Reading & Literacy Opinion

Teachers, More Than Programs, Make for Great Reading Instruction

The label “balanced literacy” serves no one
By Irene C. Fountas & Gay Su Pinnell — September 08, 2021 5 min read
Children reading books in front of books.
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The new school year appears poised to usher in a fresh collection of unwelcome challenges. Many schools are making difficult decisions about remote, in-person, and hybrid instruction. And teachers and students are forced to rapidly switch gears as public-health guidelines shift.

Amid this upheaval and adding to the tension is the latest chapter in the reading wars. We believe this round of conflict, like the previous ones, is harmful to our profession and has real potential for confusing children as well as teachers and administrators.

Over the decades, beliefs about the “right” way to teach reading have vacillated widely, from rigidly scripted phonics approaches that have the potential to take the interest and joy out of reading to romantic approaches that seem to expect children to figure it out themselves while having pleasurable literacy experiences. Throughout our long professional partnership with schools and teachers, we have experienced periods of polarization and don’t see them as productive nor in service to the children who should be at the center of what we do. We also feel it’s important to have a voice in this conversation to support teachers using our literacy resources and to clarify some ways our work has been misrepresented.

We begin with some common ground far from the unproductive poles:

  • We can all agree that too many children are not reading proficiently in the early years of school, which makes their futures less hopeful.
  • Most educators agree that learning to read is not a process in which children simply teach themselves; the great majority of students need good instruction, and all students can benefit from it.
  • A strong literacy program must include daily, explicit phonics and word study, and teachers must have excellent knowledge of the alphabetic system and how it works to teach children to read.
  • We want our students to become competent, voluminous, voluntary readers who continue to learn from and use literacy all their lives.

We need strong instruction in reading and writing to assure equitable outcomes for each child. It will surely take all of us, working together, to accomplish this challenging goal. Throughout our work with schools, we have observed the way educators work together, even if initially their views on the reading process differ, in the interest of each individual child.

Any approach that overemphasizes one aspect of literacy over another will likely neglect other important areas. Building on the work of a variety of literacy researchers, we developed our own view of a comprehensive approach to literacy learning. We advocate literacy approaches that avoid emphasizing one aspect of literacy at the expense of another and instead address the orchestration of the elements of effective reading—phonemic awareness, phonics, accuracy, fluency, comprehension, vocabulary, and engagement. We aim to provide instruction that is deeply connected so that school makes sense to children, and they learn how written language is connected to spoken language.

We advocate literacy approaches that avoid emphasizing one aspect of literacy at the expense of another.

Confusions surrounding approaches to literacy instruction are compounded because commonly used labels are not clearly understood. For example, we have been characterized as advocates of something labeled “balanced literacy.” In our first book, Guided Reading, which was published in 1996, we used the word “balanced” as an adjective when describing a high-quality language and literacy environment with both small-group and whole-group differentiated instruction. Since that time, “balanced literacy” has become a label that can mean different things to different people. Rather than applying a label, we have always advocated for educators to describe their rationales and practices rather than label their approach. We believe labels such as “balanced literacy” serve no one.

Both classroom- and laboratory-based research have proved the importance of phonics instruction, but such research has not identified any particular kind of phonics instruction to be better than others,nor has it identified a need to use a particular kind of text. Our curriculum resources include daily phonics instruction within a comprehensive set of related practices. We believe children need both explicit instruction and the opportunity to apply knowledge while reading and writing continuous text.

Our conclusion is that there cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach. The responsibility to the child belongs to the teacher and not a “program.”

See Also

Image of a student reading in the library.
Allison Shelley for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action

While we do not object to the data and research being put forth by advocates of what is called the science of reading, we do have concerns about the narrow interpretations that may arise from it. We caution against sweeping policy decisions that override the judgment of local educators.

As educators, we serve a highly diverse student population, including many children who come to school with disadvantages. Individuals have different needs and learn in different ways. There is no quick fix, nor is there one way that all children must learn. We do see patterns in children’s literacy development, but expert teachers tune in to individual needs and strengths and thoughtfully adapt the way they teach. This is responsive teaching. These small but constant instructional decisions make teaching powerful enough to make a difference.

The challenges ahead remind us of the vital importance of education leadership at every level—district, school, and classroom. As you adjust to the new challenges this school year is likely to present, lean into the practices you have observed make a positive impact on the emotional, social, and literacy outcomes of students. Those practices, with a tweak here and there, stand the test of time in supporting learners. Also, continue to build and nurture a collaborative, supportive culture that rests on the shared values of your learning community.

Advancing children’s literacy learning and elevating the expertise of teachers has been and continues to be our life’s work. There will always be different views, but we believe our energy should be directed toward collaborating, problem-solving, and thoughtfully examining the curriculum and the teaching to make them more effective for children.

Our message today is that—especially at the start of another challenging school year—if we work together and not against each other, we stand a better chance of ensuring that all children have the chance to live a literate life.

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A version of this article appeared in the September 08, 2021 edition of Education Week as Teachers, More Than Programs, Make for Great Reading Instruction


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