In Defense of Balanced Literacy

Yesterday my attention was drawn to this article in the New York Times called: “The Fallacy of Balanced Literacy” by Alexander Nazaryan.

I also read this incredibly well written response by Gaeten Pappalardo over on edutopia.

And 24 hours I am still annoyed beyond words.

I am not going to respond to some of the inaccuracies written by Mr. Nazaryan because Mr. Pappalardo has already done so quite eloquently, but I am going to take issue with a few points that are streaking around my mind.

First of all, Mr. Nazaryan owns up to his limited experience in the classroom, but rather than go find the opinion of experienced teachers to support his claim, he goes on to make personal statements about the ineffectiveness of balanced literacy. As a teacher who has embraced balanced literacy for the past 13 years, I would say my first years teaching were wildly ineffective as well, but not because of balanced literacy, but because I didn’t know what I was doing.

Teaching for a year or two under a certain philosophy (especially as a new teacher) and claiming its ineffectiveness is roughly akin to:

  • declaring all apples are gross because you ate one that was rotten
  • claiming Nike has a terrible running shoe design because you ran slower than anyone else
  • quitting a diet after the first day because you did not lose any weight

What bothers me is not that Mr. Nazaryan has a negative opinion (I myself have a negative opinion of honeydew, opinions are opinions) but the fact that he never questions any of his stances.

One statement that deserves such reflection is the following:

Two decades later, I became a teacher because it seemed a social good to transmit the valuable stuff I’d learned from Mrs. Cohen and other teachers to young people who were as clueless as I had been.”

Here is my issue with that: teaching is at its core a relationship between two people. There is an “I” and then there is a “you”. Mr. Nazaryan teaches as if there is only an “I”. This was good for me, therefore it is good for you. That negates the personhood of the very students he seeks to teach. The approach describes students as empty vessels languishing along until a teacher can come and pour knowledge down their parched throats. Mr. Nazaryan feels he was clueless, but that does not mean the children he thinks are clueless actually are.

The beauty of workshop teaching and balanced literacy, is that it is based on finding the “you-ness” of each child. My job as a teacher is to find out the very best way YOU learn and adapt and individualize my teaching style so that YOU not only gain the necessary knowledge to survive in the world, but also the agency, self respect, active learning stance, and flexibility that empowers each and every one of us. I do not teach any two students the exact same way, because no students are the same.

Mr. Nazaryn describes a very “unbalanced” approach to balanced literacy in his own classroom and in his own limited understanding. How can he have an opinion about something he never really did? In reality, balanced literacy is a philosophy that says, “Kids are different, they need to learn in different ways, and teachers need  the freedom to teach kids in different ways.” It takes skilled teachers, a great depth of knowledge, and the skill of kid-watching to pull it off. It also needs people who ask, “What does this child need from me?”

The kind of direct instruction Mr. Nazaryan advocates exists, as needed, in a balanced literacy classroom. Rather than wielding it like an axe to all students, it is a scalpel precisely used where it will do the most good.

School is not just about knowing the difference between nouns and verbs, it is also a place where children receive explicit and implicit information about how others perceive them and their own agency. I am wary of any teaching that seems to value the teacher over the learner, which one-size-fits-all instruction is based on. Balanced literacy is a place where children learn the power of their own mind, alongside the power of a semi-colon. I have taught in high needs schools, the 40% Mr. Nazaryan worries about. My students left on grade level, and more importantly they left my classroom knowing that they had power and direction in their own learning. It is an antiquated notion to think teaching is just about transmitting facts, in the 21st century it is about teaching how to learn in an ever changing world.

I am not sure if I made my point or not, but here it is in a nutshell: what Mr. Nazaryan describes is not balanced literacy, it is a new teacher struggling to do something that he was not prepared to do. Balanced literacy is individualized instruction tailored to learning styles and needs, that at its heart, values what makes each child unique and what each child needs to be happy and healthy and successful in the world.

I welcome anyone to engage in further dialogue around this topic, but don’t even try to defend honey dew to me.



14 thoughts on “In Defense of Balanced Literacy

  1. Thank you for your very well written response. I did not read the article you mention in the Times, but I am baffled by the thought of someone having an issue with balanced literacy and advocating more direct instruction. I firmly believe that balanced literacy allows teachers to meet the needs of all learners in their classroom, but more importantly it helps teachers instill a love of reading in their students. As a teacher of primary school students this is a top priority in my room. I do agree that teachers must be adequately prepared and supported by their preparation programs and their administrator. I currently work for an administrator who taught primary age students for 12 years before becoming an administrator. He understands child development, curriculum, and best practices more than anyone I have met. He uses observations as a learning experience for teachers and writes a detailed report of ways for you to improve as well as additional reading for you with the goal of supporting the teacher so he/she can support the students always in mind. I always say that I am very lucky because I know this is not the norm in most districts. I believe that better preparing administrators so they can support teachers who can then support their students better is an area where the world of teaching does need to focus. Thanks again for sharing your intelligent and insightful thoughts Kristi.

  2. An enjoyable read! Several points are making me take a better view of myself as a teacher, as a learner.
    Thanks for reminding me of my first years teaching. Yes, I too had so many wildly ineffective moments because I didn’t know what I was doing. I still have these after 20 years! Now I can spot them and try and improve them more effectively. I think more about my young learner’s success than my teaching success.
    I love your points about rotten apples and bad Nike shoes, etc. This makes me think how we may clutch on to any narrow data, then recklessly apply our opinions to ratify our beliefs.
    Finally, thankyou for reminding me about the ‘You’ and the ‘I’ in the
    Learning relationship. I reckon that for all the times I failed in the classroom, it was because I was teaching as if there was only an ‘I’.

  3. Thank you for writing this! Exactly! Exactly! The misinformation re balanced literacy is so frustrating–and it always seems to come from folks who have little to no experience or training in balanced literacy.

  4. “finding the “you” ness – absolutely perfect! I always strive to find this everyday in my classroom You made some really excellent points. I’m so happy to have found your site.

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