There are many different components in a balanced literacy framework. Balanced literacy can seem like a complicated jigsaw puzzle where the pieces don’t always seem to fit together. After teaching in this framework for several years, I can assure you that the pieces all fit together and teaching using this method is extremely beneficial for students and teachers too! If you haven’t already read it, I would read an overview to balanced literacy prior to reading this post.
Maintaining the Balance
While there are many components to the framework each component will fall under a general category. These categories are reading, writing, word study, and read aloud. Listening and speaking skills are interwoven into all of the components. As you can see in the image above, reading and listening are both components where the child is taking in information. Writing and speaking are components where the child is putting out information. Read aloud and word study involve a balance of taking in and putting out. This is where the term balanced literacy comes from.
Here we go, we’re about to break down each of the components into slightly more manageable chunks. By the end, you should have a general picture of each piece of the puzzle. I find it beneficial to break down each component in the general sense before giving the details of each. Posts after this one will focus on the nitty-gritty of each piece. While getting to the nuts and bolts of each component, it will be helpful to come back to this post to see the big picture from time to time. Taking on a balanced literacy framework is also a balance between learning all the nuances of each component while keeping the big picture in mind. Don’t worry, I have faith that we can all get there together!
Interactive Read Aloud with Accountable Talk
Let’s start with something you probably already have going in your classroom- read aloud. It is instinctive for most teachers to read to children. Read aloud is truly the heart of my classroom and the foundation for my literacy program. Read aloud in a balanced literacy framework is more intentional than just reading a story. Here a teacher is modeling the moves a proficient reader makes by thinking aloud. A think aloud allows students to see inside the mind of a reader. Reading is thinking and students must be shown how readers think as they work through texts. Keep in mind, we’re not telling readers what to think but showing them how to think.
Now, notice how I snuck the word interactive in before the words read aloud? During an interactive read aloud, children do not simply sit back and enjoy the story they assist the teacher in working through the text as readers. Children will be engaged in a series of turn and talks to practice skills they know and skills that they will soon know with high levels of teacher support. Teachers will encourage students through prompting to think deeply and readerly about the texts they read together.
Now, don’t worry not every read aloud in a balanced literacy framework must be interactive. Of course, I still encourage you to read for reading sake. Each time I pick up a book in life it isn’t to learn something or try out a new skill I learned. Sometimes I read for pure enjoyment and the children in your class should too! I was at a reading conference where author Lester Laminack spoke. He was discussing read alouds and said wouldn’t you be annoyed if you went to the movie and just when the story got to a part where you couldn’t wait to see what was coming next, the lights suddenly came back on, a voice came over the speakers and said, “now, turn and talk to your neighbor! What do you think is coming next? Will these two fall in love? Is a wedding in their future? Think back on all you know!” You would be so annoyed! It is okay if every read aloud isn’t interactive, but, with all things balanced literacy, we need a balance.
Word study also straddles both the input and output pieces of balanced literacy. In reading the focus is on learning how to decode words and solve those tricky parts to read fluently. In writing the focus is on learning how to decode words and solve the tricky parts to write fluently. Do you notice how these might go hand in hand? Word study is a combination of phonics, grammar, spelling, vocabulary and sometimes handwriting instruction. In order for a child to fluently read and write they need a solid foundation for how words work within the English language (assuming that you’re teaching balanced literacy in English).
Most often, people who are frustrated with balanced literacy, have a problem because they feel word study is not being included and given the proper dedicated time. In my experience, I have seen many “balanced literacy” programs leave out this component because it is a harder one to tackle. Word study is tricky but that doesn’t mean we just leave it out in the cold and ignore it. It would be detrimental to the child if this piece of the balanced literacy framework is left out. The key to a balanced literacy program is building skills in all the areas at the same time. We don’t leave any out. So if this is a frustration you have, please know, word study is an essential component of a balanced literacy framework.
Reading has many different pieces that fall under this umbrella of a word. Reading focuses primarily on input. The conversations we have around texts and the writing we do about our reading give us the output connection needed in a balanced literacy framework. None of the pieces work in isolation, they all work together.
Reader’s Workshop is dedicated time each day to focus on the skills and strategies readers use. The teacher begins reader’s workshop whole group at the gathering area. She starts with a 10-minute mini-lesson. This mini-lesson focuses on a skill or strategy that readers need in order to become proficient. After the magic words “off you go” students head off to work independently. During this independent time, the teacher meets with students 1:1 (conferring) or in small groups (guided reading or strategy groups). At the end of independent time, the students are called back to the gathering area and have a share. During share, teachers can highlight student work and students can share their success and ask for help with their struggles.
In the perfect school day, reader’s workshop would take about an hour. It would start with a 10-minute mini-lesson, go into 45 minutes of independent work time, and end with 5-minute share. Now, as teachers very few of us live in this idealistic world. In a post coming up in this series, we’ll talk all about scheduling. For now, let’s worry about getting the gist of each of the components.
Independent reading takes place during the independent time of reader’s workshop… go figure! During this time readers choose their own just right books. They are working by themselves to practice the skills and strategies they know. While students are choosing their own text it is important that they are working within their independent reading level. There is limited teacher support (except for 1:1 conferring) during independent reading time. Students should be successfully practicing what they already know and continue the work of building strong reading habits.
