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November 27, 2014 / 5 Kislev, 5775
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The Balanced Literacy Debate


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There is a startling connection between illiteracy and crime. One journalist in The New York Times noted that, “60 percent of the state and federal prison population of 440,000 cannot read above the sixth grade level.” In other words, more than half of all criminals would be considered illiterate by modern standards. In order to improve reading rates and reduce crime, organizations such as the Book ‘Em Foundation utilize police officers to read to school age children. The logic is that if children learn to read, they will be more likely to attain future success.

So how are educators working to meet this goal? In 2001, President George W. Bush enacted “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB), a national educational act that focuses on standards, testing, and teacher accountability in schools. NCLB spurred multiple reforms in municipalities across the United States.

Among the cities that modified their reading curriculum was New York. In 2003, Mayor Michael Bloomberg implemented a “Balanced Literacy” program, a system formulated by Columbia University education specialists. From the start the Balanced Literacy program generated controversy, sparked by strong advocates and resolute detractors.

What is Balanced Literacy?

Before we can define Balanced Literacy, we need to understand the two opposing fields of reading theory: phonics and whole language.

Phonics: Benefits and Drawbacks

Students who learn how to read based on the phonics system enunciate different sounds or phonemes in a language. In English, for instance, “f” and “ph” are the same phoneme: “f.” Once the students learn the different phonemes, they then put them together in order to read whole words. Through sounding out the different phonemes, the phonics system allows students to read words that they have never encountered before. On the other hand, the phonics system requires students to learn multiple phonemes before enabling them to read many words on their own. Sometimes this longer period of learning before the gratification of reading frustrates students, making them believe that reading is all about memorization and learning by rote.

Whole Language: Benefits and Drawbacks

As opposed to learning different sounds in order to piece together full words, the whole language system believes in immediately attracting children to reading by giving them an early grasp of printed language through a “sight” vocabulary of memorized words and phrases. These memorized words give students a sense of accomplishment when they open simple books and are able to read whole sentences. One drawback of the whole language system, however, is that students are not provided with the skills to decode new words that they encounter. Unlike phonics learners, whole language learners continue to need experienced readers to teach them new words.

Balanced Literacy

The Balanced Literacy program is based heavily on the whole language approach. Robert Kolker, in New York magazine, explained that Balanced Literacy “operates on the presumption that breaking down words distracts kids, even discourages them, from growing up to become devoted readers. Instead, students in a Balanced Literacy program get their pick of books almost right away – real books, not the Dick and Jane readers, with narratives that are meant to speak to what kids relate to, whether it’s dogs or baseball or friendship or baby sisters.” This approach, therefore, rejects textbooks and traditional grammar drills – and instead stocks classroom with age-appropriate books.

NYC Schools Chancellor Joel Klein justified his support for the Balanced Literacy program by revealing that the only reason he did well in school and became a federal prosecutor was because an elementary school gave him a book about baseball. When he read that book and enjoyed it, it inspired him to continue to read and succeed in school. With that in mind, he implemented the Balanced Literacy program in nearly all of New York City’s 743 elementary schools.

Balanced Literacy and Controversy

One obvious benefit of Balanced Literacy is students’ immediate love of reading. In contrast, many argue that in the long run Balanced Literacy is not the most effective way to teach students to read.

Balanced Literacy and Social Class

Detractors of the Balanced Literacy program point out that the system has no set curriculum and operates on a teacher-by-teacher basis. In May 2004, in the EnglishJournal, Greg Hamilton from Columbia University points out that the program only works when there is a multitude of in-service support for teachers. In schools where there are lead teachers, principals who monitor teachers’ progress, and consistent training, the Balanced Literacy program has been succeeding.

