Balanced and structured literacy are two different approaches to teaching reading.
They have things in common, but when they’re referenced in the same breath they’re usually pitted against each other.
I considered myself a “balanced literacy” teacher for many years. It’s the approach I learned in graduate school, the approach I used as a classroom teacher, and the approach I (used to) teach on my website and in my online course.
However, after a great deal of research into the science of reading, I now see things differently.
I now advocate a structured literacy approach to reading instruction.
This isn’t to say that I did every single thing wrong as a balanced literacy teacher, or that balanced literacy teachers today aren’t getting anything right.
Nor do I think that we have to throw away everything with the balanced literacy label.
But it’s time to take a good look at what we’re doing when we teach children to read.
What’s the difference between balanced and structured literacy?
Let’s start with a definition of balanced literacy.
Balanced literacy is a philosophical orientation that assumes that reading and writing achievement are developed through instruction and support in multiple environments using various approaches that differ by level of teacher support and child control.Fountas & Pinnell – Guided Reading: Good First Teaching for All Ages
The fact is, if you ask twenty different balanced literacy teachers to define balanced literacy, you will likely get twenty different definitions.
It’s just not well-defined.
But most balanced literacy teachers will say (as I did) that they teach reading in a way that meets everyone’s individual needs while also promoting a love of reading.
Balanced literacy came about in late 90’s as an answer to the whole language and phonics debate.
The hope was that it would provide a much-needed compromise by using the best of both approaches.
To many people, though, balanced literacy is a dirty word.
What went wrong?
Why is structured literacy now coming into favor? Many will tell you that it’s just another pendulum swing. I think it’s much deeper than that.
Let’s start with a definition.
“The term ‘Structured Literacy’ is not designed to replace Orton Gillingham, Multi-Sensory or other terms in common use. It is an umbrella term designed to describe all of the programs that teach reading in essentially the same way.”Hal Malchow – International Dyslexia Association
I used to be a STRONG balanced literacy advocate
Believe me, I never thought I’d be writing an article comparing balanced and structured literacy.
I believed in balanced literacy with all of my heart.
irritated very angry when I read articles that slammed balanced literacy.
The articles said I wasn’t teaching phonics (I was).
The articles said I was teaching guessing (I felt that I was teaching my students to be strategic).
The articles said I should be doing more explicit instruction (I felt that my mini-lessons served that purpose just as well as a 30-minute whole class lesson that would likely bore half my class).
The articles criticized my lack of a structured curriculum (I felt that I knew my students much better than a scripted curriculum any day).
The articles said balanced literacy didn’t work. I had plenty of anecdotal evidence that it did.
Here’s the thing. And this is something we all need to take note of.
Balanced literacy works for some children. Many children DO learn to read without a lot of explicit instruction.
But it doesn’t work for others.
In other words?
If we use a balanced literacy approach, we will not reach all of our students.
Here’s the key difference between balanced and structured literacy
Balanced literacy teachers typically teach the essential components of reading (phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, comprehension, and vocabulary) through the following structures:
- Read aloud
- Shared reading
- Guided reading
- Independent reading
Teachers tend to be more focused on the activities themselves than on the skills.
On the other hand, structured literacy teachers may include read aloud, shared reading, small group instruction, and independent reading in their days, but they are focused less on activities and more on the structure of language:
- Sound-symbol correspondences
A summary of the differences between balanced and structured literacy
I know that not everyone will agree with my characterizations in the following chart, but this is how I see it:
Let’s tackle the differences one by one
- In balanced literacy, we typically see a haphazard approach to phonemic awareness instruction.
- Structured literacy includes systematic, sequential instruction in phonemic awareness.
Through the work of David Kilpatrick, we’ve learned that phonemic awareness may very well be the missing key for struggling readers. It’s essential that we give daily lessons in phonemic awareness.
Our students need lessons in phoneme isolation, blending, segmenting, and manipulation.
(If you’re a member of The Measured Mom Plus, check out my video series about phonological and phonemic awareness).
If you’re a balanced literacy teacher, an important change you can make is to do ten minutes of phonemic awareness instruction every day.
Try Heggerty’s easy-to-use curriculum (my top pick!) or the free lessons you can print at Reading Done Right.
I also recommend the hands-on games that you’ll find in my phonemic awareness bundle.
Check out our hands-on phonemic awareness activities!
Phonemic Awareness Games & Activities
You’ll get a thorough assessment along with meaningful games for teaching all levels of phonemic awareness.
- In balanced literacy, phonics lessons are typically quite short and may not follow a scope and sequence.
- In structured literacy, phonics is taught through an explicit, systematic and sequential approach (usually through a purchased curriculum).
As a new first grade teacher, I had to use a scripted phonics program that I HATED.
It moved too quickly for my low readers, and it was immensely boring for my strong ones.
And it took way too much time out of our school day.
I received permission to ditch that program in my second year of teaching first grade, and from then on I had a very “I’ll teach it when you need it” approach to phonics.
I’m fully aware that many balanced teachers DO have a structured approach to teaching phonics, and I say hurray for them!
