What Does Balanced Literacy Actually Mean?

Often when I visit schools and ask teachers to describe their curriculum to me, they’ll say that they do “balanced literacy.” I often ask them what they mean by “balanced.” The answers I get are varied. Their varied answers don’t surprise me because as I worked on this article I discovered a variety of views as to what the word balanced in “balanced literacy” actually means.

One explanation of balanced I found was the idea that in balanced literacy you are balancing certain kinds of curricula with other kinds of curricula (e.g., Hiebert and Cole) 1989. Another definition emphasized the balancing of teacher-initiated activities with student-initiated activities (e.g., Spiegel, 1994) Balance has also been defined as equally weighing curriculum with instruction where the types of curriculum and instruction have been viewed before as antithetical (e.g., Baumann and Ivey, 1997). More recent definitions of balance have included much of the above but have also emphasized assessment as a key factor in planning for an appropriate balance (Raphael and Pearson, 1997).

Most recently, Spiegel has defined balance as a “decision making approach through which the teacher makes thoughtful choices each day about the best way to help each child become a better reader and writer” (Spiegel, 1998). Throughout this article, you’ll see that I emphasize Spiegel’s definition of balance. I believe in order to get the appropriate balance in balanced literacy, you must make thoughtful decisions each day about the best way to help your students become more skillful readers and writers.

The first question then is, What reading and writing knowledge do our students need if they are to become skillful readers and writers? I explored how both readers and writers use meaning, structure, and visual sources of information. These same sources of information can, of course, help us to understand what to plan for in the components of balanced literacy so that we make sure that our students are progressively becoming more skillful readers and writers.

The Components of Balanced Literacy

 

Shared Writing Read-Aloud
The teacher composes a variety of texts with her students. She often models her thinking as she writes. The students participate by listening to the teacher’s thought process and then trying some strategies in order to help compose the text. The teacher writes the text, therefore taking away the visual sources of information, so that students can focus on using meaning and structure as they compose meaning into the text that is being written. The teacher reads aloud various types of text. He often models his thinking aloud as he reads. The students participate by listening to the text and the teacher’s thinking strategies, and then trying some of them out by talking with partners. The teacher reads the text, therefore taking away the visual sources of information, so that students can focus on meaning and structure.
  •  Shared Writing and Read-Aloud both focus on building up students' independence in the meaning and structure sources of information.

 

Interactive Writing

Shared Reading
The teacher composes an enlarged text with the students. The students participate by writing parts of the text. The teacher writes what is too easy or too difficult for the students. The teacher builds the meaning and the structure up, so that students can bring in the visual sources of information as they compose meaning into a text. The teacher reads an enlarged text aloud. The students participate by reading along, using strategies when they encounter difficulty. The teacher builds the meaning and structure up, so that students can bring in the visual sources of information as they compose meaning from a text.
  •  Interactive Writing and Shared Reading both focus on building up students' independence in the visual sources of information.

 

Writing Workshop Reading Workshop
  • Minilesson
  • Work time

Students are working independently or in partnerships.

Teachers are working one on one, and with small groups, teaching them strategies that will improve the quality of their writing.

  • Share
  • Minilesson
  • Work time

Students are working independently or in partnerships.

Teachers are working one on one, and with small groups, teaching them strategies that will improve the quality of their reading.

  • Share
  • Both have the same structure.
  • In both, teachers work with individuals and small groups.
  • In both, students are expected to use meaning, structure, and visual sources of information independently to compose meaning into and from texts.

The next question, then, is, How do we use the components of balanced literacy to teach our students more about meaning, structure, and visual sources of information? If we are to teach inside each of these components in powerful but different ways, then each component must be used to highlight a different source of information. When I practice yoga, different poses highlight different body parts. Half Moon Pose works on upper body strength. Awkward Pose works on leg strength, and Eagle Pose works on balance. My whole body is now strong because there is a particular pose that lets me work on just one area at a time.

Our students need the same scaffolds inside of the components that I had in yoga. They need components in which they work mainly on meaning and structure sources of information. They also need components in which they work mainly on visual sources of information. And finally, they need components that help them “put it all together.” I’ve made clear delineations between the components, fully aware that in your classroom the lines might be a bit blurrier. Keep these delineations in mind, however, as they will focus your instruction.

Some teachers have wondered if it would make sense to start with some components of balanced literacy and, as the students grow in their knowledge, add more components. Marilyn Adams reminds us that this is not a wise idea. She states that “the parts of the reading system must grow together. They must grow to one another and from one another. In order for the connection and even the connected parts to develop properly they must be developed conjointly. They must be linked together in the very course of acquisition” (Adams, 1990, p. 6). As we look at the components of balanced literacy, keep in mind that your students will be most successful if they’re practicing all of the components simultaneously.

