What is Balanced Literacy?
Balanced Literacy: It is the most dominant approach to literacy instruction in the western world and yet, I often see the claim that there is no commonly accepted definition.
*As a note, there are scholars whose viewpoints I critique in this article. I have chosen to leave them unnamed, in an attempt to keep the discourse focused on ideas, opposed to criticizing individuals.
While I was in teachers' college, the term balanced literacy was used constantly, we were told that it was important to take a balanced literacy approach. But I don’t remember a single professor explaining what that meant. When I took my reading specialist qualifications for the first time, I saw a definition. We were given a government policy document that explained that balanced literacy was an approach to reading instruction that balanced fluency, comprehension, and word reading instruction equally. I was told once again that this was essential to my student's success. Of course, as I have previously mentioned none of my instruction during those courses included information about phonemic awareness or phonics, which I don’t find particularly balanced.
I found the government policy documents mandating a balanced literacy approach problematic because they stated that every grade should have equal comprehension and word work instruction. But this has always seemed like an impractical framework of understanding to me. In my first regular classroom role, I taught a group of grade 2 students that started the year not knowing the alphabet or the sounds letters make. The idea that I should have spent one-third of my instructional time teaching reading comprehension to students who cannot read, seems frankly wrong to me. Inversely, I have also taught upper secondary students English, who I was trying to prepare for post-secondary education. We spent the majority of our time on essays and comprehension. I felt this was necessary for preparing them for university, I couldn't imagine having spent one-third of my time on word work.
As I was finishing my reading specialist, I began to start researching more and more about education. As I started doing this research, I became aware of the reading wars debate, from a social media group dedicated to discussing evidence based educational practices. I remember at the time, two prominent figures in this debate had a heated academic exchange over a PBS documentary about dyslexic students. I invited both parties to my podcast, one was in favor of structured literacy, and the other was in favor of Reading Recovery. The structured literacy advocate declined and the Reading Recovery scholar came on.
The Reading Recovery scholar pitched balanced literacy as a middle road between whole language and phonics. At the time, I was still very new in my journey, and what they said made sense to me. The NRP showed phonics worked better than Whole Language, but it didn’t show that we should be only teaching phonics, so this “middle road” made sense to me. I recently deleted this episode from my podcast, because I don’t feel my own comments represent my current viewpoints anymore and because I think the viewpoint the Reading Recovery scholar presented was misleading.
This interpretation suggests that a Reading Recovery approach is just a structured literacy approach that also includes comprehension and fluency instruction. However, this is problematic for two reasons. Firstly, Reading Recovery is a fairly unique approach and I don’t think it is honest to catergorize it as being just another structured literacy program. Secondly, it implies structured literacy programs don’t teach fluency and comprehension, which is a complete strawman argument, as structured literacy programs include fluency and comprehension instruction by definition.
For example, The International Dyslexia Association defines structured literacy as “What Is Structured Literacy? Structured literacy (SL) approaches emphasize highly explicit and systematic teaching of all important components of literacy. These components include both foundational skills (e.g., decoding, spelling) and higher-level literacy skills (e.g., reading comprehension, written expression). SL also emphasizes oral language abilities essential to literacy development, including phonemic awareness, sensitivity to speech sounds in oral language, and the ability to manipulate those sounds.” Similarly, the Orton Gillingham organization defines structured literacy as “Structured Literacy is a highly explicit and systematic teaching approach based on the Science of Reading, methodologies like Orton-Gillingham, and all five pillars of literacy – plus language comprehension, spelling, and writing.”
Throughout this year, I have been reviewing language programs, based on their research outcomes. A few months ago, I used this research to conduct a ;large scale meta-analysis comparing phonics based programs to balanced literacy based programs, for this blog. This was my first attempt at a large-scale meta-analysis and I have updated this meta-analysis many times, in attempts to increase the rigor, as I added additional studies, learned how to use new statistical tools, and as I received feedback from critical readers. However, the mean effect size for phonics studies has always come out higher than for balanced literacy studies. In the current most up-to-date version, there are 40 phonics studies and 23 balanced literacy studies. I found a mean unweighted effect size of .44 for phonics (same as the NRP effect size for systematic phonics) and .25 for balanced literacy.
However, I faced some criticism from this meta-analysis, on social media both from Dr. Timothy Shanahan (whose work I have immense respect for) and from a prominent Reading Recovery scholar. Specifically, they objected to how I coded studies as balanced literacy. Rather than use set criteria, I based my coding on popular opinion. When a program was commonly identified as balanced literacy, I coded it as balanced literacy. Dr. Shanahan specifically objected to this because he rejected the term balanced literacy altogether, and asserted that the phrase “balanced literacy” was not a pedagogy but a marketing term. The Reading Recovery scholars objected to my failure to provide a definition for the term, that came from a balanced literacy scholar.
