Dear Balanced Literacy Teacher
by Missy Purcell
Dear Balanced Literacy Teacher,
I will never forget taking my current 6th grader to his first day of kindergarten. He was wide-eyed and full of wonder. As the 3rd child, he couldn’t wait for his day to join his older brothers at our local elementary school and do all the things they had done! The one thing he was most excited about was learning to read.
Our home was filled with books, and he spent countless hours in his preschool years pretending to read along with me and his brothers. As a former elementary school teacher and having already raised two proficient readers, I knew the importance of early literacy, so I read to him daily, sent him to preschool to expose him to a language rich environment, and even attempted to begin some early reading instruction at home.
Where did that land us in kindergarten? Absolutely nowhere.
He did not learn to read in kindergarten,
or even fourth grade.
Even though we didn’t know it then, kindergarten was when he took his first steps on the road to reading failure.
He didn’t learn to read proficiently until the 5th grade.
I know that might leave you scratching your head, and asking, “How did that happen?”
We now know it was the method of instruction afforded to him all those years called balanced literacy. “Balanced literacy” is a term that grew out of the “reading wars” of the 1980s between the “whole language” and “phonics-first” camps, with the idea that a combination of the two approaches would work best.
From the minute he stepped into his first classroom, he was entrenched in a world that taught him that reading was a guessing game. He was encouraged to look at pictures, first letters of word, and even skip and substitute words that didn’t make sense in order to “read” the book.
According to Nancy Young’s ladder of reading, roughly 10-15% of kids can figure out reading out with this type of instruction, but my child, who would later be diagnosed with dyslexia, would never be able to become a proficient reader with any version of balanced literacy. He, according to Young, like 85% of students, benefit from or need systematic explicit instruction that follows a scope and sequence with fidelity to become proficient readers and writers.
When tier one classroom instruction failed him, he moved to tier two instruction called Reading Recovery. Unfortunately, what we didn’t know then, was this was just more of the same instruction, but delivered in a one on one setting.
When tier 2 instruction failed him, he qualified for an individualized educational plan (IEP) and was moved into a room where we would begin tier 3 instruction that was…
you guessed it: more of the exact same method.
Ironically, balanced literacy proponents often believe in this method under the false pretense that every child learns to read in their own unique way, and therefore teachers need a diverse set of teaching resources to support their responsive and differentiated teaching.
The irony in that belief system is that no one at my son’s school knew anything about his need for structured literacy instruction. Instead we had a program in place that solely benefited the 10-15% of kids that would learn to read and write in a seemingly effortless way.
What my son needed was structured literacy instruction. Unlike balanced literacy, structured literacy is based on the science of reading and includes all the components of evidenced based instruction. Structured Literacy is explicit, systematic teaching that focuses on phonological awareness, word recognition, phonics and decoding, spelling, and syntax at the sentence and paragraph levels. By explicitly teaching all these concepts, students who easily absorb the patterns of language will learn quickly and seemingly effortlessly, and those who otherwise struggle, like my son, will get the instruction they need early for success.
I have often wondered what someone could have said to me as a self prescribed champion of balanced literacy in my own classroom to help me fully understand that change was necessary to help every kid in my class learn to read and write proficiently.
Honestly, in full transparency, it took me stepping onto the road to reading failure with my son to actually see what was wrong with the way I had instructed kids in my own classroom and how my very own son was being failed and harmed by the very methodology I ascribed to for over two decades.
If you are serious about preventing countless kids from heading down the same road my son went down, I challenge you to do a few things in this new school year that could block that road forever.
1) Listen to our stories of failure.
Get to know someone who has a child that has struggled to learn to read. You’ll see that our stories are all eerily similar, and oftentimes the only way our kids learned to read is due to our non-stop advocating for evidenced based instruction. When you sit and listen to our stories, there is an empathy that no professional development course can create. When you understand, how the methods you love and can probably defend tooth and nail, are actually onramps to the reading road of failure and are blocking your understanding of what is needed to teach EVERY child to read, you will begin to change. You will see up close and personal both the academic failure and emotional trauma that is being compounded in these kids year after year due flawed instructional methods. When the correct instruction is withheld, many kids begin to display signs of anxiety, depression, and some begin to quit under the false pretense that they just can’t learn. Knowing our stories could be the catalyst for change in your classroom and throughout the halls of your entire school.
2) Join a community of learners
One of the biggest challenges we see is limited access to the understanding of the science of reading. Like you, I wasn’t trained to teach kids to read using evidenced based practices, my education degree was centered in balanced literacy as were my summer professional development courses. I literally had no way of knowing then, what I know now. Thankfully today, there are Facebook groups, journalists, and cognitive scientists lending their expertise to educate and reframe our field’s view on the way kids learn to read based on science. Find these Facebook groups or local groups of teachers and begin the slow, hard, yet incredibly urgent process of listening and learning from a growing group of experts who have come together to help us all understand what science has to say about how the brain learns to read. If your district is beginning to unpack the science of reading, listen, learn and embrace these critical professional development opportunities. What you learn could be the difference between a child’s success or their failure.
3) Advocate for change in your own district
Getting our field of teachers to embrace these changes is akin to turning the Titanic around. It is not easy, but the cost of failure is generations of kids who are not proficient readers. Reading is a required skill to become a productive member of every community. As the gatekeepers of knowledge, we owe it to every kid that steps into our room regardless of how they arrived, to be fully equipped to teach them to decode every word in our spaces and build a rich vocabulary and prior knowledge for reading comprehension. Parents like me, some brave politicians and board of education members, are joining the fight to advocate for evidence based instruction. If teachers began this fight in districts nationwide, imagine the change we could see.
4) Expect every kid to learn to read.
The National Institute of Health (NIH) indicates that nearly all children have the cognitive capacity to learn to read. The estimate that only 5% of young readers have severe cognitive impairments that would make acquiring reading skills extremely difficult. If 95% of students have the capacity to read, we can no longer accept failure in our rooms. If the students in our room aren’t responding to our instruction, we must change the way we teach these children.
A mom determined to advocate #untilEVERYchildcanread
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.