Am I Wrong? Balanced Literacy and the Science of Reading

Am I Wrong? Balanced Literacy and the Science of Reading

Teachers Need Reflection Too

In international teaching, I’ve noticed the conversation of phonics comes up much more with parents than it does in the US. Especially considering the British system (that I admittedly don’t know much about) places a lot of weight on phonics. So, when I saw this debate light up again on Facebook and Instagram this fall, I wanted to learn more. My background with dyslexia, phonics, and guided reading is really skewed, and I’ve never really known what to think about the whole debate. I never really believe that something is 100% the right way and something else is 100% the wrong way. I think things are more on a continuum. I’m going to share my background story with dyslexia and balanced literacy with you so that you know where I am coming from- a very confusing place. I’m not the most credible and knowledgeable voice in this debate. 

My Background

During the beginning of my teaching career, a new reading specialist came into our building. She was studying dyslexia and would share the information she learned from time to time. I found it interesting because I didn’t know a lot about dyslexia and I LOVE to learn!

She would come into my classroom and tell me that in my class of eighteen, at least five students had dyslexia. Or she would come in to share a quick thing she learned about in an article. It felt normal, and our second-grade team liked our morning chats with her until suddenly things weren’t so normal anymore.

The App Diagnosis

One day she found a fantastic app ever that could diagnose dyslexia in children. I was skeptical of this app at best. I don’t believe that it is our job to diagnose children, and I don’t believe a new app is how to do it. She came in unannounced to test it out on my class during reader’s workshop. Not only was she extremely disruptive to the flow of our classroom during this time, but she also ended up diagnosing my entire class with dyslexia. I brushed this off and continued teaching, surely my whole class didn’t have dyslexia, right?

She then started printing off worksheet after worksheet and dropping off stacks in my classroom to help with my 100% dyslexic class. I was overwhelmed by this. This interventionist was known to blow up at teachers, so I always accepted the worksheets, and they found their way to the recycling. I didn’t want conflict (type 9 enneagram here!), but I did not want all of these resources. My kids were showing growth using balanced literacy, and if they were showing growth, I didn’t see a need to change.

Working Together

Later on that year, we decided one of my students who was reading at a level K in mid-March would benefit from some time with a reading interventionist. They needed to work on decoding longer words and deeper level comprehension. They weren’t too far behind grade level, so the team figured a short term intervention would give them the boost they needed. We also knew they would thrive in a 1:1 setting, and short-term interventions like this had helped them in the past.

The interventionist that worked with our grade level was all booked up, so this student went to the dyslexia researcher. After one session, she came into my classroom screaming (when my whole class was enjoying snack) that the kid couldn’t read at all. She was yelling and blaming me for being a lousy teacher by teaching balanced literacy in front of all of my students!

No teacher wants to hear they’re not doing a good job- especially in front of their whole class. We’re all doing the best with what we have. I was following our district curriculum, and there wasn’t anything else I could have done. What she was ranting about was super confusing to me, too, because they were reading Frog and Toad and loving them. They could decode at a level K and comprehend for the most part. Something happened when they tried an L, and they needed a bit more help. This student was reading Nate the Great and solving mystery after mystery how were they unable to read? What does that even mean? They were reading every single day with me.

What Was the Reading Intervention?

When she started working with them, she focused on teaching them phonics instead of doing the intervention that we had discussed as a team. During our class phonics lessons, they did reasonably well. I’m not sure what work they were doing with her because whenever I asked, she talked in circles and threw out names of programs. She would argue all the time that she was Orton Gillingham trained. I didn’t care about her training. I knew Orton Gillingham and had seen it work wonders with kids. I wanted to know what their intervention consisted of so that I could support that work in our classroom. I would try to ask more specific questions, but she would not break down the 30-minute lesson and explain what she was doing. It was beyond frustrating. 

How Can I Support This Child?