Looking at Components that Connect

When Patricia Cunningham came to speak to an audience of teachers at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project (2003), she talked about how people learn new things. “Learners,” she said, “need to know what they are doing and why they are doing it. They need to have cognitive clarity.” And although this doesn’t surprise me, it is at the forefront of my mind as I write this chapter. You’ll see that I’ll describe each component so that you, the learner, will have cognitive clarity. You’ll see what each component is and why you would do that particular component with your students—specifically, which sources of information are being addressed.

Teachers who have read this article suggested that I provide examples of strategies you might teach in different components. When I tried to make a list, I realized that everything we could teach students about reading and writing could be categorized underneath particular components. What I’ve tried to do instead is give you a short list of other strategies you might teach in different components, knowing that over time you’ll add many new ideas to each of these lists. I also tried to match strategies across reading and writing components. For example, you’ll see that Shared Writing and Read-Aloud share many similar strategies; however, Shared Writing will approach the strategy from a writing angle and Read-Aloud will of course approach the same strategy from a reading angle. Finally, you’ll see the connection between the reading and writing components and how each component enhances and adds to the others. Hopefully, seeing this will help make your planning for the components of balanced literacy more efficient and more effective.

Shared Writing: Highlighting meaning and structure sources of information.

In Shared Writing, the teacher composes a variety of texts with her students. This is different from language experience in that the teacher is not simply acting as a scribe for her students, but is jointly composing the text with her students. The goal of Shared Writing is to help students develop composing strategies that will move them from using oral language to more literary language.

The teacher models her thinking aloud as she writes, so that the students see an experienced writer’s thought process. The students participate by listening to the teacher’s thought process. Then, they often speak (either in partnerships or in whole-class discussions), trying out those same strategies with the teacher’s assistance. The teacher acts as a scribe; therefore, she is doing the visual (or graphophonic) work of writing so that students can focus on strengthening the ways in they use meaning and structure as they speak. This work will certain improve the ways in which the students use meaning and structure while writing independently.

Often when I describe Shared Writing in this manner, teachers look perplexed. “I’ve never used Shared Writing as a place to teach the composing process,” they’ll say. “I’ve used it to model spelling strategies. I’ve used it to model how what we say can be written down. I’ve used it to model capitals, lowercase, periods, commas, but never to just teach students how to write in detailed, structured ways.”

In Shared Writing, the teacher’s job is to write the text for the students and scaffold what the students say. The students’ job is to use both meaning and structure sources of information while speaking to compose meaning.

Read-Aloud: Highlighting meaning and structure sources of information.

Just as Shared Writing develops students’ understanding of how to use meaning and structure when they write, Read-Aloud strengthens students’ understanding of how to use meaning and structure when they read. Because these two components are so similar, they will enhance or improve one another. During Read-Aloud, the teacher reads aloud various types of texts. She often models her thinking aloud as she reads. The students participate by listening to the text and the teacher’s thinking strategies. They often talk about the book (either in partnerships or in whole-class discussions), trying out the similar types of thinking that their teacher previously modeled. The teacher reads the text; therefore, she is doing the visual (or graphophonic) work of reading. The students can then focus on listening using meaning and structure to help them comprehend the text. Next, let’s take a look as Millie conducts a Read-Aloud with her first grade class.

The teacher’s job during Read-Aloud is to read the words of the text and extend what students say. The students’ job is to listen and use talk to further their comprehension.

Shared Writing and Read-Aloud are similar because they both help develop students’ understanding of how to use meaning and structure as they read and write.

Because they are similar they have the potential to enhance or improve one another. For example, if Maria wanted to enhance the work that she did with putting like information together, she might conduct a Read-Aloud asking students to listen to like information and try to comprehend it. If Millie wanted to enhance the work that she did in her Read-Aloud, she might conduct a Shared Writing session in which they would work together to compose a text that was elaborated upon.

Interactive Writing: Highlighting visual sources of information.

Moira McKenzie, warden of the Inner London Education Authority, created an approach that she called Shared Writing (now called Interactive Writing). McKenzie built on Holdaway’s work in Shared Reading by providing a similar structure for writing with students. Typically in Interactive Writing, the teacher composes an enlarged text with the students. The students participate by writing parts of the text. The teacher and student share the pen. The teacher writes what is too easy or too difficult for the students.

