is both effective and deeply satisfying to children. As UFT President Randi Weingarten said in her closing remarks to the UFT summit, the teacher's voice has been missing in the balanced literacy brouhaha this year.

"We don't expect teachers to single-handedly design curriculum," she said, but neither should curriculums be "teacher proof." Armed with knowledge, teachers can make decisions in their classrooms about reading instruction that works best for their students.

 

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