Soon, they had slipped back to a level J and then to a level I. One day I handed them our story during guided reading, and they declared that they couldn’t read books and gave the book back; they asked for a list of words. I didn’t understand what was going on. How could this kid who loved books suddenly refuse to read books? I had my literacy coach come in and observe because let’s be real- I was panicking. I needed to figure out what to do next. My literacy coach was also confused. She was their reading interventionist the year before and said she was shocked by some of the things she saw them doing. 

As I worked with my literacy coach to try to figure out what I could do to support this little diamond, she was also stumped. She asked what they were working on in intervention. I filled her in on all the strange conversations I had and that I didn’t know what was happening. She said that she’s sure dyslexia is underdiagnosed but is also confident that my whole class probably doesn’t have it. And even if this diamond does have dyslexia, this intervention isn’t working.

It Kept Getting Weirder

Even stranger things happened after this. The interventionist went into one of my colleague’s classrooms and took all the Mo Willems books declaring that students should read dumb stuff. She started trying to start rumors about our literacy coach, even coming and asking me if I was being treated ok by her. She went low and said that the lit coach’s daughter had dyslexia, and that’s why she was anti-dyslexia. Our lit coach wasn’t anti-dyslexia but got accused of a whole bunch because she was leading us in balanced literacy. She went into another room and told the teacher classroom libraries were dumb and unnecessary. She launched attack after attack on our literacy coach via Facebook posts. I unfriended her because I don’t want to be associated with teachers who attack each other on Facebook. More things happened, but you get the gist.

To be honest, I never understood why dyslexia and balanced literacy were at war. Why was she so anti our balanced literacy framework? The way I understood it was dyslexic students needed something different than what was provided in a balanced literacy framework. There are, of course, kids who need different teaching than the teaching happening in the classroom. Shouldn’t we accommodate them? 

More Than A Little Confused

As you can imagine, that experience left me more than a little bit confused about dyslexia. All I knew was a kid who was doing well in reading got an unofficial dyslexia diagnosis by a teacher who wasn’t the most stable, and then he got worse and worse as a reader. His reading level at the end of the year was lower than at the start of the year. 

Logically I knew that this was an odd case, and she wasn’t the greatest, but it was tough to get past all of her irrational and abrasive behavior. After this incident, I didn’t think about dyslexia for a long time. 

Phonics P.D.

Then, a few years ago my school (a different one than the school above) had professional development with the principal from a school that specializes in dyslexia. She talked a lot about the importance of phonics. We reviewed phonics rules and I met with her one on one to discuss the teaching of phonics. We had just switched to Fountas and Pinnell Phonics and it was the first time our school had a phonics/ word study program. We talked for a long time about what rules to teach kids and what rules not to teach, how to build in phonics support into the reading and writing workshop. If I could work for this principal I would. She was so knowledgable and I left her session with millions of ideas to pull into the classroom. It didn’t seem as though there was a huge disconnect from what I was doing in my classroom using balanced literacy and the phonics PD that I attended. They seemed to work in harmony which was the opposite of what I had always been told. 

Phonics is a Part of Balanced Literacy

I feel there is a misconception that phonics is not taught in a balanced literacy framework. That isn’t true (if things are happening correctly- I know sometimes they aren’t). Phonics is taught in part of the program, often referred to as word study. The way phonics is taught depends on what program or philosophy a school is following. I’ve used Fountas and Pinnell Phonics, which follows the workshop approach and teaches in on one specific phonics piece each lesson. I’ve also used Words Their Way and Word Journeys to teach phonics through sorting and making connections between other words. I would say the whole goal of word study in balanced literacy is for skills to transfer back into reading and writing. We might not teach all of the cute phonics rhymes we learned as kids. This is usually because the cute rhymes tie in with the exceptions, not the rules. Perhaps people behind the Science of Reading would like a more rigorous phonics component to balanced literacy. I’m not opposed to that, and I don’t think many are. We want to teach transferrable phonics skills to our kids as phonics knowledge is needed for decoding. 