During the independent work time of reader’s workshop teachers can pull guided reading groups. Guided reading is a time where readers at the same level gather with a teacher to read. It focuses heavily on the “we do” portion of balanced literacy. The texts they read with the teacher are at their instructional level and are typically chosen by the teacher. All students in the group read the same text. The teacher works with the small group as well as each individual child to teach decoding and comprehension skills pertinent to their instructional reading level. At times some writing and word work will take place during a guided reading lesson.
Guided reading is NOT round robin or popcorn reading. There is no place for round robin or popcorn reading in balanced literacy. It just isn’t best practice anymore. Please click on the following links to read more about why round robin reading just isn’t used in 21st-century classrooms.
- What’s Really Wrong With Round Robin Reading by Melanie R. Kuhn
- A Literacy Spring Cleaning: Sweeping Round Robin Reading Out of Your Classroom by Katherine Hilden and Jennifer Jones
- R.I.P. Round Robin: 19 Reasons Why it is Not a Best Practice by Jen Jones
Reading Strategy Groups
During the independent work time of reader’s workshop, teachers can also pull strategy groups. Strategy groups might be comprised of students of many different levels who all need to work on the same strategy. In this group, students will all be reading different stories each at their level while working on the same strategy as the teacher provides a high level of support.
Shared reading takes place at a time outside of the Reader’s Workshop. Typically shared reading will be whole group instruction. During this time students look with the teacher at an enlarged, shared text. The teacher works with the students on skills that have been taught or will be taught during reader’s workshop and have been modeled during read aloud. Students work on decoding skills, fluency, and concepts of print (directionality, 1:1 match, etc.) while lead by the teacher.
Similar to reading, writing is a broad category with many components listed underneath it. Writing primarily focuses on output in the form of stories being written or told. Writers also use conversations to take their writing to a higher level. Here they use both their output and input skills. Frequently writers will study master writers and use reading and mentor texts to help take on new skills as well. As you can see, in a balanced literacy framework no skills are learned in isolation but are all learned together in order to create a more literate life.
Writer’s workshop is dedicated time each day to focus on the skills and strategies writers use. Workshop follows a similar structure whether it is for reading or writing. The teacher begins writer’s workshop whole group at the gathering area. There she starts with a 10-minute mini-lesson. The mini-lesson focuses on a skill, strategy, or craft that writers need to take on. This is very targeted teaching (similar to reading) focused on the class’s zone of proximal development. After the magic words “off you go” students head off to work independently on writing. During this independent time, the teacher meets with students 1:1 (conferring) or in small strategy groups. Guided writing is used but primarily in grades 0 (kindergarten) and 1. At the end of independent time, the students are called back to the gathering area and have a share. During share, teachers can highlight student work and students can share their success and ask for help with their struggles.
Again, in the perfect school day, writer’s workshop would take about an hour. It would start with a 10-minute mini-lesson, go into 45 minutes of independent work time, and end with five-minute share. Now, as teachers very few of us live in this idealistic world. In a post coming up in this series, we’ll talk all about scheduling. For now, let’s worry about getting the gist of each of the components.
Due to the nature of writing, students are each working at their own level each time they pick up a pencil. This means in one independent writing time some students might need to focus on using punctuation to create sentences while others are focused on breaking their writing into paragraphs. This is the beauty of a balanced literacy framework as well as the workshop model, all students are able to work at their own level while all working to achieve similar end goals. There is limited teacher support (except for 1:1 conferring) during independent work time. Students should be successfully practicing what they already know and continue the work of building strong reading habits. Independent writing time takes place within the writer’s workshop time.
Writing Strategy Groups
During the independent work time of writer’s workshop, teachers might pull strategy groups. Strategy groups can be comprised of students of many different levels who all need to work on the same strategy. In this group, students will all be writing different stories each at their level while working on the same strategy.
Guided writing is on the very high level of support. Teachers will typically use this with lower writers in the early primary grades. More details will come on this later. As for now, just know it exists.
Shared writing takes place at a time outside of the writer’s workshop. Typically shared writing will be whole group. During this time the teacher along with the students of the class compose a text together. This could be a letter to another class, a story that happened to the whole class, a list, a recipe and much much more. During this time the teacher masterminds the writing process pulling each child up to contribute to the writing in a way that matches what’s within that child’s zone of proximal development. Some writers might be called up at the end of the line to show where the next line should begin if they are having trouble with the return sweep. Some writers might be called up to write a lowercase r if that is something within their zone of proximal development. Some writers might be sent off the carpet to research or add-on independently of the class. During shared writing, all students’ needs are being met in an extremely responsive way.
The Big Picture
Now, I hope you aren’t too overwhelmed. It can be very easy to feel overwhelmed when learning about the whole big picture and how everything fits together. As you learn a bit more about each component life will start to feel a whole lot better.
Relax. Breathe in and breathe out. Shifting to a balanced literacy framework is a journey and it isn’t going to happen overnight. Remember this is just one post in a series. It isn’t important that you understand everything right now but instead that you are beginning to build your understanding. Just think, what is one idea I can try in my classroom tomorrow to shift into a balanced literacy model?
Each Tuesday a new post will appear giving you more insight into the life of a balanced literacy teacher! Next week our post will focus on the gradual release model and the zone of proximal development.
Use the comments section to ask any lingering questions or leave any comments with things I can do to better help you on this journey to implementing a balanced literacy framework within your classroom.