But it’s not the norm.
A strong phonics lesson is 20-30 minutes long and has most, if not all, of the following components:
- A phonemic awareness warm-up that connects to the phonics skill
- Explicit introduction of the new sound-spelling relationship
- Blending practice
- Word building
- Practice reading decodable text
- Guided writing practice
(And while there are still pretty boring phonics programs out there, there are many hands-on programs that allow you to meet multiple levels in one classroom.)
- Balanced literacy teaches rote memorization of high frequency words.
- In structured literacy, high frequency words are taught according to their phonics patterns, and even irregular words are taught explicitly.
For years I thought it made perfect sense to teach kids to memorize long lists of high frequency words. That’s why I created a whole series of sight word books that taught high frequency words through repeated exposure.
I’ve since removed those books from the website because I’ve learned that this isn’t the best approach for teaching high frequency words.
Read: How to teach sight words
After all, kids don’t store thousands of whole words in their brains. That’s not how the brain learns to read.
A better approach is to teach a small number of “sight words” to get kids started (such as the and is), and to teach the rest when you teach their related phonics patterns.
As for irregular words, you can still be explicit about teaching them.
Check out the video below to learn about my new sight word lessons and accompanying decodable books.
- In a balanced literacy classroom, beginning readers read leveled texts using the three-cueing system.
- In a structured literacy classroom, early readers read decodable texts that include already-learned phonics patterns.
This difference right here is the one that made me realize I could no longer support a balanced literacy approach.
If you consider yourself a balanced literacy teacher and do not teach your students to solve words using the picture, context clues, first letter (and anything else other than sounding out the word), please comment below … because as far as I know this type of teacher does not exist.
I never EVER thought I’d denounce three-cueing, but after studying the science of reading I can no longer support it.
If this makes you bristle (believe me, I know how you feel), I encourage you to listen to my podcast episode, What’s wrong with 3-cueing?
For years I resisted decodable books because I was sure they would kill a love of reading before it could start.
After all, wasn’t every decodable book boring, stilted, and nonsensical?
Turns out … I was wrong! There are actually many quality decodable books just waiting for you to discover them.
- In a balanced literacy classroom, there is typically a greater focus on the meaning of the text rather than on the accuracy of what is read.
- Structured literacy teachers correct misread words; they encourage their students to sound them out.
This sounds crazy, but for years I believed that “sound it out” should only be said as a last resort.
I thought that it was much better to ask my students to consider what made sense … because isn’t reading all about comprehension?
(Well, yes it is, but reading comprehension is a product of decoding and language comprehension. See this podcast: What the science of reading is based on)
I think that the traditional use of running records leads many balanced literacy teachers to believe that getting the general meaning right is more important than sounding out every single word.
For that reason, I recommend rethinking running records.
- Balanced literacy teachers believe that students get better at reading by reading.
- Structured literacy teachers will tell you that students get better at reading by learning and practicing the code.
This one is a little tricky. Kids need to practice reading, whether or not they’re in a balanced literacy classroom.
But first they need to learn to decode the words, which they learn through explicit instruction.
As a balanced literacy teacher, I had my students fill their bags with “just right books” (i.e. leveled books that required them to use three-cueing to solve the words) because I thought that they more they “read,” the more they’d pick it up.
Now I know that after kids have developed the habit of connecting the phonemes to the graphemes (sounding out words), reading practice will help them orthographically map the words (i.e. store them in their brains for future, instant retrieval).
- Balanced literacy teachers believe that the point of reading instruction is to get children to love reading.
- Structured literacy teachers believe that the point of reading instruction is to teach children to read.
This is NOT to say that balanced literacy teachers aren’t concerned with teaching children to read.
Of course they are.
This is NOT to say that structured literacy teachers don’t want children to love reading.
Of course they do.
But structured literacy teachers understand something I didn’t “get” for a long time.
Success breeds motivation.*
When you teach children to read, and they see that they can do it … that they are actually pulling those words off the page by connecting the sounds to the letters, THAT is what gets them excited about reading.
*Heard in this podcast episode from The Reading League
This may be my longest blog post ever, so it’s time to wrap it up. Before I do, though, I want to address a few criticisms of each approach.
Critics of balanced literacy say that it’s haphazard, teaches bad habits, and puts the cart before the horse.
These criticisms were immensely insulting to me not so many months ago.
But now I get it.
By not teaching skills in an explicit, systematic way, I was missing many of them.
By teaching my students to use the picture or context to solve words, I was teaching them habits that would not serve them when they got into third grade (and the harder texts that came with it).
By thinking that we needed to focus FIRST on comprehension, I was putting the cart before the horse. (I was expecting them to comprehend what they couldn’t even read!) I had to teach them decoding first. Once their decoding became more automatic, they could develop fluency. Then comprehension came into play.
Critics of structured literacy say it’s boring and drill-and-kill. They claim that it stifles fluency, ignores comprehension, and kills the love of reading.
I’m not making this up. These were my criticisms of structured literacy.
