The Swiss Army Knife of Effective Literacy Instruction

Social media is FILLED with polarization regarding effective literacy instruction.  It’s filled with shame and blame.  It makes you feel terrible–and confused.  And a lot of it is grounded in misinterpretation (and cherry picking) of research.  It seems that now, any time someone has a question about a child’s reading, the one and only answer is “more phonics.”  While that could truly be the issue, it’s not always.  And as kids get older, it’s usually not the issue.  Students beyond 3rd grade are sorely overlooked in this whole ongoing back and forth.  As Duke and Cartwright explain in their Active View of Reading, which is the most up-to-date version of what readers need to have control of in order to be successful, reading is very multi-faceted. 

And that means our instruction needs to be multi-faceted as well.  We must teach in a Swiss-Army knife kind of way.  As expert Tim Shanahan reminds us, there’s no “one way” to teach reading.  It’s all about the skill level and knowledge of the teacher, and how they orchestrate the learning.  

What is the Swiss Army Knife of Effective Literacy Instruction?

As I was cooking dinner the other night, I pulled out my trusty white oval Corningware dish.  I have had it for over 20 years–it was a gift at my wedding shower.  And I use it ALL.  THE.   TIME.  It works for so many things.  It’s been my Swiss-Army knife of cookware for over two decades.  Does it work for everything?  No.  I can’t make cookies or cheesecake with it.  For that, I must have specialized bakeware.  I can’t use it for stir-fry.  That requires a skillet.  Can’t use it for a large turkey, either.  That would require a similarly shaped but much larger pan.  For these needs, the humble white Corningware just won’t work, and I have to turn to other tools.   But I do turn to it more than any piece of cookware in my kitchen, as it’s by far the most versatile piece I own.   

Why am I talking about cookware in an effective literacy instruction blog?  

Because as I thought about how much I rely on it, and how well it works, I thought about Balanced Literacy, and how I have always relied on it, too.  Balanced Literacy truly is the Swiss-Army knife of instruction.  It includes all the components that make for strong instruction…when orchestrated effectively.

What falls under the umbrella term of Balanced Literacy?  Lots of instructional tools:

Tool #1:  Interactive Read Alouds

I rely heavily on leveraging interactive read alouds for so many lessons.  Not only can almost everything be taught using read alouds, but they are one of the best ways to build vocabulary and background knowledge.   And, bonus–this is a perfect way to build text sets to integrate content studies for deeper and more efficient learning, something that Shanahan fully supports.  Read alouds also help to instill a joy of reading that is of utmost importance.

Tool #2:  Word Study

Word study (foundational, as in phonics, as well as vocabulary) is critically important, and I have seen the power of shared and interactive writing, in my students’ own work.  This, especially, is where discrete skill work, like phonics, grammar, sentence formation, and conventions are heavily taught and/or reinforced.

Tool #3:  Shared Reading

Shared reading is a beautiful way to engage our youngest learners and provide support for them as readers so that they can take on the work for themselves.   It’s also a fantastic way to pull back the curtain of thinking so our older students can learn how to tackle complex texts that lead to deeper comprehension.  

Tool #4:  Independent Reading and Writing

It will always be critically important to me that students have ample time to apply these literacy lessons independently.  It’s the key to determining if your literacy instruction was effective…or not. I have witnessed for over two decades the growth that happens when conferring and targeted small group instruction are used effectively.  This is where the greatest amount of differentiation takes place, so that every child gets what they need.  And this is the thing–especially in writing–that’s most absent in the push for structured literacy programs.

All of these components (and several more) are what make up Balanced Literacy.  While different resources will tell you slightly different things, it’s safe to say that, without a doubt, Balanced Literacy includes all the important components of instruction.  It also employs the gradual release model, a model that has proven for decades to be effective.  

Then there’s the social media version.

Social media will have you believe that Balanced Literacy is the devil.  And for sure, there are teachers over the years that have missed some key elements of instruction, causing big learning gaps.  I’ve said it many times before and I’ll say it again.  I have no idea when or why foundational skills like phonemic awareness and phonics began to be neglected–this has always been an important part of Balanced Literacy.  

But there’s certainly no single silver bullet.  

How do you know which tool to use?  

Just like I can’t use my Corningware for every single thing I make in the kitchen, we have to include some supplemental things to our instruction.  Knowing where your kids are is the critical component here.  Gathering data about your students as readers and writers so that you know what tools you need is the secret sauce.  

