While it might seem contradictory, structured learning can occur within a balanced literacy framework. In fact, explicit instruction (especially in pre, emergent and early readers) is critical to student success. While some learners may not need extensive phonemic awareness and phonics instruction, many do. When we refer to balanced literacy, we are referring to a framework that allows the teaching of all aspects of literacy that students will need as they learn to read, write and communicate. In other words, literacy instruction using a comprehensive approach. Contrary to some beliefs about balanced literacy, using this approach combined with effective assessment will enable you to reach every student where they are at and move them forward. Depending on the age group and/or ability you are teaching, this may mean more phonetic based reading instruction or more emphasis on writing for example. Literacy includes explicit reading instruction, writing instruction, oral language and listening comprehension. All of these things together will help you to create a balanced approach to reaching all your students’ literacy needs.
According to Joan Moser and Gail Boushey (The authors of the popular Daily 5 Cafe) :
The Components of a Balanced Literacy Program
There are 4 main components of an effective reading program: read aloud, shared reading, small group instruction and independent reading time.
During read aloud time, the teacher reads a picture book or a few chapters of a novel aloud to the class. This time is an amazing opportunity for students to just listen. It can be very relaxing and calming for them no matter the age. At this time, students should not be asked too many questions as this is a time for them to practice their listening skills, to visualize what is going on in the story and to ask their own inner questions during this “listen to reading” time. This is often done after recess or lunch.
Shared reading is a time when the teacher and the students read together. This is a time when the teacher can model what good readers do (ie. fluency, expression). In primary, the teacher chooses a high interest picture book to model pre-reading behaviors and strategies, during reading strategies and after reading strategies. The teacher may point out the title, the cover of the book and ask students to make predictions. As s/he reads, the teacher may stop and ask a question to check comprehension and may even model what they are thinking about as they read. I like to use a thought bubble to do this.
Each shared reading lesson has an intention. I may want to focus on story elements. Or maybe the book has poetic rhyme and I am focussing on onset and rime patterns. You might decide to focus on a comprehension strategy like inferring, connecting, summarizing, predicting, clarifying, visualizing etc. Choose a text to do your shared reading that matches your lesson focus. Sometimes you may decide to just model effective reading – especially reading with expression which helps engage students. You can create an anchor chart with the students of what a good reader does. This way you can refer them back to it when they are partner reading.
Pausing while reading, using silence to your benefit etc. are all read aloud strategies that teachers can model as they share reading with their students. Remember, the after reading portion does NOT need to have a written component. Why not have students discuss the reading, act out the reading, and reflect about the reading in conversation?
Small Group Reading Instruction
Small group reading instruction can be run in many different ways. Once students have been introduced to the structures you have set up (ie. literacy centers or the workshop model) and you have set them off with something you have taught them in a mini lesson, you can begin to pull small groups for more intensive reading instruction.
The National Reading Panel (2000) has identified 5 Pillars of Reading Instruction: Phonemic Awareness and Phonics, Fluency, Vocabulary, Text Comprehension. In order for children to learn HOW to read, they need explicit instruction in phonemic awareness and phonics. The results from the NRP research is clear. The results were lasting even after all the testing was done. When early or striving older readers are taught and given lots of opportunity to practice rhyming, syllables, letter and sound (phoneme) identification, as well as isolating, segmenting and blending sounds, reading skills and spelling skills develop and progress. These skills should be combined with opportunities to practice in context using decodeable readers. Not all decodeable readers are created equal. Look for ones that students can derive meaning from. This way, as they learn to decode and read, they can also access the meaning of the text; adding early steps towards reading comprehension. (For further reading on the 5 pillars report, click here.)
Reading groups can be based on current reading level or even interest level. For example, if you have a struggling reader that happens to know lots of facts about sharks and you are reading a book about sharks, this student may be invited to partake in this group’s reading session. The child can listen, make valuable contributions that will help build interest and confidence in reading. You can include an easier text for that child to read. In this case, the group may be multi-reading skill levels and a variety of texts. Students are reading at their own levels but on topics (ie. a fiction topic: adventure, or a non-fiction topic: water) that are the same. A lesson in this case might focus on something like non-fiction text features. All the texts/books will contain text features but at a level that each students can access.
When children are first learning to read, the focus is more on the phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary and comprehension. As students learn to read, it is important to add fluency instruction and practice. As readers move towards the transitional phase of reading, there is less reliance on phonemic awareness and more emphasis on fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. This is not to say they are not learning phonemic awareness or phonics, just that the balance gets shifted.