Now I know that explicit, systematic teaching does not have to be boring. When a knowledgeable, engaging teacher combines the art of teaching with the science of reading, joyful learning can result.
Now I know that while it’s a little painful to hear kids sounding out every word (instead of flying through predictable texts), it’s a necessary part of the process. I learned that we can focus on comprehension when a child can sound out words quickly enough to remember what was read. Until that time, we focus on comprehension through interactive read alouds.
And through conversations with a principal, school psychologist, and many former balanced literacy teachers, I finally get it.
We’ve got to teach kids to read before they can love it.
Don’t miss the rest of the series!
Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7
DOWNLOAD A PRINTABLE VERSION OF THIS BLOG POST HERE
I’m a firm believer in getting children to love reading. What’s wrong with loving books and loving reading? I have to admit to be more of a believer in the balanced reading approach but really, it’s a blended approach. Definitely spend more time on structured/systematically taught phonics which can be done using mini-lessons and applied during guided reading (not any specific GR model..GR is an umbrella term and can look many different ways). I’m having to make a short PD for my colleagues, I teach at an international school, and this article came across my search. Again, personally, I’m more of a blended approach person. Balanced Literacy is also an umbrella term and looks different across the numerous articles I have read. Maye this is simplistic but this is what it looks like to me: 1) Read alouds, yes, read aloud for the sake of enjoying truly great kid’s lit; 2) structured reading lesson with a comprehension goal in mind to be practiced during GR; 3) structured and systematic phonics, also implemented during GR sessions, 4) other word work to include HFW. As the team lead for my grade level last year, I always matched our HFW for the cycle to match the phonics skill for the cycle and then purposeful teaching/practice of the outliers.
Hi Kristine! Absolutely … teaching kids to love books is so important. But I think we have to remember that our first goal is getting kids to be able to read, and then we hope that the love of reading will follow. The way you define your balanced approach sounds solid. I think we all define “balanced literacy” differently. The one thing I don’t budge on is the idea that three-cueing is counter productive at best and harmful at worst. If you’re teaching kids to use the phonics you’re teaching within the books they’re reading, that’s fabulous!
This was a good read! As a major proponent of balanced literacy, upon reading this, I think my school is actually subscribing to a hybrid of both balanced literacy and structured literacy. Our teachers always focus on the decoding before the three-cueing. In fact, we do spend time explicitly teaching Saxon Phonics as a part of our ELAR time every day K-3rd grade. I do still like some parts of the reading workshop/balanced literacy model when paired with a substantial phonics base. For example, I think the interactive read aloud where the teacher models thinking is an important aspect. Our teachers also pair the shared reading big book part of reading with phonics skills, so not only are they getting the explicit phonics instruction, they are reinforcing those skills in actual reading, not just on a worksheet. So, my definition of balanced literacy is not really what I’m seeing here, as I think that phonics is most important, but we absolutely need to teach them other strategies as well. I do agree that those three cues are not the place to start. The students should be decoding first. That is how I see it is “balanced,” so maybe I’m following a more structured literacy model.
Thank you so much for your feedback. I agree that there is no single definition of balanced literacy, and some balanced literacy classrooms lean more toward the structured side. Interactive read aloud is very important even within a structured literacy classroom. And I think it’s great that in addition to explicit instruction in phonics, you’re pointing it out within the context of real text. I do caution anyone against three cueing; we can context and syntax to CHECK what we read, but students should not be taught to use those cues to SOLVE a word.
The firmly stated goal of balanced literacy to “get children to love reading” failed miserably for my daughter. Balanced literacy instruction may have further cemented her love of books, but “hate” is the word she most frequently associates with reading. At the end of first grade, she’s ahead of our school’s expectations, so she’s in the group that balanced literacy “works,” for, in that she has learned to read. But to this day she repeatedly, and angrily declares that she hates reading, often escalating to tears. Early in kindergarten, before much exposure to balanced literacy, she stumbled across BOB books and was so excited and proud to be able to read (on her own)! While it’s too early to tell if my daughter will struggle with reading substantively, the frustration she has encountered with a balanced literacy curriculum has sadly replaced a joy of accomplishment of figuring out the “code” with a steady stream of frustration, and so has seeded a hatred of reading. I’m not sure how to get her to overcome that hatred.
The comment that “success breeds motivation” l think is the key factor here. I was so confused by leveled readers containing far too many unfamiliar elements of phonics, not realizing that guessing is encouraged with 3 cueing. Getting practice reading (rather than guessing) was (and is) spotty at best. I aimed her at a few decodable texts myself, which helped a bit, but there wasn’t structured phonics instruction to connect to. On top of limited success (in her own eyes), praise given to students didn’t provide encouragement where it was needed. Emphasizing and praising fluency and NOT praising success in sounding out words provides a clear message of where kids should place their pride.
My frustration with my own daughter’s reading journey led me to stumble upon the criticisms of balanced literacy, and the need for decodable texts. But your articles here really explain how all the pieces relate to one another. Thank you for sharing your shift in perspective–I will be passing it along to our school to hopefully shift their approach, as well.
