Reading & Literacy

Reading Experts Question if ‘Balance’ Is the Answer

May 12, 1999 4 min read

San Diego

Reading programs in school districts and states throughout the country have been revamped in recent years, experts say, to reflect the “balance” of teaching methods--from direct phonics instruction to an emphasis on rich literature--that scholars and national reports have recommended.

But reading authorities argue over whether so-called balanced reading instruction has done much to quell the “reading wars” or if it has fueled more disagreements over the best way to teach children to read.

Panelists in one forum at the International Reading Association’s annual conference, held here last week, agreed on one thing: Balance, the use of a variety of tools and teaching strategies, can be interpreted broadly.

“Balance can be part of the solution to the problem of the swinging pendulum” that has characterized reading instruction for at least four decades, said James W. Cunningham, a professor of literacy education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

In many cases, though, the way in which balance translates into practice creates additional problems, Mr. Cunningham said. Many districts have infused their reading programs with more phonics instruction to counteract the literature-based approaches--often identified with the whole-language philosophy--that came into vogue in the late 1980s. Legislation in more than a dozen states in recent years has put a renewed emphasis on phonics in the name of balance, Mr. Cunningham said.

The “concept of balance has been problematic,” said Jerome Harste, a professor of language at Indiana University Bloomington and the president-elect of the National Council of Teachers of English. “When you put too much emphasis on letters and letter sounds ... you destroy the reading process,” he said.

Mr. Harste said schools that invest in intensive professional development and the materials they need, instead of prepackaged programs that promise balance, will get the best results.

“The concept of balance [encourages] administrators to buy into a program that fits,” and that undermines the professional judgment of the teacher, Mr. Harste argued. “Our history tells us that teacher-proof materials do not work.”

Suzanne Forest felt a bit out of place in the midst of thousands of reading teachers and experts at the conference here May 3-6. “I’m an art teacher. What am I doing here?” said Ms. Forest, a teacher at Ocean City Primary School near Atlantic City, N.J.

But Ms. Forest, who helped lead one discussion on reading and the arts, was not necessarily alone in the crowd. Speakers in more than a dozen other sessions were content-area specialists with no particular expertise in reading. Those workshops advocated the teaching of reading across the curriculum--in the social studies, mathematics, and science--as a way to raise achievement.

A teacher for 28 years, Ms. Forest believes art class is particularly appropriate for building reading skills.

“There are a lot of parallels between doing art and writing and reading,” said Ms. Forest, who works with reading teacher Mary Fran Riley to create lesson plans that best suit their students. “Art is one of the first ways children express themselves before they understand text. It is an excellent place to integrate reading instruction.”

Teaching reading across the curriculum is an expanding area of interest in the field, especially in light of growing concern that older students--those in middle and even high school--do not have the necessary skills to understand complex text, according to Alan E. Farstrup, the IRA’s executive director.

“Teachers know that reading is not an isolated tool,” he said. “Reading skills should be taught in any subject area.”

After investing millions of dollars in the development of reading programs and book series for elementary students, publishers want to make sure they get teachers’ attention.

The exhibit hall at the conference was a virtual playground for the enthusiastic reading teacher. Publishers displayed their books, software, and other materials against brightly illustrated backdrops. They promised cookies and candy and free giveaways to those who browsed their stacks.

Scott Foresman, a McGraw-Hill imprint based in Glenview, Ill., turned its corner of the hall into a carnival. Representatives handed out tambourines and kazoos and coaxed potential customers into singing and dancing with Muppet-like puppets to promote the company’s new K-6 reading program.

Herman the Hermit Crab, Jake the Dog, and Daisy--puppets created by the Children’s Television Workshop--counted the syllables of words to the beat of the music while audience members clapped their hands.

Teachers were photographed on a throne set up at one end of the exhibit, and perused books on a life-size carousel. They won free gifts with the spin of a prize wheel, and they stumbled through a house of mirrors.

All the while, the publisher did its best to ensure that teachers were unlikely to forget who created the book bazaar. Billboards plastered throughout the exhibit touted “Scott Foresman Reading,” the name of the program. They also displayed the company’s motto: “Reading is at the heart of everything we do.”

--Kathleen Kennedy Manzo

A version of this article appeared in the May 12, 1999 edition of Education Week as Reading Experts Question if ‘Balance’ Is the Answer

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