M,S,V and the Science of Reading

Last year I led our school in learning Fountas and Pinnell’s Benchmark Assessment System, and part of that system is MSV. If you don’t know, MSV stands for Meaning, Structure, and Visual. These are considered the three cueing system readers use as they read. When readers encounter an unknown word and attempt to decode it, they ask: Does this make sense? Does this sound right? Does this look right? Often in a balanced literacy approach, more weight is placed on meaning than on phonics for the in the moment decoding while reading. 

While preparing for that training, I came across research that MSV wasn’t valid, and I read it. I knew that there were teachers extremely frustrated by B.A.S., and they would find this research. I also think it is good practice to read things that you disagree with. It furthers your reflection and your own ideas. What I found was fascinating. Researchers show that the English language is much more decodable than we’ve been led to believe. It is a topic that I would like to learn about more. I do notice that children who come into our schools from the British system are much, much better decoders but have limited comprehension skills.

I recently joined a Facebook group for teachers who support the Science of Reading. Currently, I’m disappointed I haven’t learned more from the group as it is right now focused on bashing balanced literacy programs and leaders and less focused on sharing information on the science of reading. Hopefully, I can begin to learn more from them as a teacher.

So, Am I Wrong?

It isn’t a good feeling to think that you’re wrong about your core beliefs on a topic, but it is a good time for reflection. Am I wrong? Should I stop using a balanced literacy approach and focus more on phonics? The Science of Reading people say yes. I don’t know, but I don’t think so at this moment. I want to learn more and strengthen my phonics instruction, and I don’t believe that kids in younger grades should just read decodable texts, BUT I do think decodables are beneficial for some readers. 

Could we include more decodable reading within the phonics portion of balanced literacy? What compromises could be made to support both? I don’t know but I am sure there are some.

This whole debate reminded me of a conversation we had with a literacy consultant at the start of the year. We were providing a scaffolded support tool that the majority of students actually didn’t need. We removed that support from the kids who didn’t need it and kept it for the kids who did need it. I feel like giving all kids decodables instead of the books they currently have would be similar. We would be putting up supports for all kids that they might not need. Dyslexia is underdiagnosed, and teachers need a lot more support and education in this area. I am sure that what works for dyslexic students will work for all students, but is it what’s best for them? I don’t know. I’m going to continue to research and listen to both sides of the argument. We’ll see what I discover. 

Additional Resources

The Science of Reading

Please know that if you’re using a balanced literacy approach some of these may be hard to read because of the teacher-bashing in them. I’m not about that. Couldn’t we have this debate without bashing teachers and name-calling? 

What is the Science of Reading?

Beyond the Reading Wars: How the Science of Reading Can Improve Literacy

The Science of Teaching Reading

The Science of Reading- A PowerPoint Presentation

Timothy Shanahan Blog

 

Balanced Literacy

I’m only including the responses from Lucy Calkins and Irene and Gay Su Pinnell because they’re the only responses I know of right now. If you know of additional responses please share them in the comments.

No One Gets To Own the Term “Science of Reading” -Lucy Calkins

A Word on Phonics with Fountas and Pinnell

Thoughts?

Let’s build a productive conversation around this topic in the comments below. 

What are your thoughts? What does your education and experience lead you to? 

Just a forewarning, any teacher-bashing comments will be deleted. That isn’t productive for either side. Try to figure out a way to phrase your comment in a way that doesn’t bash the teacher but teaches. 

Friday Five: Back to School After Winter Break

Friday Five: Back to School After Winter Break

Going back to school after winter break can be ROUGH! We’ve all been there. Transitioning back into the new year can be tricky. The kids are still in vacation mode, and you might be too. Here are five tips to help reign it in and get back to business after a long break.

Getting Back to School After winter Break

One

Catch Up With Each Other

You just had a break! Take a minute to catch up and share all about your holidays. As an international teacher, students often travel to different countries and places over breaks. We usually get out the map and look where everyone went on holiday. This is a lot of fun. Kids also share what I call smiles and frowns. Smiles are those significant parts of vacation and frowns the not so great part. 


