The Science of Reading vs. Balanced Literacy
This post is Part Three of a three-blog series about the science of reading and balanced literacy. This series will explore what the science of reading is, how it differs from balanced literacy, and why these differences matter. Missed Parts One or Two? Don’t forget to go back and read them!
Reading is an equity issue. Only about 35% of American children are reading proficiently, and these opportunity gaps are even more significant for underprivileged students. The good news is, we know how to close those gaps and help every child learn to read proficiently. The solution lies in evidence-based instruction because while learning to speak is an innate process, neuroscience research has shown that learning to read is not.
Through decades of studies in neuroscience, education, psychology, and more, experts have determined the best practices for teaching literacy, and we are seeing this evidence-based instruction make a difference in childrens’ lives.
In fact, as of August 2022, 30 states have passed laws or implemented policies around evidence-based reading instruction to ensure every child is given their best chance to become successful, confident readers.
So, what is this evidence-based instruction? Simply put, it is instruction based on the science of reading.
What is the Science of Reading?
Thanks to the reading wars, it is often assumed that the science of reading is just a fancy new term for phonics instruction. But the science of reading includes much more than phonics.
The science of reading is a body of research that definitively answers the question: “How does the human brain learn to read?” It spans more than 100 papers and the research has been growing for more than five decades. With studies from education, linguistics, psychology, and neurology, the science of reading includes research about how our brains process written words.
The skills required to read can be broken down in many different ways.
Gough and Tumner (1986) described reading comprehension as the product of decoding and language comprehension. This was known as The Simple View of Reading.
This equation can be further broken down into the underpinning components of each group:
In 2000, the National Reading Panel summed up effective reading instruction as requiring the following five concepts: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.
Dr. Hollis Scarborough (2001) devised the Reading Rope as a more in-depth visual on the skills required for fluent reading.
Based on how each skill or concept is defined, the terms used by a model or instructional method may be different. For example, phonological awareness (Reading Rope) and phonemic awareness (National Reading Panel) are both part of phonology, the study of sounds in a language, which in turn is a component of decoding (Simple View of Reading). When we incorporate the alphabet, we can introduce phonics as a way to teach sound-letter or sound-spelling correspondences; thus, phonics is tied to orthography as it begins to incorporate written symbols. Similarly, semantics and vocabulary go hand-in-hand as components of linguistic or language comprehension, and are just as necessary as the components of decoding or word recognition.
Through the science of reading, we can better understand how we learn to read, what skills are involved in reading, and how those skills work together. But more than that, this research helps us to understand how educators can best teach those skills.
See, the science of reading is not a literacy method in and of itself. However, it can inform literacy instruction to ensure all students are given the opportunity to become successful readers. Today, there are several approaches based in the science of reading, including Orton-Gillingham and the Wilson Reading System. These approaches, and others that teach foundational reading skills through explicit instruction are encompassed by the umbrella term: Structured Literacy.
What is Structured Literacy?
Structured Literacy is the application of knowledge from the science of reading which teaches children to read in an evidence-based and systematic way.
Any Structured Literacy approach weaves together an array of skills from the science of reading including at a minimum:
- Sound-Symbol Association
But more importantly, Structured Literacy approaches are explicit, systematic, cumulative, diagnostic, and responsive. Explicit means the concepts are directly taught and practiced. Systematic means the skills are taught in a “stairstep” fashion: Each skill builds on the last, and they are taught in a logical order that starts with the simple information and becomes progressively more complex. Cumulative means all the information builds upon earlier knowledge. Diagnostic and responsive means students' unique strengths and weaknesses are identified using differentiated instruction.
With sufficient direct instruction on the foundational skills of reading, 95% of students can learn to read. This is why a Structured Literacy approach is crucial. Without it, only 30% of students will learn to read. Fifty percent require explicit and direct instruction in foundational skills to learn to read, and a further 15% require additional attention and support.
Any instructional method that does not teach the components of the science of reading in an explicit, cumulative, and responsive way will leave children behind, often without understanding why the student is struggling. That is the unfortunate impact of many literacy approaches schools use today, like balanced literacy, when educators don’t have the evidence-based knowledge they need to help every student.
What is Balanced Literacy?
Balanced literacy is a popular method of teaching reading and writing. In 2019, A national survey found that about 72% of American educators report using balanced literacy to teach reading. One of the reasons for its popularity is its openness to interpretation.
Fountas and Pinnell (1996), early proponents of balanced literacy, define the method as 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.” Their method involves a combination of whole-group instruction, small-group instruction, and independent learning with a focus on authentic texts.
Lucy Calkins, another proponent of balanced literacy, uses a workshop model for her method. Skills are demonstrated, then students practice, with minimal direct instruction.
For Michael Pressely, balanced literacy is about the balance—there should be a plethora of reading materials, an emphasis on writing, and explicit decoding instruction.
In other words, balanced literacy is difficult to define, and can vary from classroom to classroom. For most balanced literacy educators, it means teaching reading in a way that meets student’s needs while also promoting a love of reading.
This is a goal all educators should aspire to—but without a standard implementation, balanced literacy’s success in achieving that goal is inconsistent at best. Despite balanced literacy being the most popular literacy method for the last few decades, national reading scores have remained low.
Balanced literacy can be understood as a “little bit of everything” approach that incorporates some good ideas and practices as it strives for a laudable goal. It will even help many students discover a love of reading. But because it may or may not include phonics and other evidence-based concepts, and because it lacks the structured, explicit instruction and content needed for students with learning disabilities like dyslexia, it will never work for all students. As seen in the pie chart above, most students need explicit and direct instruction in foundational reading skills (and not just phonics). Without additional intervention, balanced literacy will only help 30% of students become successful readers.
Is the Science of Reading Better than Balanced Literacy?
Balanced literacy is not “bad.” But when it comes to reading proficiency, it doesn’t work for all students, or even most. The science of reading, through approaches like Structured Literacy, will help 95% of students become confident, capable readers. For balanced literacy to be effective, it must include explicit instruction in ALL the skills necessary for reading. For students to develop a love of reading, they first must learn to read.
Literacy is one of the cornerstones of educational equity, and is crucial for lifelong success. Transitioning to a Structured Literacy approach or incorporating more science of reading-based instruction in a balanced literacy approach will help us achieve a more equitable world in which every student can confidently enjoy reading.
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