Posts tagged ‘Balanced Literacy’

December 11, 2012

Wisconsin law supporting phonics instruction will be better for students and teachers

by Grace

Sandra Stotsky writes that Wisconsin’s “Read to Lead” education reform law enacted earlier this year will have benefits for both students and teachers.  Among other provisions, this law steers education schools to provide instruction on the most effective methods of early reading instruction.  The expected benefits will be improved reading levels for students and more objective evaluations for teachers.

Education schools have been slow to include phonics as part of training new teachers.

Imagine a physics program that won’t teach the theory of relativity. Or an English department that shuns Shakespeare. That would be equivalent to how U.S. schools of education treat the most effective method for teaching beginning reading.

That method is called decoding, the shorthand word for the scientifically tested techniques for teaching children the relationships between symbols and sounds, often just called phonics. Reformers have fought for generations to have decoding skills taught systematically and directly, but schools of education will have none of it.

Instead, the education establishment prefers to teach beginning readers to guess at the identification of a written word using its context — the so-called whole-language approach. The people who run education schools hate the “code” because they say it requires a repetition of boring exercises — “drill and kill” — turning children off and discouraging them from “reading with meaning.” There has never been evidence for this view, however.

Wisconsin joins a few states, including Massachusetts, in making changes that require new teachers to pass the MTEL Foundations Of Reading Test, an exam that tests their knowledge of phonics instruction.

… The state Legislature passed a bill that will help ensure that teachers no longer receive inadequate training in their preparation and professional development. The Wisconsin Reading Coalition, the Wisconsin branch of the International Dyslexia Association, and a group of parents, educators, psychologists and other professionals supported the measure….

Supported by their state Department of Public Instruction, Wisconsin’s legislators followed the path taken first by Massachusetts, then by Connecticut in 2008, and most recently by Minnesota in 2011, to require the tests. Several other states are considering the requirement, as well.

The new law has positive implications for evaluating teachers.

Their efforts have broad implications. Many states are looking for objective ways to evaluate teachers at all levels. But the efforts by federal education officials to prod states into working out sound teacher-evaluation plans seem to be missing an important connection.

The policy makers in Washington want states to develop an appropriate professional way to determine which teachers are ineffective — a reasonable goal. But they have not made it clear that such evaluations need to judge whether a lack of adequate progress in children’s beginning-reading skills is the result of teacher incompetence or of deficient training….

Once the bill is signed into law and begins to affect training, Wisconsin will be able to evaluate teachers of beginning reading on their skills without worrying if they lack professional knowledge that could easily have been taught in their coursework. Let’s hope the work of the reformers in Wisconsin spreads to most other states.


The introduction in recent years of “balanced literacy” to replace whole language instruction has been a step in the right direction, but limited in that it does not offer “systematic and explicit phonics instruction“.

Education schools whose coursework was once limited to whole-language approaches now have to explain the research support for a code-emphasis method and what systematic instruction in phonemic awareness and phonics means in practice. The schools have done this grudgingly, limiting their effort to test preparation workshops or including it as a small part of a “balanced literacy” approach that allows teachers to teach phonics but only in context, thereby ensuring that it can’t be taught systematically.


March 16, 2012

Core Knowledge nonfiction curriculum proves better than ‘balanced literacy’

by Grace

Children in New York City who learned to read using an experimental curriculum that emphasized nonfiction texts outperformed those at other schools that used methods that have been encouraged since the Bloomberg administration’s early days, according to a new study to be released Monday….

The less-effective curriculum, used in most public schools today, is called “balanced literacy”.  The approach that proved more effective in this study is part of the Core Knowledge program, designed by E.D. Hirsch, Jr.

Under the balanced literacy approach, which was used by seven of the comparison schools and remains the most popular method of teaching reading in the city’s schools, children are encouraged to develop a love of reading by choosing books that are of interest to them. Teachers spend less time directing instruction, and more time overseeing students as they work together.

Reading nonfiction writing is the key component of the Core Knowledge curriculum, which is based on the theory that children raised reading storybooks will lack the necessary background and vocabulary to understand history and science texts. While the curriculum allows children to read fiction, it also calls on them to knowledgeably discuss weather patterns, the solar system, and how ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia compare.

This principal still prefers balanced literacy for higher income students, believing Core Knowledge is only better for poor children.

“I like balanced literacy, I do; I think that it works well, especially for children who are coming into school having been read to every single day,” said Katie Grady, principal … “For my children, who are economically disadvantaged, they needed something more, and the Core Knowledge pilot had it,” Ms. Grady said….

A friend from a nearby school district pointed out that many middle- and upper-class parents would also prefer Core Knowledge for their own children.  She understands, as a college instructor married to a college professor, that even well-educated parents want their public schools to maintain high standards. Core Knowledge’s emphasis on nonfiction, historical fiction and classic literature is in contrast to balanced literacy’s focus on contemporary literature that is considered more “relevant” to students.  The young adult (YA) sections of libraries are well stocked with this genre, typified by stories of teen anguish and social injustice.

One example of such YA literature is The Outsiders, a young adult novel with a 5.1 reading level that has become a standard assignment in many middle schools. It doesn’t hurt that showing the movie version in class is an ideal way for teachers to fulfill mandated multimedia “21st century” skills instruction.  It sounds like a good time for students, but I agree with my friend when she expresses what she would have preferred for her son who attended public school out here in the affluent suburbs.

If we’d had the Core Knowledge sequence, he could have read The Outsiders for fun here at home while reading Longfellow, Dickinson, and Langston Hughes with his teacher at school.

Rich or poor, highly educated or high school dropout, it seems parents must often do much of the heavy lifting in content instruction while the schools are doing the fun “relevant” projects in the classroom.

Related:  Schools will use tracking and more nonfiction reading to improve achievement

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