The problem is that in the most underprivileged schools where the reading levels are the lowest, there is less financial backing for in-service training. This in turn translates into a situation in which the low reading levels are getting lower, while the neighborhoods with already high reading levels are rising. Additionally, in the wealthier neighborhoods, parents are able to provide their children with extra tutoring hours in order to reinforce phonic reading. Alternatively, in the disadvantaged neighborhoods, the students are unable to pay for extra tutoring and following a predominantly whole language approach means that they then lack the basic phonic skills for the future.

Balanced Literacy and Writing

Another argument against the Balanced Literacy program is the impact it could potentially have on writing skills. Most Balanced Literacy teachers create writing workshops in the classroom. Writing workshops consist of students writing individually, sharing their work with their peers, and conferencing with teachers. There are advantages to the writing workshop method, many being similar to the whole language approach. Through the relaxed and pleasurable environment, students might fall in love with writing, prompting them to write and read more on their own. This is, of course, the intent of Balanced Literacy programs.

The pitfall is that when students learn primarily through reading books rather than textbooks and workbooks, they might not pick up the correct mechanics of the English language, such as grammar and spelling. The hope is, as New York magazine states, that they will learn these ideas through “osmosis.” But, unfortunately, research has shown that many students fail to pick up these conventions through casual reading. When coupled with students’ increased time on the Internet and their phones, this dearth of grammatical drilling might lead to an acute lack of knowledge of conventional English.

Balanced Literacy and Hebrew

Almost all Hebrew language classes are based on the phonics system. As Julie Baumler, a writer on Middle East Culture, points out, there are rare exceptions to rules in Hebrew. Additionally, the Hebrew language isabjad, or consists solely of consonants. The vowels are represented by the nekudot. These two elements simplify the reading process and allow students to learn just a few rules in order to pick up even the most complex book and sound out the words. Obviously phonics does not encourage comprehension, which, in turn, might make students believe that reading is boring or tedious.

If our yeshivot were to incorporate the Balanced Literacy approach to Hebrew instruction, students might feel more passionate about studying Hebrew. However, inevitably their ease in reading and their pronunciation would falter. Perhaps there is a way to unite the two systems in a more equalized program.

Recent Changes to Balanced Literacy Programs

In August 2008, The New York Times reported that 10 New York City public schools were changing their curriculum from Balanced Literacy programs to the Core Knowledge system. It noted, “The Core Knowledge curriculum is heavily focused on content, vocabulary skills and nonfiction books.” It is also focused heavily on phonics. This move is a clear shift away from the writing workshop and whole language method of immersion in interesting, exciting books. With 10 schools participating in the pilot program, the city will have a chance to see which approach is more effective.

So What Can We Do?

The question remains: Are the enjoyment and enthusiasm for reading that are sparked by the whole language system preferable, or are the skills and proficiency that are promoted by the phonics program favorable? That question has yet to be answered; perhaps a mix of the two approaches is the golden mean. Regardless, we as parents and educators must understand that providing our children with the ability to read is fundamentally a gift for a better future.

Rifka Schonfeld founded and directs the widely acclaimed educational program SOS (Strategies for Optimum Success), servicing all grade levels in both secular and Hebrew studies. She is a well-known and highly regarded educator, having served the community for close to 30 years. As a kriyah and reading specialist, she has successfully set up reading labs in many schools and yeshivas. In addition to her diversified teaching career, she offers teacher training and educational consulting services. She has extensive expertise in the field of social skills training, and focuses on working with the whole child. She can be reached at 718-382-5437 (KIDS).

About the Author: An acclaimed educator and education consultant, Mrs. Rifka Schonfeld has served the Jewish community for close to thirty years. She founded and directs the widely acclaimed educational program, SOS, servicing all grade levels in secular as well as Hebrew studies. A kriah and reading specialist, she has given dynamic workshops and has set up reading labs in many schools. In addition, she offers evaluations G.E.D. preparation,, social skills training and shidduch coaching, focusing on building self-esteem and self-awareness. She can be reached at 718-382-5437 or at rifkaschonfeld@verizon.net. Visit her on the web at rifkaschonfeldsos.com.


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