This is incredibly well laid out, KK, and I’m so sorry to hear about the negative effects of balanced literacy on your daughter’s learning. I have hopes that she will overcome this with your help. Please check out my post about the best decodable books; there are many there that may help her gain a love of reading. Whole Phonics is an especially fun series. https://www.themeasuredmom.com/where-to-find-decodable-books-for-short-a/
I admit that your comment is difficult for me, as a former balanced literacy teacher, to read – because I see myself in so much of it. Especially this sentence … “Emphasizing and phrasing fluency and NOT praising success in sounding out words provides a clear message of where kids should place their pride.” Your feedback as a parent means a lot, and I hope many people will scroll down to read your comment.
My school uses DRA to test reading levels. What are your thoughts on the DRA? What would you recommend to use?
This is such a good question, Gina, and I’m a little stuck on this right now. I was always a fan of the F & P levels, and I’m not sure I like the idea of getting rid of reading levels entirely. But I have to question their value with very early readers. I haven’t read this article yet, but it’s on my list. I really respect Marnie’s work. Would be a good place for you to start. https://readingsimplified.com/reading-levels-assessments/
I have 27 years of teaching experience working with students with differing abilities. I am grateful that you are open to change your thinking as new data becomes available through research into the science of reading and how our brain processes information. Some students with Dyslexia are able to compensate for their differing ability because they have such a high IQ. These are the students who are successful until around third grade when they are no longer able to compensate and become increasingly frustrated. They may demonstrate the ability to decode words when reading but are unable to encode them. When we teach explicitly, we provide the scaffold they need to be successful. Thank you for bringing it all together.
Yes… this is exactly what I’ve read, Wendy. It was eye-opening to read Emily Hanford’s article and learn that the strategies we often teach in a balanced literacy classroom (using context, memorizing words as wholes, etc.) were what one mother used as a struggling reader. Thank you so much for weighing in with your experience!
Angela T Cutlip
Hi Anna, I could relate to so much of the article and literally just wrote in an online class I am creating there are times that I have thought I wish I could go back and apologize to some of the students I taught. Here is where I am at a conundrum. I was public school teacher for 11 years and have been a homeschool teacher for 21 years. I also administer the Woodcock Johnson and help families pick out curriculum to best teach their kids. Like you , I had a paradigm shift in my thinking. The thing I have been observing is that some students that are taught with an Orton Gillingham approach are so focused on coding they are not comprehending. They perform great on the Letter Word Identification test, reading words in isolation but perform not as well on the passage comprehension and reading fluency. It is for these students I still share with parents how to use the 3 cueing systems. It seems that students with short term working memory issues need to use both the “structured literacy” and the help of the 3 cueing systems. I have seen this with students that go to a trained a tutor in OG, Barton, or Wilson as well as just a parent that uses and OG curriculum like All About Reading or Pride Reading. I determined that I agree that explicit phonics teaching doesn’t have to be exhaustive for all students but is THE best approach because parents or teachers don’t know which method is going to be the best for the children we teach. Some will need more explicit than others, yet others get to a point they can learn implicit phonics (analytic phonics). Both of my own daughters were different.
I have found it difficult when there are those few kids that are immersed in print and just quickly pick up the code implicitly. It’s much harder to take those kids back to the beginning but often necessary because they need it for spelling. I have had kids that test at 99.9 percentile in reading comprehension and fluency and 20 percentile in spelling. Sorry, I am rambling. I was just really intrigued by similarities in experience & thought process. I guess my question is don’t you see the need with many students to build that background knowledge, help them to make predictions and read to confirm.. basically scaffolding them through the text (guided reading) to if not help with phonics perse, but rather comprehension? It just seems the very kids that need explicit instruction are often (not always) the ones that have some working memory issues and long term memory issues that make it hard to remember the code for lack of better word.. Would love your thoughts 🙂 Angie
Thank you for your comments, Angie! I think I understand what you’re saying, but I wouldn’t call it three-cueing. Students need to read using phonics, but then adjust the word so that it is a real word (this is referred to as set for variability) and if necessary adjust for context as well. For example, some words you actually CAN’T pronounce correctly unless you know the context. This all goes back to metacognition – where you’re thinking about what you’re reading and whether or not it makes sense. So I believe that the pathway to the word is phonics, but checking one’s accuracy can be done using context. Does this make sense? Is that what you’re talking about? It makes me think of Seidenberg and McClellan’s four part processor. This article may help explain that: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/10888438.2019.1620749
Finally, yes, it can be a problem when some kids pick up the code very quickly but don’t do the same with spelling. We’ve got to be on top of that and make sure they get the explicit spelling instruction, even if they don’t need as much practice decoding words with those sound-spellings.
