The Balanced Literacy Debate

There is a startling connection between illiteracy and crime. One journalist in The New York Times noted that, "60 percent of the state and federal prison population of 440,000 cannot read above the sixth grade level." In other words, more than half of all criminals would be considered illiterate by modern standards. In order to improve reading rates and reduce crime, organizations such as the Book 'Em Foundation utilize police officers to read to school age children. The logic is that if children learn to read, they will be more likely to attain future success.

So how are educators working to meet this goal? In 2001, President George W. Bush enacted "No Child Left Behind" (NCLB), a national educational act that focuses on standards, testing, and teacher accountability in schools. NCLB spurred multiple reforms in municipalities across the United States.

Among the cities that modified their reading curriculum was New York. In 2003, Mayor Michael Bloomberg implemented a "Balanced Literacy" program, a system formulated by Columbia University education specialists. From the start the Balanced Literacy program generated controversy, sparked by strong advocates and resolute detractors.

What is Balanced Literacy?
Before we can define Balanced Literacy, we need to understand the two opposing fields of reading theory: phonics and whole language.
Phonics: Benefits and Drawbacks
Students who learn how to read based on the phonics system enunciate different sounds or phonemes in a language. In English, for instance, "f" and "ph" are the same phoneme: "f." Once the students learn the different phonemes, they then put them together in order to read whole words. Through sounding out the different phonemes, the phonics system allows students to read words that they have never encountered before. On the other hand, the phonics system requires students to learn multiple phonemes before enabling them to read many words on their own. Sometimes this longer period of learning before the gratification of reading frustrates students, making them believe that reading is all about memorization and learning by rote.
Whole Language: Benefits and Drawbacks
As opposed to learning different sounds in order to piece together full words, the whole language system believes in immediately attracting children to reading by giving them an early grasp of printed language through a "sight" vocabulary of memorized words and phrases. These memorized words give students a sense of accomplishment when they open simple books and are able to read whole sentences. One drawback of the whole language system, however, is that students are not provided with the skills to decode new words that they encounter. Unlike phonics learners, whole language learners continue to need experienced readers to teach them new words.
Balanced Literacy
The Balanced Literacy program is based heavily on the whole language approach. Robert Kolker, in New York magazine, explained that Balanced Literacy "operates on the presumption that breaking down words distracts kids, even discourages them, from growing up to become devoted readers. Instead, students in a Balanced Literacy program get their pick of books almost right away - real books, not the Dick and Jane readers, with narratives that are meant to speak to what kids relate to, whether it's dogs or baseball or friendship or baby sisters." This approach, therefore, rejects textbooks and traditional grammar drills - and instead stocks classroom with age-appropriate books.
NYC Schools Chancellor Joel Klein justified his support for the Balanced Literacy program by revealing that the only reason he did well in school and became a federal prosecutor was because an elementary school gave him a book about baseball. When he read that book and enjoyed it, it inspired him to continue to read and succeed in school. With that in mind, he implemented the Balanced Literacy program in nearly all of New York City's 743 elementary schools.
Balanced Literacy and Controversy
One obvious benefit of Balanced Literacy is students' immediate love of reading. In contrast, many argue that in the long run Balanced Literacy is not the most effective way to teach students to read.
Balanced Literacy and Social Class
Detractors of the Balanced Literacy program point out that the system has no set curriculum and operates on a teacher-by-teacher basis. In May 2004, in the EnglishJournal, Greg Hamilton from Columbia University points out that the program only works when there is a multitude of in-service support for teachers. In schools where there are lead teachers, principals who monitor teachers' progress, and consistent training, the Balanced Literacy program has been succeeding.
The problem is that in the most underprivileged schools where the reading levels are the lowest, there is less financial backing for in-service training. This in turn translates into a situation in which the low reading levels are getting lower, while the neighborhoods with already high reading levels are rising. Additionally, in the wealthier neighborhoods, parents are able to provide their children with extra tutoring hours in order to reinforce phonic reading. Alternatively, in the disadvantaged neighborhoods, the students are unable to pay for extra tutoring and following a predominantly whole language approach means that they then lack the basic phonic skills for the future.
Balanced Literacy and Writing
Another argument against the Balanced Literacy program is the impact it could potentially have on writing skills. Most Balanced Literacy teachers create writing workshops in the classroom. Writing workshops consist of students writing individually, sharing their work with their peers, and conferencing with teachers. There are advantages to the writing workshop method, many being similar to the whole language approach. Through the relaxed and pleasurable environment, students might fall in love with writing, prompting them to write and read more on their own. This is, of course, the intent of Balanced Literacy programs.
The pitfall is that when students learn primarily through reading books rather than textbooks and workbooks, they might not pick up the correct mechanics of the English language, such as grammar and spelling. The hope is, as New York magazine states, that they will learn these ideas through "osmosis." But, unfortunately, research has shown that many students fail to pick up these conventions through casual reading. When coupled with students' increased time on the Internet and their phones, this dearth of grammatical drilling might lead to an acute lack of knowledge of conventional English.
Balanced Literacy and Hebrew
Almost all Hebrew language classes are based on the phonics system. As Julie Baumler, a writer on Middle East Culture, points out, there are rare exceptions to rules in Hebrew. Additionally, the Hebrew language isabjad, or consists solely of consonants. The vowels are represented by the nekudot. These two elements simplify the reading process and allow students to learn just a few rules in order to pick up even the most complex book and sound out the words. Obviously phonics does not encourage comprehension, which, in turn, might make students believe that reading is boring or tedious.
If our yeshivot were to incorporate the Balanced Literacy approach to Hebrew instruction, students might feel more passionate about studying Hebrew. However, inevitably their ease in reading and their pronunciation would falter. Perhaps there is a way to unite the two systems in a more equalized program.
Recent Changes to Balanced Literacy Programs
In August 2008, The New York Times reported that 10 New York City public schools were changing their curriculum from Balanced Literacy programs to the Core Knowledge system. It noted, "The Core Knowledge curriculum is heavily focused on content, vocabulary skills and nonfiction books." It is also focused heavily on phonics. This move is a clear shift away from the writing workshop and whole language method of immersion in interesting, exciting books. With 10 schools participating in the pilot program, the city will have a chance to see which approach is more effective.
So What Can We Do?
The question remains: Are the enjoyment and enthusiasm for reading that are sparked by the whole language system preferable, or are the skills and proficiency that are promoted by the phonics program favorable? That question has yet to be answered; perhaps a mix of the two approaches is the golden mean. Regardless, we as parents and educators must understand that providing our children with the ability to read is fundamentally a gift for a better future.



