Recently the pedagogical battles have been complicated by the passing of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001 (NCLB, 2002). According to Section 1001 of the 670-page document, the purpose of NCLB is “to ensure that all children have a fair, equal, and significant opportunity to obtain a high-quality education and reach, at a minimum, proficiency on challenging State academic achievement standards and state academic assessments” (Section 1001). The goal of high-quality education for all children is sound. But we agree with those who argue that this latest increase in bureaucratic requirements gets in the way of effective teaching (e.g., Washor & Mojkowski, 2006). Teachers feel that the federal mandates severely constrain their teaching vision and innovation. Teachers who understand how children learn and how emergent literacy develops are incensed at being forced to do what they know is wrong for young children. We want to help you figure out how to do what is right for children while meeting mandated literacy goals.

To do what is right for children, you have to understand the limitations of the federal mandates. Reading First is a provision of NCLB specifically targeted at improving primary-grade reading instruction (Graves, Juel, & Graves, 2007; Roskos & Vukelich, 2006). Its preschool counterpart, called Early Reading First, is designed to prepare children to enter kindergarten with language and literacy skills necessary for school success. To that end, the federal government supports a five-component model of reading, reported in the federally sponsored report of the National Reading Panel (2000). This model emphasizes phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension strategies instruction. This is a skills-based instructional model. NCLB has impacted public education in elementary schools across the United States, significantly changing children’s educational experience. Teachers from Virginia to California report that this focus on skills has become exclusive, leaving little time for engaging in meaningful activities or simply focusing on the enjoyment of literature.

Federal actions in the form of Early Reading First, Reading First, and NCLB have shifted responsibility for schools and control of schools from the local level to the state and federal levels. Accountability is a major area of contention surrounding NCLB (Janak, 2006). Accountability has placed enormous pressure on schools because the key federal policy concerning accountability requires standardized testing. While we are not against standards or accountability, we do not believe that high-stakes testing is the only way to determine student progress or achievement. We agree with Michael Pressley (2006b), who denounces the assumption that increased testing will lead to increased achievement. Yet under the provisions of the NCLB federal law, state standardized tests are administered in reading and mathematics annually in Grades 3 through 8 and the scores are used to determine adequate yearly progress (AYP; Cavanagh, 2006). Schools that do not make adequate yearly progress face stiff penalties, including the threat of state takeover.

Although this high-stakes standardized testing doesn’t begin until third grade, it has dramatically affected curriculum in early childhood classrooms. The emphasis on accountability measures has prompted a shift in early childhood programs, away from a developmentally appropriate focus on the intellectual, physical, social and emotional development of children and toward a direct instruction model limited to discrete skills (Geist & Baum, 2005; Hadaway, 2005; Neuman & Roskos, 2005b). Critics object to this academically oriented focus that devotes large amounts of time to teacher-led drill on literacy subskills (P. M. Cooper, 2005). This instruction includes drill on phonics and isolated sounds as well as vocabulary words (Hadaway, 2005; Venable, 2006). Children are no longer given the opportunity to learn letter sounds from authentic encounters with language, nursery rhymes, songs, and stories. To monitor student progress, teachers are expected to use regular tests of their phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension abilities (P. M. Cooper, 2005). In many places the five components are taught sequentially, focusing initially on decoding words and reading quickly but ignoring comprehension (Venable, 2006).

We know the process of becoming literate requires considerably more than phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension strategies. We know that reading is a meaning-making endeavor. As an alternative to skills-based instruction, which emphasizes skills out of context to the detriment of meaning, purpose, and enjoyment, we support more holistic teaching. While we agree that they are important, the five components must be taught in meaningful context. We are not alone in our concern that NCLB oversimplifies literacy (see e.g., Allington, 2002; Krashen, 2004; B. M. Taylor, Pearson, Peterson, & Rodriguez, 2003, 2005). Many literacy educators (e.g., Graves, Juel, & Graves, 2007; Krashen, 2004; Pressley, 2002, 2006a, 2006b; Routman, 2003; Xue & Meisels, 2004) support a balanced literacy curriculum. Balanced literacy instruction is a complex concept (Pearson & Raphael, 1999). Think about how difficult it is to maintain a balanced diet when you eat. Balance in literacy instruction must be considered across many continua, including authenticity of instruction, or how many real-life applications are included, and the teacher’s level of assistance, dictated by the students’ needs. There is balance of curricular control, which takes into account how much say the children and others get in deciding on the curriculum. Balance in classroom talk considers how much of the talk is teacher directed. Balance also needs to be considered when selecting materials, for example, the amount of fiction versus nonfiction text that is used (Au, 2003). Advocates of balanced instruction recognize that effective literacy instruction is multifaceted rather than based on one position (e.g., phonics) or another, and it addresses all of the criteria mentioned above.