Engagement is key–where are your kids here?  Engagement inventories, observation, interviews, and 1:1 conferences will tell you a lot.  If kids aren’t engaged, they aren’t going to go far in their learning.  This is why it’s at the very top of Jennifer Serravallo’s hierarchy, and why Pernille Ripp devotes so much of her incredible work to this very topic.  

And it won’t likely be fixed with more phonics.  

Questions to ask to determine where kids struggle, beyond engagement…and phonics

Are students able to comprehend what they’re reading?  There could be a multitude of reasons for this–phonics could be the key, but certainly not always.  Sometimes it’s a fluency issue, sometimes it’s vocabulary, and sometimes it’s inability to visualize.  Or it’s something else entirely.  

Can your students generate ideas as a writer?  Can they move through the writing process with confidence?  Again, if not, phonics could be a part of this, but it could be so much bigger.  

Phonemic and phonological awareness are important, for sure.  You can in fact learn a lot about this from simply examining their writing.  But it’s not the silver bullet.  If it were, we’d have been teaching only phonics all the time, as social media would have you believe is the right way, for the past 5 decades. 

It’s just not that simple.  

The tools you need in your toolbox for effective literacy instruction

In order to know what tools you need to use as a teacher, you have to determine what your student data tells you.   One of the most concise definitions of what Balanced Literacy should be is from Fisher, Frey, and Akhavan, in their book This is Balanced Literacy.  They advocate for striking a balance between discrete skill work and comprehension instruction in order to help students become strong, independent readers and writers.  Knowing what’s needed is all about knowing your kids.

“Through balance, we don’t expect students to learn in the same ways, and we don’t expect them to be successful in the same ways.  By understanding our students’ needs we–all of us–can appropriately plan lessons that highlight multiple ways of knowing.”  

-Fisher, Frey, & Akhavan

Social media will have you believe that skill and drill phonics instruction is the only way to go. (I’ve even seen people pushing this for high schoolers!) But this will inevitably–and quickly–lead to huge gaps in other areas.  

Which brings me to…

What happened too many times with teachers who thought they were teaching Balanced Literacy was that important aspects of literacy instruction were neglected.  This is definitely a big problem, and it’s had big ramifications, to be sure. By definition, these teachers were not teaching Balanced Literacy as it was intended if they left out the foundational skills in reading and writing.

But focusing too heavily on phonics is also going to have a massive detrimental impact on literacy outcomes for students.  Engagement will decline, comprehension will be greatly diminished, and we will not develop capable, independent readers and writers who can think critically.  

Why “Balanced Literacy” has led to gaps

Teaching mostly phonics is akin to relying on a cheesecake pan to do all your cooking.  A cheesecake pan has its important place that no other cookware can do, and it’s a must for every well-rounded kitchen, but it’s not flexible enough.  We need a teaching approach that can be used in many ways, like my Corningware, that can always be relied upon.  It’s an indispensable multi-use piece of cookware that does so much.  

Of course, you’ll still need a skillet, cheesecake pan, or roasting pan.  You can’t do it all with only Corningware.   But if you start with the most versatile thing and use it very effectively, you won’t need to add too many extra tools.  

Effective literacy instruction is never one-size-fits-all.  If it purports to be, know that it’s going to create massive gaps.  

The only way to truly meet students’ needs is to know your students and to be as skilled and as knowledgeable as you can be in order to know what tools you need to weave together to ensure strong instruction.  Study.  Learn.  Grow.  Through avenues like wide reading (a great starting place would be Marzano’s book, Becoming a Reflective Teacher), reputable podcasts, seminars, classes, and working with your coach.   Social media has a lot of great activity ideas , but strong opinions and polarity will primarily abound. There, you’ll find a lot of cheesecake pan sales and not much else.  

Opinions won’t move the needle for your kids.   Only great teaching will.  And to get there takes learning, effort, thought, and intention.   

Because in teaching, silver bullets just don’t exist.

If you could use a partner in making sure your instruction is strong and efficient for YOUR students, please reach out!  My entire mission is to help educators do just that–keeping all the research in mind, not just parts of it.  I’m available for virtual coaching calls and for immediate advice in my private Facebook group.  I’m here to support you!

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  1. Janet

    Timothy Shanahan doesn’t say in his post that we don’t need to teach systematic, explicit phonics, and I don’t think he would. That part reading instructions is essential for about 60% of students.

    1. Absolutely! He would definitely agree it’s needed. So important that teachers know how key it is to include within a whole literacy day.

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