After a break ease back in and take a moment to check in as a community. Maybe that doesn’t look like getting down the map. Maybe it looks like enjoying a cup of hot chocolate or tea and talking about the best parts of our break. Maybe it means taking a moment to write a story about the break. Any way you do it is great. Isn’t the best part of coming back to school after a break catching up with your teacher friends? Let your kids enjoy that too.

Two

Get Back Into Routines

Routines are like the glue that holds all the learning together. I like to remind students of expectations and keep them to it after a break. We usually spend the first weeks back after break reviewing our routines and practicing them. Don’t wait too long to get back into them, or it might feel like you never will. Remember that time spent reviewing routines now will save you time later. Make sure you’ve all got your routines back down before diving too far into learning.

Three

Have some Fun

Joy and laughter are so important in the classroom. Don’t forget while reviewing those routines and diving back into content to take some time for fun. Fun can be anything! Maybe it’s a fun hidden picture, and perhaps it’s an extra Go Noodle video, maybe it’s playing four corners. Just make sure that there’s some fun and laughter in your classroom during your first days back as a teacher.

FOur

Take Time For Yourself

Don’t burn yourself out! Hopefully, you took the vacay to live your non-teacher life. So now, don’t spend the first weeks back living at school. Utilize those prep times and try not to stay too late. Take time to invest in your life outside of school as well. The more you invest in yourself as a person, the better you are as a teacher. Trust me.

Five

Give Yourself Grace

Wouldn’t it be nice if everything worked out perfectly after a holiday? Yeah, I can dream about that world, but realistically it doesn’t. Give yourself grace. Take that time away from yourself. Look into using Calm or another meditation app for those moments when things are too much. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve done a quick emergency calm session when the kids went to specials. Remember, you’ll get there. You will get back into learning and all of the routines that make your classroom a beautiful place. Rome wasn’t built in a day. 

How do you like to set your self up for success after a break? 

Weekly Wisdom

The objective of education is not to fill a man's mind with facts; it is to teach him how to use his mind in thinking. Henry Ford

Weekly Wisdom

We should empower young writers to decide IF they want to revise. And, if they do, decide HOW and WHAT revisions they want to make. It's not realistic to expect them to revise everything because that is not how writing works. -Ralph Fletcher

Balanced Literacy: Conferring

Balanced Literacy: Conferring

Welcome back to our balanced literacy series! Today the focus is on conferring. All the kids are independently reading and now it is your turn to teach! Let’s dive into how this works!

You might want to read Planning for Teaching During Independent Work Time before reading this post. It breaks down how to decide which teaching move to use during workshop. Conferring is just one option.

Don’t forget to stop by every Tuesday to gain a better insight into using a balanced literacy framework within your classroom! 

What is Conferring?

Conferring is one-on-one with just a student and a teacher. The teacher typically follows the research, decide, compliment, teach method. First, the teacher will observe and research the skills the reader has and does not have yet. The teacher will decide what teaching is best for this student next. Then the teacher will compliment the reader to reinforce a skill they have. Next, the teacher will teach a new skill and practice it a few times with the reader before the reader is left on their own. This lasts about 5-7 minutes. 

How Do I Start?

Grab a small post it and make a t-chart. On one side write notice and on the other side write teach. Now, choose a student to confer with. Sometimes I observe a bit before I walk over to the student. Do they have a book out, do they have a pencil, what are they doing with most of their time? I jot down any sort of observable behavior I see. 

