April 30, 2006

The Reading Wars--NY Magazine

In today's installment we're going to take to task the article "A is For Apple, B is for Brawl" in New York Magazine. The article is about the ongoing reading wars in NYC between phonics and whole language balanced literacy, but there's much more subtext than that. And, that's what we'll be analyzing in this six part series: When Losers Won't Surrender.
  1. Part I: Severed Ears
  2. Part II: Getting the Teams Wrong
  3. Part III: Fun With Memorization
  4. Part IV: Opinion vs. Fact
  5. Part V: Misinterpreting Research
  6. Part VI: The Homestretch
One of the salient points in the article hinges on the definition of Balanced Literacy. The article makes the point, and I agree, that for all intents and purposes BL is whole language with a different name and hiding behind a supercial veneer of phonics.

In the comments, TMAO defines BL as "balance of phonics instruction, instructional reading, authentic reading at an independent level, vocabulary instruction, comprehension skill development, response and H.O.T. development, and finally writing."

I think many teachers would agree with this definition. But, I think it includes things that are typically included in any good phonics program (vocab, comprehension, reading of authentic texts reading at an independent level, response and H.O.T.) and doesn't sufficiently specify the all important interplay between phonics, intructional reading, and use of authentic texts which determine whether the program is really phonics or whole language.

Anyway, I want to write about this later this week, but for now I'd like to hear how others, especially early reading teachers, define Balanced Literacy.

Anyway, onto Part I of the Reading Wars.


Ryan said...

As a first grade teacher, to me balanced literacy means that they're getting each of the five areas: phonics, fluency, comprehension, phonemic awareness, and the other one that I can never remember. Our basal series (Houghton Mifflin) does a great job of working in all of the areas, and when I structure the week I try to hit all of them. It doesn't turn out equal, typically--fluency instruction often gets short shrift--but they are all identified and used thoughtfully.

Mark Pennington said...

A key discussion point regarding reading instruction today involves those favoring skills-based instruction and those favoring content-based instruction. This is not the old phonics-whole language debate. Other than a few hold-outs, such as Stephen Krashen, most in the reading field would agree that this debate has been largely settled. The current debate involves whether teachers at all levels should be teaching the how or the what of reading.

There are, indeed, some who would restrict reading to a measurable skill-set. These would pigeon-hole reading instruction into a continuum of increasingly complex rules, while ignoring the thinking process necessary to advanced reading. Teachers of this ilk love their phonics, context clues, and inference worksheets when they are not leading their students in fluency exercises, ad nauseum, whether the students need fluency practice or not.

On the other side of the debate are those who would claim that content is the real reading instruction. These would limit reading skill instruction in favor of pouring shared cultural knowledge into learners. They favor teacher read-alouds, Cornell note-taking, and direct instruction. They argue that subject area disciplines such as English literature, science, and history often provide the best reading instruction by the content that they teach.

Both are extremes. Students need some of each to become skilled and complex readers. More on how to strike this balance on my blog at http://penningtonpublishing.com/blog/reading/content-vs-skills-reading-instruction/