This describes my son exactly. It became noticeable in late 2nd grade that somethings wasn’t “clicking” for him but nobody at the school mentioned anything about dyslexia. He required speech in preschool for poor articulation which is a known red-flag for dyslexia; he should have been identified as “at-risk” at kindergarten entry. He was taught using 3-cuing methods which gave him the bad habit of guessing based on the first letter. Even when he was finally assigned a reading specialist she *never* worked on decoding with him; her goal for him was to be able to predict beyond the text and to state why the author wrote the book (major eye roll). He HATED school and started showing signs of anxiety and school refusal. After an evaluation by the speech therapist who worked with him in preschool during the summer between 2nd and 3rd grade showed markers for dyslexia we started private Orton Gillingham tutoring. The school would not accept the outside evaluation and did not address his dyslexia because he seemed to be fine… it took until the end of 4th grade, after a botched ETR with a school psychologist who couldn’t interpret the C-TOPP scores correctly and an IEE with the best neuropsychologist in the city, for the school to find him eligible for an IEP and try to begin to provide him with specialized instruction. He had FIVE YEARS of poor instruction; not one teacher suspected that he was dyslexic. It took years of special instruction at a school for kids with learning differences for his reading to reach grade level and even more importantly, for him to gain confidence and reduce his anxiety. The public school nearly destroyed him socially and emotionally because of balanced literacy. There is no place in reading instruction for 3 cuing. It destroys at-risk children.
Thank you so much for sharing your story, Kelly. Unfortunately, this type of scenario is all too common, as I’m sure you know. Thank you for being such a strong advocate for your son and helping educate others through your comment. It’s important for us to hear stories like yours so we see the damage that balanced literacy causes for some children. Thank you again!
I’m a little confused right now (probably just need to read more into this topic). I blend these two approaches. Is that okay? I am an interventionist so I only work with small groups for about 20 minutes at a time. We start the week with something to read (based on the skills they need and where they are at). Some groups read sight word books, some groups read decodable books, and some groups read letter books. Then through out the week we practice skills the kids need through various activities but I always start with a short mini lesson. Am I doing this right?
Hi Victoria! I would hesitate to use sight word books because we’ve learned that our brains don’t store all words as wholes (we can do this for a few words, but it’s impossible for the brain to store all words this way). Instead, integrate the learning of high frequency words into your phonics lessons as appropriate. I’ll be posting a series this summer about small group work in a structured literacy classroom. That should help you a lot!
Thank you so much for this series of articles. I’ve been out of the classroom for about a decade, but have used many of your resources at home with my children and children I’ve tutored for years. Where do you feel like Word Study fits into this puzzle? When I was teaching 2nd grade, we used a very strategic (Reading First) approach to Balanced Literacy, but also incorporated Words Their Way groups into our literacy block.
Personally, my son learned to read (I swear by osmosis, or maybe from the RTI kindergarten group I ran when he was in utero…) by age four. At age 7 I realized he couldn’t decode words, but after telling him the unfamiliar word once, he’d remember it. Then I started doing word sorts with him at home – in place of his other class assigned spelling – for the next 18 months. The progress was significant. His “reading level” didn’t change, but his understanding of how words work did. One of the reasons I’m learning and liking the systematic approach is because of its inclusivity of all readers – above and below grade level. Just because a student can read doesn’t mean they don’t have gaps in how words work!
Thanks again for a great article and having the courage to grow and change! And, I love how you’re not trying to throw out the baby with the bathwater! 🙂
Hi Kristen! I am finding mixed reviews on this. I think that word study is very valuable, but I no longer think it should be the sole spelling instruction because it’s not explicit enough. However, I certainly believe that it can be very beneficial alongside explicit teaching … that is, we want to explicitly teach the patterns without expecting students to discover them.
I have read many of your blog posts and look forward to the gems they contain. They are always filled with insightful tips for teachers. I applaud you for admitting (publicly) that you were not on the best track for your students, and for taking the intentional steps to use a different approach. I know so many teachers who are satisfied with teaching the same old methods they have used for years, regardless of what the research says about improved teaching strategies. I feel that the teaching profession is one in which we (as teachers) should remain on the cutting edge of information, knowledge, and technology. What if our medical doctors relied only on the information they received back in medical school and refused to upgrade or learn more about the evolving world of medicine? They would soon be out of a job! Teachers are in a similar profession. The methods we use to teach our students will either help them to succeed or frustrate the learning process for them. As a Reading Specialist, I use the Structured Literacy approach with my struggling readers and, over the years, I have seen that this method truly works!!!! Thanks for being courageous enough to admit you were not on the right path and for choosing to get on the right path.
Thank you for your kind words, Lynn! It’s definitely hard to pivot when you’ve believed in an approach for so long. But at some point I had to pay attention to the evidence and the (many!) anecdotal stories of students who were failed by a balanced literacy approach.
Anna, The school I work in was part of a structured literacy pilot program for our state education department. We have been using structured literacy for five years now and the growth I have seen in students’ ability to read is tremendous. I work with the literacy intervention teacher and we have only K to third grade students that we work with. Most students in fourth and fifth grade that need more reading support are in the special education program. Even in the lower grades, the special needs students are making wonderful progress in learning how to read. We never saw this kind of success in reading with the balanced literacy approach. When students are successful at decoding the text, they love to read because it is no longer hard work and the success motivates them to keep reading. I’m a big fan of structured literacy! Learning the code also helps students with writing skills and we are seeing better quality with their written work.
