Thursday, July 3, 2014

The Reading Wars Continue: Scientific Literacy vs. Balanced Literacy

The reading wars are back with us again. Carmen Farina, the new schools chancellor in New York City, said recently that she wants to see more aspects of "balanced literacy" put back into instruction in the city's schools. You can see the New York Times report here. The city moved away from balanced literacy under former Mayor Bloomberg a few years ago citing concerns that the approach was too loosely organized. Balanced literacy did not fit into Bloomberg's or his schools chancellor Joel Klein's corporate model of schooling. Farina, who has actually taught and been the principal of a school believes that balance is best.

Chester Finn, President of the Thomas Fordham Institute, a conservative education think tank and huge booster of the Common Core, is horrified. In The Balanced Literacy Hoax he says that balanced literacy is neither "balanced" nor "literacy." In fact he becomes a bit unbalanced in his critique. It is truly amusing to see Finn cite what he calls "semantic infiltration" in his criticism of the term balanced literacy. Semantic infiltration can be defined as using a term to mask its real intent (like the "Clear Skies Bill" from the Bush administration that actually would have allowed companies to increase polluting the air).

After condemning "balanced literacy as "semantic infiltration", Finn says that what we need in literacy instruction is "scientific reading instruction." Apparently Finn misses the irony of his replacing one example of semantic infiltration with another. "Scientific reading instruction" is at best quasi-scientific and at worst a proven failure as a method of reading instruction. See here.

So we return to the reading instruction wars for the umpteenth time since the 1960s. As a literacy teacher for most of those 45 years in question, I have seen it all argued over and over. What sometimes gets lost in all the noise is that teachers teach kids not programs. One thing that Carmen Farina has over Chester Finn is that she actually taught literacy to kids. When in doubt, go with those who have actually taught.

The term "scientific reading instruction" comes to us courtesy of the Bush administration and No Child Left Behind. A group called the National Reading Panel came up with literacy instructional recommendations based on a review of what they decided was scientific research. The panel's definition of what scientific research was was so narrow that they were bound to come up with recommendations that focused on the skill of reading (decoding) over other important and less easy to measure aspects of reading.  Not surprisingly, the panel came up with a series of recommendations focused on skill driven instruction including a heavy phonics emphasis in early reading instruction.

Guess what. After the implementation of the program, called Reading First, a comprehensive study discovered that kids did indeed get better at decoding. The only problem was that they did not get any better at actually reading. You know, reading. Actually understanding what they read. What those of us in the literacy business call reading comprehension. What Reading First proved is that kids learn what you focus on in your instruction. If you focus on one aspect of a complex process, students will get better at that one aspect of the process, but not necessarily at the process itself.

Balanced literacy attempts to understand the complexity of learning to read and to focus not just on the skill involved in reading, but also the will. Chief proponents of balanced literacy are life-long teachers and researchers like Lucy Calkins of Columbia University, Irene Fountas of Lesley University and Gay Su Pinnell of Ohio State. Balanced literacy emphasises teacher instruction in word solving and comprehension strategies along with lots of practice based on student choice in reading materials and writing topics.

Chester Finn tries to conflate balanced literacy with whole language instruction, a term that has (wrongly) become a buzz word for poor literacy instruction. He is wrong. His love affair with "scientific (sic) reading instruction" should have ended years ago, but the idea that the only road to literacy is through a heavy phonics emphasis will not die.

The reading wars are never going to go away. The mistake people who do not teach actual children make is that they think teaching a certain program is the answer, so we have this battle over "scientifically (sic) based instruction" and "balanced literacy." Real teachers don't teach programs; they teach children. When you actually teach children, observe their learning, sit beside them and shape their development, you can see clearly that learning to read and write is a combination of developing skill and fostering the will to read and write.

Skill and will are complementary aspects of literacy learning. Children begin with the will to learn, develop the skills as they receive instruction, and improve as they practice in real reading and writing situations under the guidance of the teacher. No program can achieve this for children. Only good teachers can.