Monday, June 5, 2017

What Does Balanced Literacy Look Like?

I am old enough to remember the phonics vs. whole language debates when people divided themselves into two camps - one camp advocated for direct instruction in phonics - teaching letters and sounds, sounding out words, etc.  The whole language approach took a more global view that stories generated by children were important and children would absorb language rules by exposure to story and text. I was working in a Montessori program in the early 1980s during this time and the Whole Language work seemed like the perfect complement to the robust phonological and phonetic work that is part of Montessori language and literacy curricula. I couldn't imagine tossing out the introduction of sounds and symbols in favor of what was being deemed a more "organic" approach.  

Couldn't we all just get along?

Of course we know that we need both and that they complement each other beautifully.

Of late another false dichotomy has emerged:  dictation vs. child writing.
I was recently talking with some colleagues about journaling with children.  When I mentioned that teachers were writing down children's stories they looked askance.  "Doesn't that communicate to children that adults are the only ones who can write?" I had recently heard this before from others teachers who were careful not to do much writing for children lest the children rely upon adults to write for them. I wondered how 3 and 4 year olds would develop narrative fluency, discover the power of their own stories, and see writing modeled if adults didn't support their story telling ability by listening and writing down what they said.

Then there is the copying-invented spelling divide.  We want to give children rich vocabulary, but some say that copying robs children of the opportunity to do invented spelling, a much needed cognitive skill that leads to children being able to generate their own writing using phonetics.  Yet, we often see children working in the absence of meaningful, relevant vocabulary that complements their drawing and interests. Shouldn't we be giving children words that are meaningful to them? This is especially relevant for children who are learning English and need vocabulary-rich experiences.

Invented spelling is a crucial skill.  It is time consuming and it must be taught.  There is no substitute for sitting with a child and helping them to sound out words and we have to make the time to do it daily with children. Test yourself with some writing I saw this week (hint: the children were studying the life cycle of the butterfly and watching them emerge from their chrysalids).


How did you do? It is great stuff.  And, just what we want to see. But how did these children, whose teacher also took dictation of stories, engaged in Story Telling Story Acting, wrote group stories with the whole group to model writing and sounding out, labeled children's drawings, provided word/picture cards with relevant vocabulary, and had children draw and write daily, learn to dive into invented spelling?

The key is that the teacher did all these things.  
  • She conveyed, very intentionally, that there are many ways to communicate through writing.
  • She intentionally told children that writers don't write by copying everything or having someone else write for them, they think about the words, the sounds, and put them on paper, from brain to hand to page.
  •  She watched children carefully so she would know when a child was ready to move from dictation to sounding out their own words. 

Initially children may want only labels.  Then they want to tell a whole story.  Gradually they want to be the ones to write and there may be a combination of child-led and teacher writing. Children eventually learn that for their work to be able to be read by everyone, they must follow certain conventions and by first and second grade, the idea of correct spelling comes into play.  But for 4 year olds, or even a 3 year old who shows you she is ready, getting the letters down on paper and seeing oneself as a writer is the key, and teachers must balance a variety of complementary approaches - hence, a balanced literacy approach.

Labeling Children's Drawings

Taking Dictation

Somerville uses a Balanced Literacy approach.  This means that we use complementary approaches to language and literacy, balancing attention on all elements of literacy exposure and instruction in speaking, listening, writing, and reading. For PreK this means a focus on:
  • Oral Language and Vocabulary
  • Book Knowledge
  • Print Concepts
  • Writing
  • Physical Development and Writing Mechanics
  • Phonological & Phonemic Awareness: Listening for and playing with sounds, words, and syllables
  • Phonics: Linking sounds and pictures, sounding out words

“Balance” also refers to the way teachers engage in multiple resources and activities tailored to children's diverse learning needs throughout the day.  There is also a balance of instructional configurations: whole group, small group, individual, and the “handover” - where children independently engage in activities alone, in pairs, or small groups without the need of constant adult intervention.  This last part relies on really good Guided Discovery presentations that foster independence.

And of course, you need a place in the classroom where children can access materials to become strong writers and readers. How are you achieving balanced literacy in your classroom?