I love this quote from your comment, Barb! “When students are successful at decoding the text, they love to read because it is no longer hard work and the success motivates them to keep reading.” Thank you so much for weighing in!
I am baffled by why anyone thinks that the “Science of Reading” is new. Back in the 1960s Chall said that systematic phonics was the best approach. Adams reiterated this in the 1990s, and the National Reading Panel made it very clear that systematic, explicit teaching of phonics was essential. Our state standards call for the explicit teaching of phonemic awareness and phonics.
As a Reading Recovery teacher, I was never trained to have children guess at words. I was trained to teach them to use all possible means to read a word. Why would I make a beginning reader try to sound out the word “birthday” when he won’t learn the sound letter correspondences he needs to do so until late in first grade, but he can easily get the word from the picture and first sound? He then should run his finger under the word to check it; this is not a guessing game.
Poor teaching of phonics is every bit as bad as teaching readers to guess at words. Buying poorly-designed worksheets online and assigning them to students isn’t going to teach them to read, but some teachers who are only familiar with the Science of Reading through social media do so because they’ve been told that phonics is the way to go. (I truly hate to criticize teachers, but someone is buying those worksheets that keep popping up in my Google searches.) I cannot imagine telling a first grader who is reading chapter books that he has to read decodables because that’s how he’s going to learn to read. He’s already on his way to building his self-extending system; why would I hold him back?
Why does this have to be an either/or issue? Why can’t we teach phonemic awareness and phonics in a systematic, explicit way—and teach readers to use all the tools at their disposal? Why can’t they get better at reading by learning and practicing the code AND get better at reading by reading? Why can’t they learn to read AND learn to love reading? Why are we fighting the Reading Wars all over again?
I agree with this comment. I’m also a little tired of the balanced literacy vs SoR debate, and it seems there are many teachers who have not taken time to engage in PL, preferring to rely on Facebook etc. Quite frankly, this whole argument undermines our profession and credibility with governments and the general public. Teaching is complex and beginning readers definitely benefit from a structured approach as they ‘crack the code’, but yes, once they can decode, (regardless of grade level) a balanced approach that incorporates all 4 roles of the reader is part of the shift of learning to read to reading to learn.
I hope you’ll read my reply to Kathy’s comments. I’d just like to reply to a few things you shared:
“Quite frankly, this whole argument undermines our profession and credibility with governments and the general public.” With all respect, I think that what undermines our profession most is when we fail to teach children to read. Not that balanced literacy doesn’t work with many students (it does!), but a structured approach will work with those same children AND the children whom balanced literacy doesn’t serve. I encourage you to check out my first post in this series and share your thoughts: https://www.themeasuredmom.com/what-is-structured-literacy/
You also wrote “Once they can decode, (regardless of grade level) a balanced approach that incorporates all 4 roles of the reader is part of the shift of learning to read to reading to learn.”
Could you share what you mean by “all 4 roles of the reader”? Thank you!
Thank you for commenting, Kathy! I’d like to respond to a few things:
You wrote: I am baffled by why anyone thinks that the “Science of Reading” is new.
My thoughts: Yes, the science of reading has been around for decades (as I state in this podcast episode: https://www.themeasuredmom.com/what-the-science-of-reading-is-based-on/) … but that doesn’t mean all of us are familiar with it. I received my master’s degree in the early 2000’s, but I didn’t learn about The Simple View of Reading, orthographic mapping, Ehri’s stages of word learning, etc. Instead, I learned about three-cueing … something which at face value makes perfect sense, but is not backed by research (indeed, Marilyn Adams tried to track down its source decades ago, but no one seems to know where it originated).
You wrote: As a Reading Recovery teacher, I was never trained to have children guess at words. I was trained to teach them to use all possible means to read a word.
My thoughts: This is exactly what I thought not so long ago. (Hence this quote from my article: The articles said I was teaching guessing (I felt that I was teaching my students to be strategic). Believe me, I never EVER thought I’d debate three-cueing. But once I understood orthographic mapping, I realized that having kids use a means other than sounding out to solve a word wasn’t going to help them remember that word for the future. Here’s something that is very powerful, that I encourage you to check out: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lxx7hs0qdKQ I also recommend my podcast episode, “What’s wrong with three-cueing” … https://www.themeasuredmom.com/whats-wrong-with-three-cueing/
You wrote: Poor teaching of phonics is every bit as bad as teaching readers to guess at words.
My response: As you state, throwing phonics worksheets at kids is not going to teach them to read. Structured literacy requires a skilled teacher. Please check out future posts in this series, as we look at different elements of teaching reading.
You wrote: I cannot imagine telling a first grader who is reading chapter books that he has to read decodables because that’s how he’s going to learn to read.
My response: I can’t either. Certainly, if a child is reading chapter books, s/he already knows how to decode (which is not reading all by itself – see the Simple View of Reading – but what we’re focusing on with decodable texts). While this child will likely still participate in grade level phonics lessons (including a short time with decodable text at the end of that lesson), if the child can read long words in isolation correctly, I see no reason why s/he would need to read decodable texts for independent or small group reading practice. Decodable texts are like training wheels; they are only meant to be used for a limited time.
