Reading to and with students is a vital part of balanced literacy.

Balanced Literacy Instruction: What It Actually Means

The term “balanced literacy instruction” is a grossly misinterpreted and misrepresented one lately.  Social media is spreading these wrong messages like wildfire–so I’d like to clarify what this term truly means.

The word “balanced” is the key.

To be balanced in your literacy practices, it means so many things are present:

  1. Whole group lessons
  2. Small group instruction (including 1:1)
  3. Phonics 
  4. Phonological awareness work, depending on grade level and need
  5. Comprehension work 
  6. Narrative and nonfiction texts
  7. Reading
  8. Authentic texts that build knowledge, joy for reading, and reading identity
  9. Writing (lots of writing), for real purposes, cycling through the writing process often
  10. Speaking 
  11. Listening
  12. Direct teaching 
  13. Independent practice
  14. Gradual release of responsibility 
  15. Interactive read aloud
  16. Shared Writing
  17.  Interactive Writing 
  18. Shared reading 
  19. Grammar instruction
  20. Conventions and sentence structure instruction

All of these practices work together to help students learn more deeply and equip them to apply their growing skills authentically to their own reading and writing.  All of the strands of Scarborough’s Reading Rope as well as Duke and Cartwright’s stronger, more current Active View of Reading are represented and woven through the various components of instruction.

Those components of balanced literacy include:

  • shared reading and writing
  • interactive writing
  • interactive read aloud
  • phonics and word study
  • grammar
  • independent reading
  • independent writing 

This kind of intentional instruction embeds literacy skills in multiple ways all across the day (and across weeks). Reading and writing are taught in an integrated and meaningful way, rather than as disjointed skills in isolation.  It takes intentional planning, but everything is purposeful.  


Balanced literacy leads to deep learning.

Teachers who implement a true balanced literacy framework understand the reciprocal nature of reading and writing. Both are very important aspects of instruction.  You cannot have one without the other–they are both necessary, and support each other.  

Jan Burkins and Kari Yates, authors of the excellent book Shifting the Balance, share a quote from Jane Kise, longtime instructional coach, on their blog.  What Kise says applies well to the whole balanced literacy vs structured phonics argument in the world of literacy instruction today.  She says “polarities require thoughtful leaders to look both ways at once,” through “both-and“ thinking and describes the “dangers of looking only one way.”

Looking only one way, something that’s happening more and more across social media outlets, will cause us to neglect critical components of instruction and in turn, hurt our kids. 

If any component is missing, or if any of the rope strands are not included, then it is not balanced literacy.  It’s imbalanced literacy.

This is an issue caused not by the balanced literacy model, but by not enough teacher training. Because of this, much misunderstanding has resulted.  Louisa Moats, on the opening page of her structured phonics LETRS training, says it best:  

“Informed teachers are our best insurance against reading failure.  While programs are very helpful tools, programs don’t teach; teachers do.”  

Moats, L. (2019) LETERS, vol. 1. .Dallas, TX: Voyager Sopris Learning.

(Ironic that Moats, author of the ubiquitous LETRS program being mandated across the country, says this, but that’s a topic for another day).  She is absolutely right–it’s important that teachers know and understand what strong literacy instruction entails in order to provide the instruction students need.  

The elephant in the room: where DID phonics instruction go?

I have no idea why phonics instruction seems to have disappeared in the last couple of decades, or why it’s missing from so many classrooms.   Every time I’ve had the opportunity to be among a group of educators in the past couple of years at trainings and conferences, I’ve done some informal polling. 

What I’ve found is that it seems that around the year 2000, universities started to neglect teaching phonics to soon-to-be teachers.  Most definitely, my informal polling shows a pattern that,  by 2005, it became pretty much nonexistent.   This was not my experience in college at all, so I find it baffling, especially given the preponderance of research since that time around the brain and how humans learn to read.  


Teachers who go through college prep programs that lack phonics training, and then go on to teach in schools that also lack phonics training, are left with a big missing piece to literacy instruction, through no fault of their own.  I really blame universities for dropping the ball on this, especially considering how surrounded by educational research they are.   They ought to be the bridge from theory to practice for all educators, and they’ve dropped the ball.

So it’s up to us to learn about what makes strong literacy instruction.  I, for one, will always support a balanced literacy model of instruction.    Not one kind of instruction over another . Not one-size-fits-all. But a truly balanced literacy model that is responsive to students’ needs.

Looking for a big-picture understanding of what balanced literacy instruction really is? I cannot recommend Fisher, Frey, and Akhavan’s book, This is Balanced Literacy enough.  It’s a fast read and gives an excellent overview of what balanced literacy should encompass in a very easy to understand way.

Rather than just listen to the back and forth happening across social media, let’s approach our instruction with a “both and” mindset. Our kids need this balanced approach to literacy instruction if they’re to become strong readers, writers, and thinkers.

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Related posts:   Lesson Planning Tips That Help You Do More, Better [In Less Time], Getting to Know Your Readers and Writers to Save Time Later, Why You Need to Do Shared and Interactive Writing, MSV Explained and Why It’s So Misunderstood, What SOR Tells Us Good Readers Do That’s Completely Wrong   

Looking for how to integrate the various components of balanced literacy for big bang for your buck teaching? Contact me to set up a coaching call, so we can think it through together!   And,  join my private FB group for immediate, ongoing support!

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