Literacy Development and The Balanced Approach (page 4)
Historical and Theoretical Foundations
The evolution of the Interactive perspective was influenced by the continued research that occurred as the Whole Language approach was implemented. There were two main lines of research that facilitated or contributed to this evolution: (a) Research on the effectiveness of the Whole Language approach, and (b) research on the processes of reading and writing.
Research on the effectiveness of the Whole Language approach.
As research on the effectiveness of Whole Language instruction was conducted, it became apparent that while the approach was successful in some classrooms (Dahl & Freppon, 1994; Freppon, 1993; Stice & Bertrand, 1990), the Whole Language approach was not always successful. Not all children were able to benefit from a curriculum that primarily focused on reading literature and creative writing. Some children who had been in whole-language classrooms during the primary years experienced problems in the upper grades due to a lack of conventional spelling skills, a lack of knowledge of grammar, and an inability to fluently read content-area texts. Some school districts reported that reading achievement scores declined with the implementation of the Whole Language approach. Standardized test scores indicated low achievement in tasks related to reading (Johns & Elish-Piper, 1997). A major controversy developed in California when the Whole Language approach was deemed responsible for the statewide decline in reading achievement (Farris, Fuhler, & Walther, 2004; Innes, 2002; Johns & Elish-Piper, 1997; Krashen, 2002; Matson, 1996).
While the validity of this claim was questioned (Krashen, 2002), researchers and school districts began to study the ways in which Whole Language was being implemented. Researchers conducting observations in Whole Language classrooms reported that not all teachers were implementing the approach in the same way: in fact, there seemed to be many different definitions of what constituted the Whole Language approach (McIntyre, 1996). For example, although the Whole Language approach encouraged the embedding of instruction in specific language skills such as phonemic awareness in the context of reading a story, some teachers interpreted the Whole Language approach as prohibiting any attention to separate language skills.
The implementation of the Whole Language approach also resulted in whole class oral reading and the disappearance of reading ability groups. Because this approach assumed that children would learn to read by reading and that no explicit instruction in separate reading skills was needed, there was no need to have ability reading groups. This practice was also supported by research in classrooms using the subskill approach which documented the negative effects of reading ability groups on children’s motivation and long-term achievement (Allington, 1982; Davis, 1991; Grant, 1981; Phillips, 1990; Wilkinson & Spinelli, 1981). Unfortunately, this practice of whole class oral reading made it very difficult for individual children to receive the additional guidance they needed to learn to read.
Research on Reading and Writing Processes.
As this research on the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of the Whole Language approach accumulated, continued research on the cognitive processes involved in reading and writing provided new insights on what happens when we read. In his description of the process of reading, Rummelhart (1985) emphasized the roles of both perception and cognition, and the interaction that occurs between visual perception and cognitive processes that results in comprehension of written language. According to Rummelhart’s Interactive Model of Reading, skilled readers use various sources of information (such as visual discrimination, grammar, and vocabulary) when reading. These sources of information interact in complex ways during the process of reading. It is not a bottom-up or top-down process, but instead an interactive process where the reader’s prior knowledge of language and conceptual knowledge interacts dynamically with the visual information on the written page.
How Reading and Writing Are Defined
Based on Rummelhart’s model, the Interactive perspective defines reading and writing as meaning-making processes that involve both bottom-up and top-down aspects. When reading, a person’s brain processes the visual-sensory information (written words) along with prior knowledge of language (grammar, vocabulary, and word parts) in the construction of meaning, resulting in the comprehension of text. When writing, a person’s brain constructs a message through a dynamic interaction between what he wants the message to communicate and what he knows about using language (grammar and vocabulary) to express this message in writing.
How Children Learn to Read and Write
Because the Interactive perspective defines reading and writing as meaning-making processes involving both top-down and bottom-up aspects, it follows that this perspective’s description of how children develop literacy focuses on children’s experiences in both informal reading and writing activities (such as story book sharing and invented spelling) and formal, direct instruction (such as lessons on letter–sound relationships). Thus, it is assumed that children need to have both types of learning experiences in order to acquire literacy (Cassidy & Wenrich, 1998; Hammond, 1999; Morrow & Asbury, 1999; Pressley, 1998; Williams & Blair-Larsen, 1999).
The Interactive perspective also recognizes that the dynamic interactions that occur during reading and writing are not the same for each person, nor will all children benefit from experiencing the same learning activities. Thus, a learning environment should provide a wide range of informal and formal literacy-related experiences so that individual children’s needs are met. This approach to instruction is referred to as a “balanced approach.”
Instructional Approach: Balanced
The Balanced approach has been referred to as a “middle of the road approach” to instruction (Matson, 1996), as well as being seen as a compromise between two approaches (Subskills/Readiness and Whole Language), because it integrates both subskills and whole-language instructional activities (Reutzel & Cooter, 2004).
Guidelines for implementing this Balanced approach suggest a wide range of learning activities. Components of this range include the following (Fitzgerald, 1999; Hammond, 1999; Pressley, 1998; Strickland, 1996; Williams & Blair-Larsen, 1999; Wren, 2001):
- Direct instruction and independent, discovery learning. Reading activities include direct instruction by the teacher, opportunities for children to use independent learning centers, and opportunities to work with one another in pairs or small groups.
- Isolated skill emphasis and meaning-construction emphasis. Workbooks may be used that focus on developing phonics skills. At other times, activities focus on reading and writing as forms of meaningful, personal communication, such as writing notes to family or friends or acting out a favorite story.
- Pre-planned formal instruction and flexible instruction in response to children’s questions or immediate needs. While specific lessons are planned around instructional goals, the learning activities are changed or modified in response to children’s questions or interactions.
- Use of trade books and use of commercially developed, ability-leveled reading texts. In addition to a well-stocked classroom library that children use during designated times of the day, there are times when children engage in reading texts that are designed for specific reading levels.
- Formal standardized assessments and informal assessments. Student progress is evaluated through teachers’ daily observations and students’ work examples, along with commercially prepared tests that are part of a formal reading curriculum.
- Focus on language arts within a communicative context as well as a separate emphasis on activities in each area: reading, writing, listening, and speaking. For example, there are times when instructional activities focus only on a reading skill, such as word recognition. At other times, the learning activities emphasize several language arts, such as when a small group of children create a play of a favorite story, writing their own script and then presenting it in front of the class.
- Heterogeneous, flexible grouping of students and homogeneous, ability grouping. Within the literacy curriculum, children have opportunities to work in a variety of groups. Some groups are formed by interest and other groups are determined by instructional needs or general reading ability; however, the groupings are flexible or temporary, rather than static or permanent.
According to Fitzgerald (1999), there is no one balanced approach. While there is agreement on the general philosophy and theoretical perspective of this approach, the ways in which “balance” is achieved in the curriculum of individual classrooms and at different levels of literacy development is still being researched and debated. A determining factor in the literacy curriculum that is implemented in individual classrooms is each teacher’s knowledge of her students and their particular instructional needs.
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