You wrote: Why does this have to be an either/or issue? Why can’t we teach phonemic awareness and phonics in a systematic, explicit way—and teach readers to use all the tools at their disposal? Why can’t they get better at reading by learning and practicing the code AND get better at reading by reading? Why can’t they learn to read AND learn to love reading? Why are we fighting the Reading Wars all over again?
My thoughts: I SO much wanted to do both… both explicit phonemic awareness/phonics and leveled texts that kids could read with three-cueing. I wrestled with it for a long time. But I realized that I couldn’t teach kids to sound out words in one breath and then prompt them to solve using context or pictures in the next. Have you read Emily Hanford’s article At a Loss for Words? This article made me really mad for a year or two; but now that I’ve studied the research that she references, it makes a whole lot of sense.
The fact is that balanced literacy works well enough for many students. But it does lasting damage to others. Here’s an excellent article from another former balanced literacy teacher that I encourage you to read. It’s gentle and comes from a place of kindness, not judging: https://righttoreadproject.com/2019/07/19/teachers-wont-embrace-research-until-it-embraces-them/
As for teaching kids to love reading, that can actually start very early … even with decodable texts (I had to see it to believe it, because I was sure this couldn’t be!).
I’d love to hear your thoughts on what I’ve shared. Thank you again for sharing your perspective!
I totally agree with your comment. The Reading War argument is moot at this point. We know what works, not just based on our own philosophy but from the science. I have seen phonics-based teachers focused on getting the worksheet correct but never having kids move past a decodable and connect and utilize their learning in authentic texts. I have also observed teachers who pick their favorite texts without considering their students’ reading levels and bang that text until kids ‘read’ them. The Big Five need to be explicitly introduced, taught, and practiced in a systematic manner. For some kids, however, RR has taught us that the Big Five are not enough in isolation. Strategic work, building background knowledge, and lots of reading and writing opportunities are crucial to make literacy meaningful. Finally, we do need to focus on building a love of reading. A love of the power of books is not mutually exclusive to systematic instruction. Unfortunately, far too many teachers have lost sight of the forest as they teach the trees.
What does structured literacy look like for students who can read and decode effectively? So higher grades than K, one and two.
A very good question, Georgina! I have to be honest and say I haven’t studied it thoroughly since my focus is Prek to third grade. I definitely hesitate to say we’d go back to a “balanced literacy” approach because even in the older grades there are significant issues with it. I think that after kids have mastered the code enough to move out of decodable books there is still a lot of explicit instruction about language that we need to teach … specifically, morphology, sentence structure, and vocabulary. We’d also want to focus on things that will help them comprehend text better, such as building background knowledge, making inferences, and understanding text structure. I think what you need is a sample reading scheduled for structured literacy in 4th grade and higher. I would definitely ask in a science of reading Facebook group if anyone has one to share! It could get you started as you think this through.
Hi Anna- You have made some great points about structured literacy and I totally agree with you – i.e.
In a structured literacy classroom, early readers read decodable texts that include already-learned phonics patterns and phonics is taught through explict, systematic sequential instruction. So I was surprised to see the choice of text used in the clip on teaching high frequency words. If a student is at the level of decoding the word ‘is’ their decodable text should reflect this same level in the sequence of their phonics instruction otherwise they are not using phoneme grapheme matching, but instead are using pictures to work out words. For example the knowledge of the code needed to decode the words rhino and snake is further down the sequence of code knowledge than decoding cv or cvc words. If the illustrations were not there, would the child still be able to read those words?
Thanks for sharing your journey.
Great question, Tania! I actually changed that book when I published it on the website, so the new book is more decodable. Personally, though, I think that it’s okay not to have every word 100% decodable AS LONG AS kids have been taught to look at all the letters in a word and attempt to sound them out. As you can see in the video he really was attending to the letters of the words and not just jumping to the picture for help. I appreciate the work of Wiley Blevins; he believes it’s okay to include story words occasionally (as he calls them) – words that keep the story interesting and sensible, but may not be decodable yet.
Wow! This is just the type of straightforward article that I’ve been looking for. I’ll be sharing it with my team.
Is there something that I need to do to be notified when you post a new blog? I want to make sure I follow this series 🙂
Thank you so much, Sheila! I’d absolutely love for you to be on my email list! You can sign up in the sidebar of this blog or at the bottom of any blog post. Often you will get a free resource in exchange for signing up.
I love all your resources and have been doing lots of reading about the science of reading as well, to teach my almost 5 year old to read. I’m also a teacher being moved up to grade 4 next year(I was hoping to move to grade 1 and apply all this great learning). I am wondering how structured literacy look in older grades. At this point, most students are reading proficiently. So wondering if it would go back to a more “balanced literacy” approach? Any thoughts?
