George Lucas Educational Foundation

The Un-Fallacy of Balanced Literacy

July 17, 2014

This is my response to an Op-Ed Piece that appeared in the New York Times titled “The Fallacy of Balanced Literacy” written by Alexander Nazaryan. The author makes some negative comments about the approach of balanced literacy and how the New York City education chancellor, Carmen Fariña, plans to reinstate it into New York City schools. The quotes below are from Nazaryan's piece.

“On bad days, independent reading devolved into chaos. That was partly a result of my first-year incompetence, but even on good days, it proved a confounding amalgam of free period and frustrating abyss.”

Not really. The conditions of a workshop are totally up to the teacher and are deliberate. There’s work involved here. Learning conditions lead to learning. And the teacher must set the expectations, teach them, and model them over and over again until the students can basically run the workshop on their own. The systems in place are kind of like the undertow in the surf. It’s not totally visible, but it will pull you along quite nicely.

  • Some examples of systems in place might be…
  • What to do when you’re stuck on a piece of writing
  • What to do when you’re finished a first draft
  • Where to log reading and writing
  • What do I do if I want to abandon a book or finished a book

Classroom systems in a balanced literacy program prepare kids to be responsible professionals and citizens.

“Expecting children to independently discover the rules of written language is like expecting them to independently discover the rules of differential calculus.”

This baffles me. I don’t know why most people feel that writing and reading workshop is some Hippie commune where the learning of conventions and grammar rules will only stymie the creative flow. I rarely teach whole class grammar lesson. Yes, that’s right. Why? If I have fifteen kids in my class and eight of them already know how to use quotation marks, why would I teach a whole class lesson on quotation marks? Those eight writers know the skill and could be making progress on a piece of writing instead of re-learning something they already know how to do. This is how the workshop runs. You are constantly talking to kids and reading pieces of writing to gauge the lessons you need to teach. I don’t need a spreadsheet of data to know which kids still can’t find the end of a sentence. Maybe it’s old-fashioned, but I just, dare I say, talk to my students to know what they need?

 “The fatal flaw of balanced literacy is that it is least able to help students who most need it.”

In the words of my three-year-old daughter, “Huh?” First of all, what do you mean by “those who most need it”? That’s everyone. Isn’t it? The high kids need just as much support as the low kids in order for all to improve. Balanced literacy is very differentiated by design. Whether you’re teaching writing or reading skills, talking craft, or just reading aloud, all kids get what they need. That’s the beauty of workshop model. If one kid needs to write for thirty minutes, he gets it. If one kid needs to work on end marks, well, there’s your one-on-one lesson for the day.

“But while recollections of beach trips or departed felines are surely worthwhile, they don’t quite have the pedagogical value of a deep dive into sentence structure or a plain old vocab quiz.”

A deep dive into sentence structure? I’m assuming this is the study of a sentence out of context? Because deep diving into a sentence only attracts those who love analyzing sentences and might help answer that one question on a standardized test about participial phrases. But what are we teaching here? Are we teaching kids to vividly communicate or cut up sentences? First of all, complex sentence structure has nothing to do with the ability to tell a story. Look at all of Stephen King’s books. He has the ability drag a reader through a piece of writing with very basic sentences that either scares the reader to sleep with the lights on (The Shining) or reminisce about childhood (The Body). How about Cormac McCarthy? Have you ever heard of The Road? Tears and tears from basic third grade sentences. In the balanced model, the teacher can analyze what the writer needs to effectively communicate his/her voice. That’s teaching grammar/conventions in context and differentiating on a purist level without boring the writer to death. Now those beach trips and departed feline stories (which, by the way, mean way more to that writer than your vocab quiz) are two-fold. It’s going beyond pedagogical value. It’s human value. It’s life value. It’s helping people realize that, “Hey, I can do this writing thing.”

“I went to a selective high school in Bushwick, where I taught Sophocles while rhapsodizing about semicolons and gleefully announcing vocab quizzes. My students were seeing the beams that support the language; they went on to write poems, papers, newspaper articles and personal essays that earned a number of them admission to the nation’s best colleges. If any of it was soul-crushing, I missed the cues.”

What is a selective high school? Is that a school that chooses its students based on entrance exams? Students were already advanced before they drooled over semicolons, I suppose. Hold on, are you saying that by dissecting sentences students were inspired to write multiple drafts of a poem, paper, essay, etc…, have it read by peers and teachers, and then write it again? Man, I don’t know. In my opinion, only large amounts of reading and writing can muster that kind of resolve. Balanced Literacy allows for the time needed to weed through the junk to find the gold. Sorry, I don’t believe your unbalanced method of teaching writing had anything to do with your kids writing so well. Just because you can see the frame of the house, doesn’t mean you can build one. 

“She taught me the language in the most conventionally rigorous manner, acutely aware that I couldn’t do much until I knew the difference between a subject and a verb. Mrs. Cohen was unbalanced in the best possible way.”

This kind of teaching might benefit all of the Alexander Nazaryan’s of the world, but this very comment contradicts your other comment of, “The fatal flaw of balanced literacy is that it is least able to help students who most need it.” This is one way to teach the language. Absolutely. And it worked for you. There’s no flaw in this type of instruction. The flaw is that it’s ONE type of instruction. Balanced literacy delivers many different approaches to teaching language in an authentic, rigorous (not rigamortis) manner. This, my friend, delivers instruction to those who need it.

There are many ways to teach reading. Just because one method didn’t work for you because you weren’t properly trained and supported, doesn’t mean it’s not effective.

This post wasn’t about how to run a balanced literacy program (reading/writing workshop). There are many books, PD programs, and internships available to help you do it. It’s not easy and takes time and patience, but it’s the real deal and will inspire your students to become writers and readers for life. I have read and attended all of my recommendations below.

National Writing Project: The National Writing Project focuses the knowledge, expertise, and leadership of our nation's educators on sustained efforts to improve writing and learning for all learners.

Intern at the Nancie Atwell Center for Teaching and Learning: CTL is also a demonstration school for teachers from across the U.S. The faculty has drawn on theory and research, including our own, to show how K-8 schools might be restructured. The curriculum stresses real and original work: writing, research, computation and problem-solving, experiments, building, observation, data collection and analysis, the reading of exceptional children’s literature across the disciplines, and artistic, musical, and dramatic performance.

My personal blog.

My Edutopia writings.

Just a few Books:

  • The 9 Rights of Every Writer by Vicki Spandel
  • What a Writer Needs by Ralph Fletcher
  • But How Do You Teach Writing? By Barry Lane
  • The Reading Zone and In the Middle by Nancie AtwellReadicide by Kelly Gallagher

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This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we've preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer's own.