A Former Teacher’s Story on How Balanced Literacy Failed My Son
by Missy Purcell
Sometimes the only way we can change the way we think is to actually see the need for change with our very own eyes . . .
I will never forget sitting in Matthew’s kindergarten parent/teacher conference. I knew my youngest was struggling to learn to read, and I wanted to know why. His teacher reminded he had a summer birthday, encouraged me that he would catch up, and challenged me to just keep reading with him.
Even though she was the sweetest teacher, I remember her advice was chilling and unsettling. Because I had given that same advice to parents of struggling readers over and over when I taught 5th grade years ago.
See, I was a fifth grade teacher in the early 2000s, and YES - I had kids every year that stepped into my classroom that could not read, spell, or write on grade level.
To be honest, I was just as confident as Matthew’s teacher was during that conference with my own students. But hearing her advice made me remember all the kids I had taught in fifth grade who could not read the words.
Often, I would commiserate with my fellow colleagues in the hall . . . we all wondered what the early elementary teachers were (or were NOT) doing to create so many kids that were not proficient in these foundational skills.
Ignorance Isn’t Bliss
Oddly, back then, I didn’t even know what to call the actual problem. But I knew something was wrong with a fifth grader not being able to read the words fluently, not being able to spell basic words consistently, and even sometimes not being able to write a simple narrative or informational piece.
Even more disturbing, I thought I had the solution then.
You see, I was programmed by both my college and district during my formative teaching years to believe this myth:
If I could just get kids to love reading, spelling and writing, then they would be able to master it.
This myth fueled my creation of a reading and writing workshop environment that was filled with fun, engaging, creative mini-lessons, conferences, guiding reading, word work, and independent reading and writing. If you walked into my room, there was no doubt that I was a balanced literacy expert. Except, I didn’t know that term or any of the controversy surrounding it. I just thought I was using the gold standard of best practices for teaching kids to read.
The hard reality of it all is that the same kids that couldn’t read, spell, and write at the beginning of the year, still couldn't at the end of the year.
Sure, they made progress. But not enough to close a gap that was not just doubling, but sometimes tripling in size. What’s worse, I told these parents that they could help close this widening gap if they would get their kids to read and write more!
And yet, year after year, no matter how much I differentiated, leveled, conferred, modeled, guided, and responded to each individual student, I had kids that could still not read the words. They entered and exited my classroom unchanged, and it bothered me that my methods only seemed to benefit some kids and leave others years behind their peers.
And now, I personally had my very own kid that could not read . . . and the advice I was given over and over? It grew hollow year after year as teacher after teacher told me to wait and keep reading more. Keep trying harder. Keep encouraging him to read. I was determined not to let him become one of the students I had failed.
But little did I know, we had started on a journey to failure that would lead to my very own son being a fifth grader that could not read the words.
Good News Gone Bad
First grade balanced literacy produced a new trick for us to try and help our son read the words. It was called Reading Recovery.
Reading Recovery had been around since the dark ages of my early teaching career, but I had no idea that at its core, it was simply more of the exact same method Matthew has been already receiving. The only difference is this instruction was delivered in smaller settings with a side dish of analytic phonics. Sadly after twenty wasted weeks, he made no measurable progress
By this point, my sweet little boy was becoming a shell of himself. In just two short years, he had already learned to hate school, defined himself as stupid, and developed mysterious illnesses that had me checking him out of school quite too often. It was also the year that despite struggles with reading, the school began to focus on his behavior. My seven-year-old son was given four action plans that year and called “violent” by his intervention teacher. I was terrified that my son was going to be labeled with words I could not control. More than anything, I wanted to find the label that accurately defined this little boy that I could see was struggling to read, screaming out with behaviors that begged for someone to help him.
By second grade, my son was granted an IEP for a specific learning disability that everyone hinted was dyslexia, but no one would say it. I remember so naively celebrating.
Now we knew what the problem was! Now we could get the correct instruction to help him read the words!
With this “good news,” I was told Matthew would be receiving a very effective program designed for kids like him called LLI, Leveled Literacy Instruction by Fountas & Pinnell. Praying for improvement, Matthew walked into his second grade year on an F&P BAS level E. After a year of instruction with the LLI, he ended that year on a level E. Worst of all, he ended second grade absolutely hating school more than any kid I had ever met. He would do anything to avoid reading or writing.
How could such an effective program yield such poor outcomes? More importantly, I was starting to wonder if anyone cared that I was watching a system destroy my sweet little boy.
