A Return to ‘Balanced Literacy’?

By Liana Loewus — July 10, 2014 4 min read
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The new schools chancellor in New York City is advocating teachers use the once-mandated citywide but now questioned (some would say “discredited”) approach to reading instruction known as “balanced literacy.” And the city’s opinion pages are hopping about it.

Balanced literacy, an approach spearheaded by Teachers College professor Lucy Calkins, emphasizes student choice of texts, independent reading, and group discussions for reading instruction in the elementary grades. The program includes some phonics, but does not make them a focus. Teachers are encouraged to set up classroom libraries and give students time to explore. They are steered away from direct instruction.

A recent New York Times piece notes that the roots of the approach go back to the 1970s, but that it became popularized under New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who mandated its use in the city’s public schools in 2003. The city backed off of the program years ago “amid concerns that it was unstructured and ineffective, particularly for low-income children,” the article says. A study commissioned by the city’s education department found that students at 10 schools using a literacy program called Core Knowledge scored significantly higher on reading comprehension tests than those at 10 schools using the balanced literacy approach. Even so, many teachers continued using some aspects of the program.

Carmen Fariña, though, the current school chancellor, is a fan. She used balanced literacy as a teacher and principal in New York City, and is urging teachers to implement it. (She’s also a long-time friend and mentee of Calkins, Chalkbeat New York reports.) And while Fariña said she won’t make it a mandate, many people believe her call for a revival of the approach will have far-reaching classroom implications.

Consequently, two major questions are being debated: Is this a good idea? And how does balanced literacy jibe with the Common Core State Standards in language arts, which New York is also implementing?

Alexander Nazaryan, a senior writer at Newsweek and a former teacher, answered that first question with a resounding “no.” In a New York Times editorial, he wrote about the “mostly futile exercise” of asking kids to read independently in a classroom of diverse academic needs, first languages, and relevant experiences. He wrote:

I take umbrage at the notion that muscular teaching is joyless. There was little joy in the 7th grade classroom I ran under “balanced literacy,” and less purpose. My students craved instruction far more than freedom. Expecting children to independently discover the rules of written language is like expecting them to independently discover the rules of differential calculus.

An editorial in the New York Daily News also argues against the revival of balanced literacy, saying the “on-the-ground effect” of the program was that “students, especially from low-income families, failed to master the basics, and therefore failed to make achievement gains.”

(It’s worth noting that Alexander Nazaryan was previously on the editorial board at that paper.)

In defense of the approach, Calkins writes in the Times that thousands of educators continue to come to Teachers College for training. “Balanced literacy is a robust approach to instruction not only in New York City but throughout the world,” she writes.

Coexistence With Common Core

That second question—whether the common core and balanced literacy are compatible—would seem to be less subjective. But it has sparked just as many fires.

Calkins published a book in 2012, Pathways to the Common Core, that seeks to explain the common standards for teachers while continuing to lean on the basics of balanced literacy. Calkins has also publicly embraced the standards (though Chalkbeat writes that she’s been overtly critical of David Coleman, lead writer of the common core, saying of one of his model reading lessons, “it basically represents horrible teaching.”)

New York City principal Mark Federman defended a balanced literacy-common-core connection, writing in the Times that “strong balanced literacy work meets and exceeds the demands of the common core while addressing its potential fatal flaw: turning kids off to reading and writing before they can really read or write.”

But some say the tenets of the program are in contrast to the common core.

The common standards require that students read books at or above grade level, while balanced literacy emphasizes allowing students to choose books that interest them and are on their level. Susan Pimentel told the Times that idea was “worrisome and runs counter to the letter and spirit of common core.”

Kathleen Porter-Magee of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute went so far as to accuse Calkins, her co-authors, and her publisher, Heinemann, of “rewriting” the standards in Pathways to the Common Core to serve their own (financial) interests. “Of course with any set of expectations there is room for debate on some of the finer points,” Porter-Magee writes. “But the lengths that the authors go to explain away the parts of the standards with which they are least comfortable is breathtaking.”

In particular, she points to the book’s assertion that the common standards “marginalize” phonics and low-level literacy (Porter-Magee counters that the standards actually have an entire section devoted to K-5 foundational reading skills).

So far, New York City has not officially recommended any of Calkins’ balanced literacy materials as common-core-aligned. But as Patrick Wall of Chalkbeat noted, that could change. “For her part, Calkins seems confident that her group will play a larger role under Chancellor Fariña in helping schools meet the new standards,” he wrote.

We’ll keep an eye on how this debate plays out in New York City, and whether it reverberates in classrooms elsewhere.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.