One Size Does Not Fit All
Differentiated Instruction:
Teaching Every Child
How He Learns Best

In a bustling fifth grade class Moshe is listening to a tape-recorded reading of President Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, while Shmuel is writing a poem about a fight between brothers. Next to Moshe and Shmuel, Yerucham is reading an account of a former African-American slave.

After several minutes, the teacher calls the class together and asks the students to answer the question: "What do we know about the problems in the United States during the Civil War?"

Moshe quickly responds, "President Lincoln talks about a great battle between the North and the South. He also mentions something about all men being created equal."

After hearing Moshe's answer, Shmuel is silent for a moment and then exclaims. "Well, that makes sense in terms of the poem I was writing. The brothers are in a big fight. But, in my poem, the brothers were fighting because one of them was very messy and one of them was always neat. What were the North and South fighting about?"

Yerucham, excited by how his slave account fits into the puzzle, reveals, "I was just reading about Harriet Jacobs and about how she was a slave. Before the Civil War, the South had slavery, but the North did not believe in slavery. Maybe that is the reason that the Civil War began."

With those responses, the teacher then begins her lesson on the history of the Civil War, "Alright class, let's look at this chart of proximate and immediate causes of the Civil War "

Though Moshe, Shmuel, and Yerucham were all involved in different activities, the end result was a cohesive unit that involved listening, writing and reading about the Civil War. Utilizing different media is a technique often used in a teaching method called differentiated instruction.

What is differentiated instruction?

What Can Be Modified


In their book, Differentiated Instruction in the English Classroom, Barbara King-Shaver and Alyce Hunter explain that teachers can choose to differentiate their curriculum in three areas of modification: content, process and product. Content is what a student is to learn; process is how the student will learn the content; and product is how the student is to display what s/he learned.

Here is what content, process, and product look like in our fifth grade classroom in Brooklyn:

Content

If the curriculum is flexible, the teacher may modify what texts and concepts the students will study. In the case of our fifth grade class on the Civil War, the teacher chose to use Abraham Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address" and a former slave account.

Process

The teacher decided to have Moshe, Shmuel and Yerucham involved in listening, writing and reading activities. She then chose to have them discuss their separate activities with the whole class.

Product

Upon completion of the unit of study on the Civil War, the teacher must determine the parameters for the final product. The teacher may choose to have the students write an essay, create a diorama, write a poem or various other appropriate projects.

How Do You Decide To Modify?

Carol Ann Tomlinson, a pioneer of differentiated instruction and a professor at the University of Virginia, explains that teachers should look at student readiness, interest and learning styles when deciding how to formulate their classrooms and curriculum.

When this is done at the very start of the school year will enable teachers to set up the classroom in a manner appropriate for individual students. Pre-assessment or diagnostic testing is a wonderful tool for understanding what a student knows before the year begins. While some students might be very prepared for the material planned for the year, others might be deficient in precursor skills necessary to become proficient later in the year. A teacher who intends to support success for each learner needs a sense of each students starting point.

Simple back to school pre-assessments could include questions such as, "Do you need quiet when you study? What did you do over the summer? What is your favorite subject in school? Would you rather read a book or listen to a tape? Do you prefer Judaic subjects or secular subjects? How much time do you spend on homework each night?"