Research

Research is the first phase of conferring. Here the teacher sees the student working independently. The teacher can see what skills, strategies, and behaviors the student knows,  almost knows and, doesn’t know yet. At times this last part will be the most obvious. Sometimes we research and just see lots and lots the student doesn’t know. The mini-lessons we’ve taught that they aren’t using or the previous conferring that isn’t being used. When this happens, look closer. You can’t build off of the unknown, only the known. Read more about the Zone of Proximal Development here

I like to observe a bit before I walk over and sit down next to the student. I also teach my readers and writers to keep working when I sit down next to them. Sometimes I dig in and read previous pages in their story or look at their reading log or post-its. After I’ve gotten a feel for what they’re doing it is time for me to talk to them. Usually, silent observation only takes about a minute. I like to ask what they’re working on as a reader or writer. I’ve found that opening line to bring forth the best conversations. Different teachers use different things. Try out a few lines to find your conferring style and see what works best for you. 

Sometimes I ask guiding questions related to our mini-lesson. At times I’ll ask what they’ve tried that didn’t work out recently or what they’ve tried out that was a big success. It all depends on the reader. The questions you want to ask will tell you what the reader can do and what they need help with. That is what you want to determine.

During the research phase (and every phase) jot down some notes. Record keeping is so important in balanced literacy… and all of teaching. I like to keep open notes. This means that I will always share my jots with the students. It can stress students out if they know you’re writing about them and you don’t show them what you’re writing. Imagine if your principal observed you and jotted down lots of things and then never shared them. It would frustrate me so I make sure not to do the same to my students. After sharing notes a few times students don’t continue to ask. 

Decide

This phase is sort of incorporated into research but it is significant enough to have its own section. Once you know what you can compliment and teach the research phase is over… and so is the decide phase! A lot of times this phase happens quickly at the end of research. You’ll see something the reader/writer is doing to reinforce and you’ll see something you want to teach them. 

The teaching point is something that the student is almost doing. They’re right on the edge but they just need some tips to finally do it. This teaching point is something you want the students to be able to complete independently forever and ever (with a bit of reinforcement) for the rest of their reading and writing lives. Keep that in mind as you choose the teaching point. It shouldn’t be something that they don’t know and aren’t even close to doing. That is much too big for conferring. Think what is one step this reader/writer can take toward this large goal today. One step they can take on today by themselves.

Sometimes you can’t decide on a teaching point. Sometimes you sit and observe a reader and jot down a lot but nothing comes to mind. If this happens, compliment and then walk away. Plan later for that reader/writer and then confer with them another day. Don’t waste their time. It happens to all of us. 

Compliment

The compliment serves several purposes during conferring. It helps build a positive relationship between you and your reader/writer. We all like to hear positive things about what we’re doing. It helps readers and writers recognize the good work they’re doing and encourages them to continue that good work. It also butters them up to hear something that they need to work on. Let’s be real, we all like to hear something good before we hear something that we need to work on. Sometimes my compliment will lead to my teach especially if I want to build off of the good things that are happening. 

Every teacher has a different way to document their compliments. I usually put a star by it on my conferring sheet. Sometimes I’ll circle it. Some teachers jot it under the teach and just know the first bullet is always the compliment. Everyone does it differently. Find what works for you. Below I jotted down the language I might use. Remember, this language might not feel natural to you- try out a bunch of stuff to figure out what works for you. You want to come off genuinely during the entire conference so using someone else’s words might not work out. You’ll get it with more and more practice.

Teach

Now the reader has heard a compliment and they are ready to hear something to work on. Our readers and writers will get the hang of the pattern of a conference so after the compliment they know they’ll get a tip to make them an even better reader or writer. I always use language to explain that all readers and writers are good but we can become even better. Also… a bit of a tangent here but I share my reading and writing life with my class so they can see my strengths and struggles too. Ok back to the teach. 

Your teaching point should follow the same sort of format as a mini-lesson teach. It should be quick, focused and explicit. 

Teacher: “I want to teach you one thing today that is going to help you as a reader. Readers pay attention to many details while they read a book. One thing they keep track of is the characters in a book. They get to know them just like they are old friends and can predict what they’re going to do before they do anything. To keep track of characters at the beginning of a book or series. You may want to make a post-it for each character, just in the beginning, to help you keep track. Let’s do that here. Who are the main characters?”

