Balanced Literacy

Balanced literacy is a theory based on the idea that there are many different learning styles for children who are learning to read. There are many different teaching methods that are effective ways for teaching reading, but alone they do not always deliver for every student. With the variety of learning styles that the students bring into the classroom it is impossible to suggest that one method of teaching would effectively teach each student how to be a good reader. The balanced reading approach bases itself on the idea that a combination of teaching methods used together will teach a greater range of students more effectively.

Lev Vygotsky, a psychologist who focused on cognitive development, viewed learning as being integrated and socially based. This view of learning follows suit with the balanced literacy approach as it focuses on learning to read as a social activity, an integrated activity that requires students to read, write, listen, and speak, and requires engagement in classroom activities. All of these ideas from Vygotsky are found in balanced instruction. Students interact in small groups, integrate the different pieces of reading as listed above, and engage in activities that allow students to interactively learn to read. (Wilkinson, 2000)

Obviously, a major piece of balanced literacy is the instructional techniques. “While many teachers in today’s schools are mandated to use prescriptive basal reading programs … a teacher should know much more to become an effective instructor of reading.” (Bukowiecki, 2007) There is more than one way to teach reading to students, and the diversity and variety in the lessons can help students with all types of learning styles and needs learn to be effective readers. Before the instructional techniques can be described there is a critical theory behind reading instruction that needs to be addressed and understood, that theory is the five big ideas of reading.

The five big ideas are the backbone of reading instruction. “The National Reading Panel published its research results and recommendations in a report … this national report presented five key literacy topics – phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and text comprehension – that should be included in daily literacy instruction” (Bukowiecki, 2007) These five ideas are the individual pieces that teachers need to focus on to promote good readers. “Big ideas are fundamental concepts and principles that help students gain the broadest knowledge within an academic area, such as beginning reading, most efficiently.” (Coyne, 2006)

Balanced literacy bases much of its success in the classroom to the five big ideas. “Big ideas focus attention on the most relevant aspects of reading instruction. They also function as anchoring concepts within which ‘small’ ideas can often be taught and understood.” (Coyne, 2006) Through a balance of teaching methods all students are able to actively participate and learn in the classroom lessons, especially at risk students who are struggling with their reading. “Teachers working with at-risk students or students who are experiencing reading difficulties can use the five big ideas as a strategic focus for instruction and intervention because these ideas target critical areas in beginning reading.” (Coyne, 2006)

There are many instructional techniques that can effectively teach the five big ideas and develop excellent readers. The first, and probably the most used in reading specialist classrooms, is the basal reading approach. This approach can be seen in classrooms where teachers do reading activities in small groups and in a specified area of the classroom. The basal approach is “based on the assumption that students learn to read by reading, writing, and talking about meaningful topics.” (Vacca, 2006) Many different genres of literature are able to be covered through expository and narrative texts. This approach is eclectic and follows suit with the bottom-up approach because it “presents skills to be taught in a sequence, or an interactive program, featuring unedited children’s literature selections, strategy instruction, and writing opportunities.” (Vacca, 2006)

Another approach to reading instruction is the language experience approach. This approach combines many different approaches, which is obviously a characteristic of balanced literacy. This strategy is “based on the idea that language should be used to communicate thoughts, ideas, and meaning.” (Vacca, 2006) A great example of this approach is story dictation. Students are able to create lessons using their own language. Other popular pieces of the language experience approach include, “planned and continuous activities such as individual and group dictated stories, the building of word banks of known words, creative writing activities, oral reading of prose and poetry by teacher and students, directed reading-thinking lessons, the investigation of interests using multiple materials, and keeping records of student progress.” (Vacca, 2006)

The next type of instruction is integrated language arts. This method “extends the concept of language experience by immersing students in reading, writing, talking, listening, and viewing activities.” (Vacca, 2006) Each of those topics listed in the previous quote should be taught together, rather than as isolated and separate commodities. Students grow by connecting with the combination of imaginative and informative literature. The most important aspect of integrating language arts is “so that students will learn how to use language to think clearly, strategically, critically, and creatively.” (Vacca, 2006)

Literature based instruction is the next instructional technique to be discussed. This method accommodates the differences in student’s reading abilities while focusing on the meaning, interest, and pleasure of reading. “An important part of classroom life should be reading, reading literature that makes children wonder, weep, laugh, shiver, and gasp.” (Vacca, 2006) When students are thoroughly enjoying the material that they are reading they can fully immerse themselves into reading. The students, when using this method, choose their own books which personalizes reading and ensures that they are reading high interest materials. A good strategy used under this theory is based on the idea that “literature can be used as a springboard for writing – children can write different endings for stories or incidents in their own lives that reflect conflicts similar to ones about which they have read.” (Vacca, 2006) Another extension of this technique is to allow students to use the same structure of an existing story and write their own following that structure. Students are able to feel control over their learning while advancing their reading and writing abilities.

The final instructional technique to be discussed is technology based instruction. With the changes in technology it should be no surprise that computers and the internet have changed the way that people read and write. Emails are a great tool that students can use to practice reading and writing. The invention of the CD-ROM also created an engaging way for students to practice their reading skills. In the classroom items such as smart boards, electromagnetic LCD pen monitors, and web-cams are changing the way that reading is taught. Word processors are a fun way for students to create texts and practice reading and writing. (Vacca, 2006)

All of these approaches that were pointed out can be used together in the balanced literacy approach to ensure that students are getting everything that they can from the reading lessons. The balance of strategies such as these discussed has been proven to be effective in the classroom. “A clear knowledge of comprehension strategies combined with an awareness of when and how to use them can provide readers … with an arsenal of tactics to ensure that they construct meaning as they read” (Vacca, 2006) As good as the balanced approach is for students, the downside is that it is quite difficult for teachers.

The balanced approach to teaching could be somewhat overwhelming for new teachers because it requires them to utilize different methods to teach the material. There is a great debate going on about how well teachers are being educated in reading instruction. In an article that surveyed teachers to find education patterns came to a simple conclusion that relates to the balanced approach. “Clearly there was a consensus that an effective preservice reading education would include balanced, practical methodologies across a number of reading related courses supplemented by multiple field experience opportunities.” (Broemmel, 2006) This conclusion illustrates the idea that balance is necessary even for instructing adult teachers because it creates a diverse experience that everyone can benefit from.

Balanced literacy creates a diverse and eclectic approach to teaching learning. It utilizes numerous methods to include every student and promote effective and efficient readers by touching on the different learning styles. From struggling readers to advanced readers, all are able to benefit from the balanced literacy approach.


Broemmel, Amy D (2006).No teacher left behind: valuing teacher voice in elementary reading teacher education reform. Reading Research and Instruction. 46, 53.

Bukowiecki, Elaine M (2007).Teaching children how to READ. Kappa Delta Pi Record. 43, 58.

Coyne, Michael D (2006).Beginning reading instruction for students at risk for reading disabilities. Intervention in School and Clinic. 41, 161.

Vacca, J, Vacca, R, Gove, M, Burkey, L, Lenhart, L, & McKeon, C (2006). Reading and learning to read. Boston: Pearson Publishing.

Wilkinson, Louise (2000).Classroom language and literacy learning. Handbook of Reading Research. 3.

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