The teacher begins an Interactive Writing session by building up the students’ meaning and structure; that is, she brainstorms (or simply tells the students) what they’re writing that day, so that students can more easily bring in the visual (or graphophonic) sources of information as they compose meaning into a text. At the end, the teacher and the students have produced a text that is conventional (the spelling and punctuation are correct). Because students are writing parts of the text, they will sometimes write something that is not conventional. Many of the teachers that I work with use white masking tape to cover up the error. They then give the students a chance to try again.

Shared Reading: Highlighting visual sources of information.

Just as Interactive Writing focuses on the visual sources of information, so does Shared Reading. In Shared Reading, the teacher reads and rereads enlarged texts aloud. These texts could be big books, poems, and/or rhymes. You should of course choose different texts, for different reasons, but the text should be enlarged (just as in Interactive Writing) so that all students can follow the print.

Different Shared Reading sessions are for different purposes. Early sessions, which Don Holdaway calls discovery (1979, p. 71), feel more like Read-Aloud because most conversations focus on what the text is about, therefore just like in Read-Aloud, the students are focusing on the meaning and structure sources of information. What makes Shared Reading in this instance different from Read-Aloud is that the text is enlarged and the teacher is running a pointer underneath the words as she reads. The students (even in these early discovery sessions) might notice that there is a one-to-one relationship between oral language and written language.

Later Shared Reading sessions, which Don Holdaway calls exploration (1979, p. 72), focus on rereading these same texts. Because the meaning and structure have been built up, students can more easily bring in the visual sources of information. The students now participate by reading along, using meaning, structure, and visual strategies when they encounter difficulty. Any Shared Reading session could have elements of discovery and exploration in it—that is, the teacher might begin by reading a new text and focus on meaning and structure and then move on to an old favorite where they bring in the visual sources of information.

Interactive Writing and Shared Reading are similar because both are working on the visual sources of information. Because they are similar they can be used to enhance or improve one another. For example, if Millie wanted to enhance the work that she did during Interactive Writing, she might conduct a Shared Reading session in which she focuses on skills such as being able to read a word quickly or looking at the ends of words to make sure they look right. If Shawn wanted to enhance the work that she did in Shared Reading, she might conduct an Interactive Writing session where she has the students say the word and listen for the first sound and then record the corresponding letter.

Reading Workshop and Writing Workshop: Putting it all together.

In Reading and Writing Workshop students are using meaning, structure, and visual sources of information all at once. When I practice yoga, I’ve come to realize that the first three poses (Half Moon, Awkward, and Eagle) are warm-ups for the Triangle Pose. Essentially, in Triangle Pose your body takes everything it learned during Half Moon, Awkward, and Eagle and puts it together into one pose. Reading and Writing Workshops have the same purpose in the components of balanced literacy. Shared Writing, Read-Aloud, Interactive Writing, and Shared Reading are essentially the warm-ups for Reading and Writing Workshop: In Reading and Writing Workshop students must use what they’ve learned in the other components and put it together. The teacher gets a chance during Reading and Writing Workshop to assess what the students have learned in the other components and where their confusions still lie.

Both Reading and Writing Workshop have the same structure. They begin with a short minilesson during which you teach one new skill or strategy. (In writing, it’s a writing skill. In reading, it’s a reading skill.) Then, there is a work time where students work independently or in partnerships. During this time teachers are conducting one-on-one conferences and small group instruction by carefully assessing their students and teaching based upon their individual needs. The teacher then closes up the workshop by conducting a share session in which both students and teachers share and reflect upon their reading and/or writing work.

Many teachers that I work with make sure that for the first two or three minutes of Reading and Writing Workshop they are watching students read and write by themselves rather than talking with students. Watching students will help you help you assess their strengths and needs so you can effectively plan for the other components of balanced literacy.

Keep in mind that during Reading and Writing Workshop your students will have fewer scaffolds than they do in the other components; therefore, you cannot expect them to perform at quite the same level as they do during the other components. In Part III of this book, I will examine more of the specifics pertaining to minilessons, conferences, and small group work.

Putting the Reading/Writing Connection into Action

Here are some possible skills/strategies that you might teach during reading and writing workshop.

 

Writing Workshop Reading Workshop
  • How to choose a topic for writing.
  • You use pictures to help you when you write.
  • What do you do when you get to a hard word in writing? What strategies can you use?
  • What do you do when you think you're finished writing?
  • You write a variety of forms and genres.
  • How to choose a book for reading.
  • You use pictures to help you when you read.
  • What do you do when you get to a hard word in reading? What strategies can you use?
  • What do you do when you think you're finished reading?
  • You read a variety of forms and genres.