What is Balanced Literacy?

All Reading Workshop is Balanced Literacy, but not all Balanced Literacy is Reading Workshop. Clear, right?

When you dip your toe into the world of workshop teaching, you are bound to see the term “balanced literacy.” The two go hand-in-hand. But figuring out exactly what balanced literacy is turns out not to be so easy. I sifted through google search results for a long time looking for an easy definition of balanced lit, but each resource seemed to have its own idea of what balanced lit really is. I want to boil down balanced literacy so that is simple and easy to understand.

My Learning Springboard gives a great history of Balanced Lit, which I’ll summarize here:

Literacy education has had two main iterations over the last several decades. Prior to the 1980’s, the approach was a “building block” approach, where all students began with the simplest foundations of letter sounds, grammar rules, etc. The building blocks were pieced together in more and more complex ways until students were reading proficiently. Think of the old Fun With Dick and Jane primers: simple, repetitive sight words with bland plots. When this bottom-up approach to literacy education failed to develop passionate, proficient readers, the pendulum swung in the completely opposite direction: Whole Language, which became de rigeur in the 1980’s. Whole Language was based on the idea that if children are given access to high-quality, high-interest texts from actual books (not the learn-to-read primers of yesteryear), they will become proficient readers simply through their own engagement with reading. This was the era of the basal reader with its short passages from actual books, of D.E.A.R. (drop everything and read) or S.S.R. (sustained silent reading). It was a sort-of “if you build it, they will come” mentality (and, incidentally, the era in which most of today’s young teachers grew up in). Unfortunately, Whole Language was not the panacea it was hoped to be. With neither the bottom-up approach nor the top-down approach to literacy education producing passionate, proficient readers, a new approach was born at the turn of the millennium: Balanced Literacy. Balanced Literacy takes the best parts of each of the prior approaches–the foundational teaching of the Bottom-Up approach and the immersion in authentic texts from the Top-Down approach–and marries them to create an approach where students are given explicit instruction as they engage with high-quality, high-interest texts.

Balanced Literacy is “balanced” in several ways. First of all, it’s a balance between teacher-delivered instruction, practice with support, and independent practice, known as a gradual release of responsibility (I do, We do, You do).

Second, it’s a balance between reading and writing. Reading and writing instruction are seen as equally essential in Balanced Literacy, as each informs the other to create a full understanding of literacy.

These balances can be seen in the daily components of a Balanced Literacy classroom:

So you see, Reading Workshop and Writing Workshop are two components within the broader umbrella of Balanced Literacy, which also includes daily components such as Guided Reading, Read Aloud, and Word Study. I will be sharing more about the other components and sharing some sample daily schedules in future blog posts.


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