During small group instruction, listening to your students read and taking notes or running records “on the go” is a great way to formatively assess their current stage of reading development. Using this information to plan future instruction is key to helping those students move along.
Independent reading is a time when students can read on their own at their own independent level. This gives them time to practice on their own. Fluent readers increase their reading level by reading independently because they read much more fluently in their head than aloud.
Another important part a strong literacy program is writing. If we want students to learn to write well, they need to spend a lot of time writing. When we talk about writing here, we are referring to different components of writing that are meaningful and engaging. Modelled writing is writing that is modelled by the teacher to demonstrate for students what good writing looks like and sounds like.
In the younger grades, teachers model proper sentences, punctuation, and simple descriptive words. As students develop, the sentences become more varied and their descriptive words are more personal and unique. Students learn the elements of a good story which includes a beginning, middle and end as a framework. Students also learn about personal writing that can be like opinion writing or persuasive writing. All of these can be modelled by the teacher. Writing anchor charts are displayed so that students can refer to them when they are writing. I have modelled an entire story process from start to finish with classes and then published it in a book so that students could read it later or even order one for their own home. Two effective ways to teach writing skills through modelling are teaching about the 6 Writing Traits (ideas word choice, sentence fluency, organization, voice and mechanics) and teaching using author studies. Find a post about Building a Writing Mindset here.
Small Group Writing Instruction
Small group writing can run much like small group reading. I have a written a short series of posts describing small group writing which are more detailed. You can read the first one in more detail here. But the gist is that students can be grouped together for writing instruction in many ways. Kids love it when the teacher listens to their writing. What better way than to do it in a small group? They can be grouped based on skill level and specific writing skills that need to be explicitly taught. They can be grouped based on genre that they are writing. Sometimes it’s just a group to share their writing like an author’s circle.
Independent writing is a time when students are thinking, creating, writing on their own. It is a time when students use the skills they have learned to write on whatever the topic is or the skill being emphasized (ie. opinion writing). In my classroom, students spend time talking about their ideas first (which I will talk about next). They are able to consult the person beside them if they are stuck or want to bounce an idea off of someone. If you have set up a Writer’s Workshop structure in your room, independent writing time comes right after your mini-lesson and before students share their writing aloud.
Modelled Word Work
Word work is the active manipulation of letters, sounds and words. Children need lots of hands on word work time. The word work students do it based on the direct instruction of the phonemic awareness and phonics skills that they need. Some modelled word work ideas include making words using magnetic letters on a magnetic whiteboard or under the document camera. It can also be done using a pocket chart to match words with pictures or using an anchor chart and showing students how to substitute a vowel using a red marker for the vowel change. As I explain below, many of these strategies and skills can be taught in the small group and targeted towards the learners’ needs.
Interactive Word Work
Interactive word work involves the students more actively in the learning. Here, students are coming up to the pocket chart to help. You may use poems to teach rhyming for example and students are coming up with a pointer to point at the words that rhyme. Transitional readers might play some games where they come up with synonyms or homonyms in teams.
Small Group Word Work
Word work is the most effective when it is incorporated into the small group reading block. This is because specific word attack skills can be taught explicitly based on information derived from assessments. When word work is done in a small group and then practiced more in a center, student skills develop more quickly. Students learn spelling through phonics and patterns and practice spelling when they are writing. Research shows that spelling lists with random words and no spelling instruction is not an effective way to teach students how to spell. (Graham, 1983; Allal, 1997))
Here are the 5 research based principles for a strong spelling program by Graham (via Gentry, Spelling Connections):
- Use word lists but not arbitrary word lists. Create lists that reflect words and patterns likely to be used by writers at developmentally appropriate grade levels and to teach a few key rules.
- Pretest and have STUDENTS self-correct.
- Teach students to use a research-based word study technique. Look-say-see-write-check technique.
- Use the “test-study-test” cycle.
- Use the social context of learning in spelling games and other alternative activities to increase motivation.
Word lists should be based on the assessment of student spelling and not just grade level lists. Spelling words can be found in student writing and included in a personal spelling journal/book.
As you can see, reading, word work and writing all work together and this is why a balanced approach to literacy instruction is important.
Literacy learning is a multifaceted and social process. It involves explicit instruction in reading, writing, oral language and word work skills. It involves lots of practice and just the right balance depending on the skills the students in front of you need and based on your on-going assessments.
In the world beyond school, it is important that students feel confident in reading, writing and communication skills and a balanced literacy program helps them to do that. Balanced literacy does NOT mean phonemic awareness and phonics is not taught and monitored. It means all students get just what they need at the time they need it in order to become literate members of our communities.