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A balanced literacy program uses research-based elements of comprehension, vocabulary, fluency, phonemic awareness and phonics and includes instruction in a combination of whole group, small group and 1:1 instruction in reading, writing, speaking and listening with the strongest research-based elements of each. The components of a 'balanced literacy' approach include many different strategies applied during Reading Workshop and Writing Workshop.
During Reading Workshop, skills are explicitly modeled during mini-lessons. The mini-lesson has four parts- the connection, the teach (demonstration), the active engagement and the link. The teacher chooses a skill and strategy that she believes her class needs based on assessments that she has conducted in her classroom. During the connection phase, she connects prior learning to the current skill she is currently teaching. The teacher announces the teaching point or the skill and strategy that she is going to teach. In this approach, the teacher shows kids how to accomplish the skill by modeling the strategy in a book the students are familiar with. The teacher likewise uses a "think aloud" in this method to show students what she is currently thinking and then allows the students to work this out in their own books or in her book during the active engagement. During the link phase, she reminds students about the strategies they can do while they are reading.
Shared reading is when the students read from a shared text. Often this is a big book, a book on screen using a website or documents camera. If possible students should have their own copies also. Students and the teacher read aloud and share their thinking about the text. During mini-lessons, interactive read alouds and shared reading the class will create anchor charts. These anchor charts remind students how and when to use different skills and strategies.
Guided reading is a small group activity where more of the responsibility belongs to the student. Students read from leveled text. They use the skills directly taught during mini-lessons, interactive read alouds and shared reading to increase their comprehension and fluency. The teacher is there to provide prompting and ask questions. Guided reading allows for great differentiation in the classroom. Groups are created around reading levels, and students move up when they note that the entire group is ready. During guided reading time the other students may be engaged in reading workstations that reinforce various skills or partner or independent reading. They often work in pairs during this time. Stations can include a library, big book, writing, drama, puppets, word study, poetry, computer, listening, puzzles, buddy reading, projector/promethean board, creation station, science, social studies.
Independent reading is exactly what it sounds like: students reading self-selected text independently. Students choose books based on interest and independent reading level.
Word study content depends on the grade level and the needs of the student. Kindergarten begins with phonemic awareness, then adds print for phonics, sight word work, and common rimes/onset. In first and second grade phonics work intensifies as students apply their knowledge in their writing including adding endings, prefixes, suffixes, and use of known sight words to study other words. What does it mean to "know" a word? The student can read it, write it, spell it and use it in conversation.
Writing Workshop follows the same flow. Students are explicitly taught skills and strategies for writing during a mini-lesson. Then they go off and write independently. They choose the skills they are trying out that day. The teacher comes around and confers with students to help them with their goals.
Balanced literacy is implemented through the Reading and Writing Workshop Model. The teacher begins by modeling the reading/writing strategy that is the focus of the workshop during a mini-lesson (see above description) Then, students read leveled texts independently or write independently for an extended period of time as the teacher circulates amongst them to observe, record observations and confer. At the culmination of the workshop session, selected students share their strategies and work with the class.
It is recommended that guided reading be implemented during the extended independent reading period. Based upon assessment, the teacher works with small groups of students (no more than 6 students in each group) on a leveled text (authentic trade book). The teacher models specific strategies before reading and monitors students while they read independently. After reading, the teacher and students engage in activities in word study, fluency, and comprehension. The purpose of Guided Reading is to systematically scaffold the decoding and/or comprehension strategy skills of students who are having similar challenges.
Direct Instruction in phonics and Word Study are also included in the balanced literacy Approach. For emergent and early readers, the teacher plans and implements phonics based minilessons. After the teacher explicitly teaches a phonemic element, students practice reading and/or writing other words following the same phonemic pattern. For advanced readers, the teacher focuses on the etymology of a word. Students who are reading at this stage are engaged in analyzing the patterns of word derivations, root words, prefixes and suffixes.
The overall purpose of balanced literacy instruction is to provide students with a differentiated instructional program which will support the reading and writing skill development of each individual.
Children are taught to use comprehension strategies including:
- Relating background knowledge
- Making inferences
- Comparing and contrasting
- Distinguishing between fact and opinion
- Finding the main idea and supporting details
During the Reading and Writing Workshop teachers use scaffolded instruction as follows:
- Teacher modeling or showing kids what a reader does when reading a text, thinking aloud about the mental processes used to construct meaning while reading a book aloud to the class.
- Active Engagement during the mini-lesson students try the work they were shown by the teacher.
"link" Students are reminded of all the strategies they can do as readers and writers.
- Independent practice where children begin to work alone while reading books by themselves, trying out the work they have been taught by the teacher, not only on that day but any previous lessons as well.
- Application of the strategy is achieved when the students can correctly apply comprehension strategies to different kinds of texts and are no longer just practicing but are making connections between and can demonstrate understanding through writing or discussion.
Throughout this process, students progress from having a great deal of teacher support to being independent learners. The teacher support is removed gradually as the students acquire the strategies needed to understand the text by themselves.
Critics of balanced literacy, such as Diane Ravitch, say that it teaches reading skills and strategies, but as implemented, it ignores the content. "Knowing reading strategies is not enough; to comprehend what one reads, one must have background knowledge." Others say that balanced literacy is just whole language "wearing the fig leaf of balanced instruction". They further state that teachers should use methods derived from "best practices" and supported by "scientific research", and children need instruction in systematic, synthetic phonics  For other instruction approaches, see Analytical phonics, Phonics, Synthetic phonics and Whole language.
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- Calkins, Lucy (2000) Art of Teaching Reading
- Fountas, Irene C. and Gay Su Pinnell. 1996. Guided Reading. Portsmouth: Heinemann.
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- Miller, D. (2002). Reading with Meaning-Teaching Comprehension in the Primary Grades, Portland: Stenhouse Publishers. ISBN 1-57110-307-4
- How to Save the Schools, by E.D. Hirsch Jr., New York Review of Books, May 13, 2010
- "Whole Language Lives On: The Illusion of Balanced Reading Instruction - LDOnline".