Upon further discussion the Reading Recovery scholar specifically also rejected the notion that balanced literacy was a blend of the whole language and phonics-based instruction and instead went on to claim that balanced literacy was a constructivist approach to reading instruction. I was then told if I could not properly define the pedagogy, that I could not criticize the pedagogy. I asked this Reading Recovery scholar for their definition of the term repeatedly, however, they refused to provide me with one. Perhaps it’s easier to defend a pedagogy if no one is allowed to know exactly what it is?
That said, defining balanced literacy as constructivist, does make sense. Constructivism is a theory of learning that comes from Jean Piaget. Within a traditional or transmission understanding of learning, learning happens in a linear pattern as a result of an instructor imparting knowledge. Whereas within a constructivist theory of learning, learning does not occur within a linear process and learners construct their own understanding, as it relates to their personal experiences and understanding of the world. Most modern pedagogies have been inspired by a constructivist understanding of learning and these pedagogies typically place a higher emphasis on enjoyment and student choice. It does make sense to categorize these balanced literacy programs as more constructivist, and conversely, we could categorize programs that are heavily direct instruction/scripted like Corrective Reading, Open Court, and reading mastery as transmission based.
Recently, I was re-reading the NRP meta-analysis, and I noticed that the NRP definition of Whole Language, looked alot like what most would define balanced literacy as today. “In whole-language programs, the emphasis is upon meaning-based reading and writing activities. Phonics instruction is integrated into these activities but taught incidentally as teachers decide it is needed. Basal programs consist of a teacher’s manual and a complete set of books and materials that guide the teaching of beginning reading. Some basal programs focus on whole-word or meaning-based activities with limited attention to letter-sound constituents of words and little or no instruction in how to blend letters to pronounce words.” (NRP, 106) Dr. Shanahan was a lead writer on this report, and I wondered if this is why he rejects the term balanced literacy and if he would classify balanced literacy programs as whole language. So I reached out to Dr. Shanahan and he was kind enough to present me with a pretty in-depth answer to his viewpoints on the subject. I have included some quotations from his response below.
“Originally, the idea of “balanced literacy” was to strike a political balance between the foundational skills people and the whole language people. In other words, the purpose was to settle the reading wars with a truce in which both groups in the argument of the time would be ceded some of the instructional real estate of the school day. The individuals who proposed this solution reasoned that experimental research showed that direct instruction in skills like phonics improved students’ reading ability and that descriptive and correlational studies of whole language approaches (e.g., self-selected reading, workshop approaches, high quality children’s literature) were showing it to be more attractive and motivational to children. Thus, kids would benefit from the best of both worlds.”
“Unfortunately, very quickly, what was being balanced became blurry and confused. Whether this confusion was intentional or simply the result of no real leadership behind the idea is unclear, but what is clear is that within a year of two, educators were embracing balanced literacy but with all kinds of ideas as to what was being balanced (e.g., reading and writing, reading comprehension instruction with texts that were not written specifically for teaching.”
“Most of the comprehensive reading programs from major publishers (Pearson, McGraw-Hill, Houghton Mifflin) during these past 20 years have included an explicit phonics component and they too have typically argued that they are balanced literacy.”
“Basically, balanced literacy has no clear definition and that means that very different programs are labeled as being balanced. The term seems to cover programs that have phonics components and those that don’t; programs that focus entirely or almost entirely on explicit instruction and those that provide little such instruction; programs that include textbooks and those that eschew textbooks in favor of trade books. It’s that universalness or incredible flexibility that makes the term useless for characterizing instructional programs.”
Upon reading Dr. Shahan’s response, I think he lays out the problem quite clearly, the term is incredibly ambiguous and there does not seem to be one single understanding of what constitutes as balanced literacy. Moreover, much of how this term has been used is likely marketing. In my own province of residence, a balanced literacy approach was mandated for the previous decade, so any structured literacy program being sold here would have to be marketed as a balanced literacy program. Conversely, now as many states and provinces mandate a structured literacy or science of reading based approach, many balanced literacy companies are trying to rebrand their products to fit the new model. Indeed, I am shocked by how many companies now list “based on the science of reading” in their program description.