This is such a good question, Lisa, and I have to be honest and say I haven’t studied it thoroughly since my focus is Prek to third grade. I definitely hesitate to say we’d go back to a “balanced literacy” approach because even in the older grades there are significant issues with it. I think that after kids have mastered the code enough to move out of decodable books there is still a lot of explicit instruction about language that we need to teach … specifically, morphology, sentence structure, and vocabulary. We’d also want to focus on things that will help them comprehend text better, such as building background knowledge, making inferences, and understanding text structure. I think what you need is a sample reading scheduled for structured literacy in 4th grade and higher. I would definitely ask in a science of reading Facebook group if anyone has one to share! It could get you started as you think this through.
I am a reading specialist/literacy coach/Dyslexia Advisor in a public school system. If there has been little Structured Literacy instruction in the PK-3 years, you will definitely be using what you have been learning from these blog posts. I see a large group of students who begin to slide in grades 4 and 5 due to the decrease in picture support, text structure becomes more advanced, and the use of multisyllabic words increases. Many students who teachers say are not comprehending are actually not able to read the text. The multisyllabic words that the students are guessing or skipping are actually the meaning carrying words. Best wishes in fourth grade.
Going beyond first grade, there is more within Structured Literacy that can be taught and practiced including dividing words into syllables, recognizing the types of syllables, and morphology (prefixes and suffixes), and vowel team sounds. These necessary skills will help readers decode and spell longer words. All of this is part of an Orton-Gillingham approach to teaching reading. There are excellent resources like The Barton Reading and Spelling System that explain these concepts systematically and explicitly. Thank you , Anna, for addressing this topic so well!
Thank you so much for sharing your journey in this post and in the full series Anna! So few people ever change their minds about deeply held beliefs and practices. Given your background, this is especially helpful to see the 2 approaches contrasted. I know this will bless many many teachers who are still searching for answers.
I especially like this analysis of BL: “Teachers tend to be more focused on the activities themselves than on the skills.” When we flip the script and know a clear sequence to get from A to Z in a child’s reading development, the activities themselves become more of the background and teacher diagnostic thinking moves to the foreground.
Thank you, Marnie! It’s not a change I expected (or wanted) to make, but the more I study, the more excited I am about this approach. I look forward to learning and sharing more!
I love your post thank you , I followed you a few years ago but struggled with your approach to balance literacy. I am over joyed that you have found Structured Literacy and the Science of Reading and will be signing up again. Thank you for sharing why and how you made the change. When people of influence speak about SL , more change will happen . My son was the 60% that balanced literacy failed.
I look forward to following you in your journey.
Sharon Scurr Founder of the Dyslexia NZ Evidence Based Facebook Group.
I’m so glad to have you back, Sharon! Thank you so much for sharing your perspective!
Thanks for your thoughts on the differences. Excited to explore your blog more. Currently are district is a mix of BL and Structured Literacy and I would say that I’m a teacher that using a combination of teaching using MSV with leveled texts, as well as decodable books. From a parent perspective, I’ve seen decodables help and hinder my learner’s success/love of reading. I think the approach differs depending on the needs of the reader. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Also, have you read Fisher and Frey’s test, “This is Balanced Literacy.” I found it a refreshing, as well a stronger, updated viewpoint of BL.
I think you have a great point, Katey, about the decodable texts. I think that teachers need to be sure to differentiate (the whole class may be reading the same decodable for a short time during a phonics lesson, but after that students should definitely be provided different material depending on where they’re at) and quality decodable texts are a must. I also think that as long as kids are solving word by sounding them out and not guessing, and that they have a base level of phonics knowledge (CVC, CVCE, long vowel patterns, simple 2 syllable words) they should be given access to “leveled” (authentic) texts during their reading time. As to how this would look during small groups, I’m still working that out. In the future I plan to do a series about small group teaching in a structured literacy classroom. I did read “This Is Balanced Literacy,” but that was before I made the switch to structured literacy. Thanks for reminding me that I should read it again!
My oldest son was taught with balanced literacy strategies. In fourth grade, he had pre-K level phonemic awareness. He could “read” predictable text, use photos to guess words, and knew all his sight words and frequently used words. But he couldn’t read or spell the same words out of leveled, practiced, context. He couldn’t read a chapter book. He couldn’t write a paragraph unless he was copying it or had 1;1 help for idea development and spelling. Not only did he despise reading and writing, he had zero self esteem and hated school (which he loved in pre k and was initially excited about). One year of structured literacy and explicit instruction, he can now decode, encode, and spell. It’s still not easy for him, but he enjoys reading now. His self esteem has improved immensely. He wants to go to school again.
“Teach kids how to read before expecting them to love it! “
Thank you so much for sharing your story, Shannon! I’m so sorry to hear that reading instruction failed your son for those beginning years. Your story is such an important example of how it LOOKS like balanced literacy is working for a child, but we may not find out until later that it didn’t work and was actually damaging. I am so glad to hear that he’s doing better and that he enjoys reading! If you have a minute, I’d love to know more about the structured approach that was used with him. Was it through a skilled classroom teacher? Private tutor? Thank you again for weighing in!
Thank you for this interesting and informative post!! I can’t wait for the others in the series.
Thank you so much for reading, Katie!