Student: “Jack and Annie” *inspired by Magic Tree House*

Teacher: “Ok, let’s list Jack here and Annie here. Let’s list down some things we know about Jack here. What do you know about Jack?”

Student: “I don’t know.” Here a student might say something. If you already know this is going to be the response skip the question.”

Teacher: “Let’s read a bit to help us figure out what we know about Jack. We can pay attention to what the characters say and how they act. That will teach us a bit about who they are.” 

This goes on until we have a few things for Jack. Then the teacher could prompt the student to try Annie on their own.

The teacher will want to circle back to this student at the end of the book but before the student reads the next book in the series. Students should know that Jack likes to follow the rules and complete the mission according to the rules every time. Annie is more impulsive. She likes to explore and is more adventurous than Jack. Annie always puts them into some sort of danger at the last moment and Jack is so worried. They always escape just in time. Knowing these things about Jack and Annie will help the reader of any Magic Tree House book. 

Knowing how to get to know book characters by paying attention to their actions and their words is a skill that a reader could use in every story they encounter.

Teacher: “I want to teach you one thing that will help you become a better writer. Writers use paragraphs when they write to organize information for their reader. Let’s take a look in this story to see how writers use paragraphs.” Here I would pull out a class read aloud or a familiar story to show paragraphs. 

Teacher: “You can see that each paragraph is about one topic. It helps to organize information so that the reader can read it easier. Can you imagine if this whole page was just words without breaks? It would be sort of hard to read. Do you see that each paragraph starts on its own line and the first word is pushed in a little bit, that’s called indented. Now, we won’t rewrite your whole story but let’s figure out where we could make a paragraph.” The teacher and student could reread the story so far and add a mark where each paragraph should begin. Perhaps this student is one sentence into what should be a new paragraph, then you might consider having the writer erase and start a new paragraph. Don’t make them erase lots and lots though, that’s discouraging. 

Circle back to this writer before the end of workshop to check in and see if they have paragraphs. You might even want to sit with them and watch them write until it is time for a new paragraph. It all depends on how much support the writer needs taking on this new knowledge. Make sure to compliment them when they do! 

Using paragraphs can be a hard thing to master. If we push students into paragraphs before they’re ready they use them infrequently and often incorrectly. Using paragraphs is a huge transferable skill. Often we teach students a number of sentences in a paragraph but writers don’t count sentences. Do you think J.K. Rowling went back through her paragraphs to make sure they were 3-5 sentences in length and somethings seven? No! That isn’t what writers do. Teaching paragraphs through writing conferences when a student is ready will ensure greater success and less formulaic understanding. We want writers to understand what they do and why so they can transfer that knowledge into new contexts. 

Link

Now you’ve complimented, taught and you’re ready to leave your reader/writer behind. You might want to leave behind a reminder of the conference. Sometimes I re-create a piece of our anchor chart to leave behind on a post-it. Other times I leave a small note of encouragement. I make sure the reader/writer can continue their work as I leave them with high levels of success. 

Now… I used educlips clipart here but I don’t just draw like this on the go. These would most likely (100%) be stick people. Don’t feel like your artifact has to look this beautiful! 

The lines here would probably be scribbles. I might want to label the new line and indent if I think the writer might need them. I also refer the writer to a page to check if they aren’t sure. This helps to create independence in the new skill. 

Are You Ready to Confer?

This week choose just one or two students in your class to confer with. Grab a post-it, make a t-chart and start. Your conferences won’t always go perfectly- I’ve been conferring for over 8 years and mine still don’t always go according to plan. Just try it and then keep going. I highly recommend starting out with compliment only conferences. These might be the least intimidating. All you have to do is find one thing to reinforce with the student through conferring. 

Click here to download free conferring templates!

Leave your questions and comments below! I can’t wait to hear how conferring is working out for you!