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The Components of Balanced Literacy

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 19, 2013

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.

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