The Balanced Literacy Diet

Using a food pyramid concept to cut through the great debate over phonics vs. whole language by Dale Willows

 For decades, educators have been looking for the “best method” for teaching reading and writing. With such a method, they believe, teachers will simply deliver the program and the problems of literacy education will be solved.

However, training teachers to implement instructional methods when they don’t truly understand the underlying rationale is futile. Without understanding, teachers do not have the knowledge to adapt an instructional strategy to address various student needs. Without understanding, teachers become cogs in a machine, with neither the responsibility nor the rewards of being in control. Without understanding, teachers can become inflexible and dogmatic, unable to integrate new research-supported practices into existing approaches.

Most teachers are motivated to do their best in teaching students to read and write. Many recognize their lack of understanding about literacy education and would like to learn more. In a large-scale survey of new teachers in the United States, more than 80 percent say they are not adequately prepared to teach reading and writing. Even teachers with years of experience feel inadequate in trying to meet the needs of all their students.

Clear Direction

Elementary school teachers want to know the most effective ways of teaching their students to read and write. But what do they need to know?

The best methods for teaching elementary school children now are fairly well understood and are reflected in two major research reviews produced by independent groups of theoreticians and practitioners.

“Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children,” published in 1998, and “Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching Children to Read,” published in 2000, conclude that effective literacy programs include balanced and motivating instruction in the following key components: phonemic awareness; systematic, sequential phonics; fluent, automatic reading of text; vocabulary development; text comprehension strategies; spelling and handwriting; and written composition strategies.

Another clear theme in both reports is that educators must understand when and how to implement these components to provide effective literacy instruction. Thus, both reports strongly recommend that the research should guide preservice and in-service teacher education.

Although most teachers have a general knowledge of the components of effective literacy programs, many have not grasped key concepts well enough to implement them effectively in their classrooms. As explained in the American Federation of Teachers’ report, “Teaching Reading IS Rocket Science,” what may on the surface seem relatively simple turns out to be complex. Therefore, professional development focused on these concepts is essential.

Whereas, in the past, beginning reading and writing instruction vacillated between phonics and whole language approaches largely based on the beliefs of educators and the pronouncements of gurus, the findings of the Committee for the Prevention of Reading Difficulties in Young Children and the National Reading Panel provide clear direction concerning how reading and writing should be taught in the early years.

The evidence is now in: The most effective approaches involve phonemic awareness training and systematic, sequential phonics instruction in kindergarten and 1st grade. However, effective ways exist to teach these components, and the findings should not be interpreted as a signal to return to the old phonics approaches of 20 to 30 years ago.

Some recently developed teaching strategies are more consistent with current views of how children learn. Both teachers and students find the newer approaches more stimulating and creative than the old-fashioned ones involving drill and worksheets.

As well, it is important to underscore the place of phonics in a beginning literacy program. Systematic phonics instruction by itself does not help students acquire all the processes they need to become successful readers and writers. It needs to be combined with other essential instructional components to create a complete and balanced program.

By emphasizing all of the processes that contribute to literacy growth, teachers will have the best chance of making their students readers and writers. A number of excellent sources such as “Every Child Reading: A Professional Development Guide” can help school administrators put these research findings into practice through professional development. (See resource list.)

Theory into Practice

Five years ago, administrators in the Bluewater School District in Ontario, Canada, were concerned about the low literacy levels of many students. They launched an initiative to raise reading and writing achievement levels across the entire school district through staff development.

The launching of a literacy initiative in Bluewater coincided not only with significant advances concerning how children learn to read and write and how they can best be taught, but also with a movement toward professional development of teachers and school administrators as the key to literacy success in schools. Thus, the project was timely and was guided by current evidence concerning what teachers of reading should know and be able to do, as outlined in the American Federation of Teachers’ report.
The professional development sessions were designed to provide the theoretical and practical content teachers need to implement balanced and effective literacy programs in their classrooms. Educators who had previously thought of learning to read and write as a natural process, like learning to talk, came to understand that the written language is an invention. To develop successful readers and writers, teachers must instruct children in how the alphabetic system works. To improve their primary literacy programs they have to teach phonemic awareness and systematic, sequential phonics, along with other essential instructional components such as vocabulary development, fluency, reading comprehension and written composition.

However, research-based content is not enough to ensure effective change in literacy programs. The process used to facilitate the change is at least as important as the content in promoting lasting improvement in literacy education.

The Literacy Diet

As school administrators are well aware, change does not happen overnight. Rather, it is a gradual process that has definable stages.

For professional development to be effective in promoting real, lasting change in schools, the process also needs to involve ongoing, sustained professional development. Frequent in-school meetings and teacher support groups encourage implementation and promote teacher self-efficacy.