The Science of Reading and a Ray of Hope
In my desperation to help Matthew, I did what all mommas that want to help their kids would do. I researched. Frantically, I began researching anything and everything that could help struggling readers. Hours upon hours were spent finding what methods of instruction were best.
Much to my own surprise, I began to find books, blogs, mountains of research that revealed another way to teach reading: Structured Literacy that followed the Science of Reading.
And in every single way possible, I discovered Structured Literacy was both the antonym and antidote for kids like Matthew and my former students that were being failed by balanced literacy in classrooms all over the country.
I discovered that reading was not just thinking.
My former students and Matthew could not read words because they could not decode. In fact, reading comprehension is the product of decoding and listening comprehension. If a student can’t do one of those things well, it derails the overall reading comprehension for a child.
In my research, I discovered a whole world of teachers on a Facebook page called The Science of Reading, What I Should have Learned in College. I spent hours scrolling through teacher after teacher who were just like me. Since college, we had been programmed to embrace and implement a program riddled with flawed methodology and a community of leaders that consistently deterred leaders from embracing methods of instruction that were actually backed by science.
Unlike balanced literacy, I learned Structured Literacy is explicit, systematic teaching that focuses on phonological awareness, word recognition, phonics and decoding, spelling, and syntax at sentence and paragraph levels.
In all transparency, I didn’t even know what half of those words meant or what they looked like in a classroom. But I knew Matthew wasn’t getting them. Simply put, phonics, decoding, and spelling are not emphasized and rarely taught systematically in a balanced literacy classroom. I knew this as a former balanced teacher, but as I watched Matthew struggle year after year, I now knew it personally.
The Matthew Effect
Like any good momma, I took my new knowledge to the school with the assumption that they would embrace it just like it did. I was excited to help them see this entire body of scientific evidence, so they could help not just my son, but all the other kids waiting for someone to teach them to read the words.
My astonishment at their response shouldn’t have been shocking. But it was. The school politely took my articles, books, and blogs and kindly let me know they would use Orton Gillingham for phonics and stick with LLI for comprehension. They thought blending the two methods was the best approach.
Time was of essence to help Matthew learn to read. And after hearing the school’s response to structured literacy, I feared that all hope was lost. On top of that, I had also learned about an idea in reading called the Matthew Effect, a term that hit a little too close to home for me. It means that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Sociologist Daniel Rigney, who has written a book called The Matthew Effect: How Advantage Begets Further Advantage, adds, “Educational psychologists find that children who like to read tend to read more. Reading more helps to make them better readers, further enhancing their enjoyment of reading.”
My Matthew was supposed to be reading to learn now, but he was actually still learning to decode. Clearly, if we didn’t make changes, he was going to be just like my former students for whom the gap had widened exponentially, and no one even knew why.
I wish I could say this story has a happy ending, but it doesn't. The school continued to implement failed literacy practices. As a result, my son continued to lag behind and struggle academically. More alarmingly, he began to struggle emotionally.
By fourth grade, Matthew’s biggest dream in life was to learn to read. My amazingly talented little baseball player who hated school - his biggest dream was not to play ball. It wasn’t to become a major leaguer. It was to learn to read.
After over five years of balanced literacy, he was now a fourth grader who could not read. Five years of wasted time on an experimental practice that has zero scientific evidence showing its effectiveness.
Like my former students, his light had officially burned out. He was now as broken as the system that failed him.
Hope for a Future Change in Reading Instruction
Over time, the agony of waiting for change leaves a person thinking about what one would do differently if going back in time was possible. For one thing, I’d tell myself that putting a band-aid on a deeply flawed system is not enough to change it.
In the here and now, I would offer a challenge to all balanced literacy teachers to do what I did. Read the books. Join the Facebook world. Learn what science has to say about how kids learn to read the words.
But most importantly, remember Matthew. A little boy whose dreams were limited because balanced literacy failed to teach him to read the words.
When we lay down our weapons and choose to see the kids who have the most loss in this fight over balanced versus structured literacy, it changes how we see everything. Because what’s true is that our children are the casualties of adults who hold on to methods that science tells us fail many and help few.
May we all be willing to loosen our grip on a method we weren’t fully educated on, and begin our own journey toward using evidence-based instructional methods that help all and harm none.
Maybe then we can create a new Matthew effect. One where all the Matthews can reach their potential because their teachers use a method of reading instruction that makes learning to read possible for all kids.
Missy Purcell is a former teacher, a wife and mother. She is a convert from balanced literacy and now works to encourage educators across the country to embrace the #ScienceOfReading.