Despite the ambiguousness of the label balanced literacy, I do think it is crucial that we have a working definition for the term, as in my experience, it has been the dominant perspective in literacy instruction for the past two decades. But the Reading Recovery scholar is correct, it is hard to criticize something that we don’t have a commonly accepted working definition for. Over the last year, I have examined and written about 35 different language programs. There are three programs that I have seen most commonly accepted as “balanced literacy”: Reading Recovery, Leveled Literacy Instruction, and Units of Study. Conversely, there are also some programs that I have seen labeled as both structured literacy and balanced literacy, depending on who you are talking to, including: Letterland, Read 180, HMH Into Reading, and Wonders. For example, in regards to the Read 180 program, multiple authors of studies on the topic referred to the program as balanced literacy, indeed one paper was even titled “Balanced literacy and the underperforming English learner in high school.” Yet, when I labeled the program balanced literacy in my review, two scholars who I greatly respected and who had studied the program wrote to me to say I was wrong in calling it balanced literacy.
Truthfully, I have thought about this question and difficulty way more than I should care to admit and have honestly lied awake many times, thinking to myself, “how can balanced literacy be defined”. But, after a great deal of reflection on the topic, I think the biggest problem is that there is not a singular difference between structured literacy programs and balanced literacy programs, but rather a continuum of differences. In the more purist balanced literacy programs, we tend to see the use of leveled readers; MSV queuing instruction; a deep focus on fluency/guided reading, sight word instruction, and passage comprehension; and phonics instruction is typically embedded within the reading process, as opposed to being taught separately based on a scope and sequence. Conversely, within a structured literacy program, we tend to see the use of decodable readers; a balance between phonics, fluency, and comprehension instruction; and phonics is taught explicitly based on a systematic scope and sequence.
However, not all programs fall neatly on this spectrum. For example, some programs include a phonics scope and sequence, but rely on leveled readers, and focus primarily on fluency instruction. Some programs appear to take a mostly structured literacy approach, but include a lot of “sight word instruction”. Indeed, there also exist phonics programs that don’t include a scope and sequence. Of course, this does not make evaluating these programs any easier.
One aspect of this that continues to bother me is this idea of “balance” or the “middle road.” I often see proponents of LLI and Reading Recovery, calling it the middle road or a balanced approach. If we are examining programs on a constructivist, vs transmission model of instruction continuum, these programs appear to be on the extreme end of the constructivist spectrum. Whereas a program like Jolly Phonics which places a strong emphasis on skill development, but also on student engagement, might be in the middle. If we mean middle, as in balancing the development of different skills, I still wouldn’t call LLI or Reading Recovery the middle road, as in my opinion, they put far more emphasis on comprehension and fluency development than phonemic awareness and decoding. Instead, I would point to something like Amplify, which as far as I can tell does place fairly equal attention to both sets of skills. Truthfully, I think it would be more fair to refer to LLI or Reading Recovery as either constructivist or as embedded phonics programs. However, this would likely be even more confusing, as most people already refer to them as balanced literacy.
I think ultimately, balanced literacy as a movement was a result of educators wanting reading instruction to be more joyful and less skill and drill. In principle, this sounds like a nice idea. I also want my students to enjoy their instruction. I want reading class to be fun. But, the way in which the balanced literacy movement sought to do this, seems quite extreme to me. So while I too want there to be a balance between skill-based instruction and joyful reading practice, I don’t think that balanced literacy comes anywhere close to it. Indeed, in my own personal experience, the biggest issue with balanced literacy has been the complete lack of balance. As far as I can tell these programs intentionally de-emphasize skill-based instruction like phonics, in order to “make reading joyful”. But I think there is a lot of joy lost in children, not learning how to read.
Written by Nathaniel Hansford
Last Edited 2022-12-29
International Dyslexia Association. (2022). Here’s Why Schools Should Use Structured Literacy. Retrieved from <https://dyslexiaida.org/heres-why-schools-should-use-structured-literacy/#:~:text=What%20Is%20Structured%20Literacy%3F,reading%20comprehension%2C%20written%20expression).>.
Orton Gillingham Institute. (2022). What is Structured Literacy. Retrieved from <https://www.orton-gillingham.com/what-is-structured-literacy/>.
N, Hansford. (2022). A Meta-Analysis and Literature Review of Language Programs. Teaching by Science. Retrieved from <https://www.teachingbyscience.com/a-meta-analysis-of-language-programs>.
-NRP. (2001). Teaching Children to Read: An Evidence Based Assessment of the Scientific Literature on Reading Instruction. United States Government. Retrieved from <https://www.nichd.nih.gov/sites/default/files/publications/pubs/nrp/Documents/report.pdf>.