As Dr. Susan Demirsky Allan, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction in Michigan, explained, "Nothing is a magic bullet, but if you start from where the student is, looking at his or her potential, then the likelihood of meeting that student's academic needs increases enormously.'

Why do we need differentiated instruction?

Speaking to teachers of young children, the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) reminds us that it is the responsibility of schools to adjust to children's developmental needs and levels rather than expecting children to adapt to an educational system. As I strongly advocate, "If he cannot learn the way we teach, we had better teach the way he can learn."

In their book, Integrating Differentiated Instruction and Understanding by Design, Carol Ann Tomlinson and Jay McTighe argue that, "Learning happens within students, not to them. Learning is a process of making meaning that happens one student at a time." For this very reason, differentiated instruction is a successful tool in teaching individual students in their own individual ways.

Multiple Intelligences

In 1983, Howard Gardner, a psychology professor at Harvard University, proposed the theory of multiple intelligences to more accurately define the concept of intelligence. Gardner's theory argues that traditionally defined intelligence does not sufficiently encompass the wide variety of abilities people display.

In his model, a child who excels at math is not necessarily more intelligent overall than a child who struggles with it. The second child may be stronger in another kind of intelligence, and therefore may best learn the given material through a different approach or may excel in a field outside of mathematics. In his book, Multiple Intelligences, Gardner explains that rather than relying on a uniform curriculum, schools should offer "individual-centered education," with curriculum tailored to the needs of each child. This "individual-centered education" is another form of differentiated instruction.

How can we incorporate differentiated instruction into our classrooms?

There are several techniques that are easily incorporated into a regular classroom, even one with only two or three hours of English instruction a day.

Jigsaw

The jigsaw activity sets students up in groups reading or listening to different materials. The jigsaw is a learning strategy that divides the material to be studied into sections and makes individuals or groups responsible for learning and then teaching their section to the other students. Just as in a jigsaw puzzle, each piece, each student's part, is essential for the completion and full understanding of the final product. Here is a sample jigsaw activity from the Civil War:

Gettysburg Address (Blue Group)= Moshe, Avi, Josh, Binyamin and Aryeh
Poem: My Brothers in Arms (Red Group)= Shmuel, David, Michael, Yitzchak and Aaron
Harriet Jacobs's Slave Account (Green Group)= Yerucham, Dani, Ephraim, Meir and Naftali
Textbook pages 1-5 (Purple Group)= Ari, Yaakov, Chezky, Noachand Shimon

Instructions for activity: Please ignore the letters for now and read down the grid to formulate groups by color. In your group, as you read, you should be asking the following questions:

Blue: What does Lincoln say was the reason for the Civil War?

Red: Why are the brothers fighting?

Green: Where does Jacobs escape to? Why?

Purple: What were the immediate and proximate causes of the Civil War?

Each person in the group should have the same information, possibly a bulleted list of major points. After 15 minutes, you will switch to your numbered groups and you will be teaching your classmates the information you have just learned.

Literature Circles

A literature circle is a classroom equivalent of an adult book club. The aim is to encourage student-choice and a love of reading. Students have a certain amount of time to read a book and they decide as a group how much they will read for each session. During literature circles, students have clearly defined roles: acting as facilitators, making connections, doing simple research and creating relevant illustrations. Many teachers choose to tape-record the student discussions in order to review and supervise the conversations.

A great resource for teachers on this subject is Harvey Daniels's text Literature Circles. Daniels's book details strategies, structures, tools and stories that show you how to launch and manage literature circles effectively. It also includes twenty examples from teachers who practice literature circles in their own classrooms.

Classroom Setup

Once teachers have recognized which are the stronger or weaker students, they may arrange the classroom in a way that is conducive to differentiated instruction. When working with partners, if the classroom is set up methodically, the students can work in same-ability and mixed-ability groups.

Tic-Tac-Toe

The tic-tac-toe format can be utilized when students create a final product at the end of the unit of study. It allows students to choose their final assignment in a way that teachers can control. In a tic-tac-toe chart, students need to simply choose "three in a row," - vertically, horizontally or diagonally. Alternatively, teachers may mandate that students are required to complete their three only vertically or diagonally. Here is an example of a tic-tac-toe chart:

Written = Research report, News article, Information brochure
Visual = Poster, Graphic Organizer, PowerPoint
Oral = Lesson Presentation, Oral Presentation, Radio Interview

How can parents ensure that we teach to our children's multiple intelligences?

As the school year begins, if we know that our children are strong in certain areas and weak in others, we can advocate that schools seek out students' strengths, coach for success and monitor individual growth against goals. Additionally, parents can encourage teachers to use multiple assessments to evaluate student progress throughout the year. It's simply important to remind ourselves constantly that if students cannot learn the way we teach, we had better teach the way they can learn.

© Rifka Schonfeld, Director SOS, copyright 2010.