Professional development should be offered in a variety of ways based on needs and should be guided by ongoing assessment and a theory-demonstration-practice-feedback-coaching cycle that includes followup and maintenance to ensure lasting benefits.

The literacy initiative in the Bluewater district combined these general principles for implementing change with specific considerations affecting literacy programs in elementary schools. The framework that guided the districtwide professional development was one I first used in smaller-scale initiatives.

One of the greatest challenges of providing professional development opportunities for school teams is providing meaningful content and instruction for each member of the group, given their wide range of background knowledge and experience.

Another challenge is preventing the professional development activities from becoming mired in the emotional debate between phonics and whole language advocates. For decades, this debate has been sustained by rhetoric and polarized language. To avoid this problem, I embedded the professional development in a common-sense framework, involving novel terminology.

This framework, which I call “The Balanced and Flexible Literacy Diet: Putting Theory Into Practice,” draws on familiar food pyramid concepts to help educators understand the need to include all key components in their literacy programs to ensure students’ growth in literacy. It also helps them see why some components such as phonemic awareness and phonics instruction are especially important early on—analogous to young children’s need for calcium when their bones are growing.

Other literacy diet components, such as the building of vocabulary and fluency and the development of comprehension and composition strategies, gain importance at later stages of literacy development. Through the use of the literacy diet metaphor, teachers begin to think in terms of children’s literacy nutrition. Other concepts logically follow.

For example, literacy activities representing the key literacy component food groups are required on a daily basis. A variety of activities can address each component and interesting activities often combine several components. Some individuals have special literacy diet needs. Balance is the key to good growth in literacy, and flexibility is necessary to satisfy personal preferences. Good teachers use approaches that are both effective and motivating.

We focused the professional development on raising all participants’ breadth and depth of knowledge about literacy learning. Emphasis was on (1) promoting understanding of the essential research-based components for growth in literacy; (2) providing practical strategies for balanced, nutritious and appealing literacy programs; (3) adjusting the balance in order to move children through the stages of literacy development; (4) planning programs and managing time in classrooms to ensure as much literacy nutrition as possible for every child every day; (5) assessing students’ growth in literacy and monitoring classroom practices to guide the change process; and (6) understanding the nature of reading and writing difficulties in order to adjust the literacy diet balance to meet special literacy nutritional needs.

Presenting information within the context of The Literacy Diet framework helped break old habits and open minds to new information about literacy education. Discussions focused on balance, flexibility and literacy nutrition instead of debate, slogans and simplistic solutions. (To learn more about The Literacy Diet principles, visit the website of the New Mexico Reading Initiative at reta.nmsu.edu/reading/willows/index.html.)

The Infrastructure

When I first began using systematic professional development in schools, I assumed that because I was well-versed in what theory and research had to say about the content required for successful literacy programs in schools and because I had the practical knowledge of how to apply the theory—what programs to include and how to teach it—the rest would follow.

Practical knowledge has helped. But just as essential was the fact I was not working alone. As part of a team I had the benefit of working with several outstanding change experts, including superintendents and principals, who knew how to bring about change in schools.

Since this first venture, I have helped change school literacy programs in several large school districts and now understand the pivotal role of school administrators who combine wisdom, far-sightedness, commitment and passion with a deep understanding of the complexity of the school context and the difficult process of implementing change in schools.

The content and process of the professional development must be supported by an infrastructure that combines a well-articulated but flexible plan; long-term commitment with sufficient funding; realistic and practical goals for change; the involvement of everyone who affects student learning; adequate time during school hours for professional development; alignment of all aspects of curriculum and assessment; and the contribution of experts both inside and outside the district.

The change process in the Bluewater School District, with its 23,900 students, has been guided and nurtured by a superintendent of elementary education, who, working closely with several administrative colleagues, inspired educators districtwide to want to learn and grow so they could lead their students to higher levels of literacy.

In the beginning, obtaining buy-in was not easy. Now, principals and teachers are asking to speed up the process and involve teachers at higher grades levels. As we enter our fifth school year, we see this experiment in literacy-related professional development has worked. Reading scores are now at or above the norms and school administrators, principals and teachers are working together to maintain and improve their already successful literacy programs.

Moving beyond the great debate and implementing balanced, motivating and effective reading and writing programs in the primary grades. The content, process and context outlined here have been essential features in the successes in Bluewater.

Across different settings the details of successful professional development initiatives differ somewhat, but the common thread has been a strong school administrator with vision and drive who respects and inspires principals and teachers and who cares deeply about children.

Dale Willows is a professor of human development and applied psychology at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, 252 Bloor St., Toronto, Ontario M5S 1V6. E-mail: dwillows@oise.utoronto.ca. She is a member of the National Reading Panel, a nonpartisan group appointed by Congress.