Unbalanced Comments on Balanced Literacy

  • 31 October, 2014

Blast from the Past: This blog first posted October 31, 2014; and was reposted on May 9, 2018. Over past week or, I've been hearing a lot of grumbling about and a lot of promotion of balanced literacy. Here's a reminder of my thinking on the matter. I hope it is a good reminder of why it is important to place kids' needs above teacher desire. 

Want to win an argument about literacy? Just claim your approach is “balanced.” 

Balanced is an affirmative term… That’s why Fox-News claims to be “fair and balanced.” It not only makes your position sound reasonable, but implies your opponents may be a bit off, you know, imbalanced.

It is not too surprising that school principals and district literacy leaders often tout their reading programs as balanced.

“Balanced literacy” sounds great, but what does it mean? What is being balanced?

A few weeks ago, I responded here to some arguments about reading instruction that had appeared on the Washington Post website. One of the participants in that argument, a school principal I believe, was arguing that balanced literacy referred to the balancing of text difficulty. 

I’ve heard balanced literacy promoted as a balance of textbooks and trade books, reading and writing, phonics and comprehension, motivation and teaching, and several other pairings, but challenging and easy text was a new one on me. 

That’s one of the cool things about balance… you can tailor what is being balanced to your audience. If you’re meeting with the NAACP, you can tell them that you have a “balanced literacy” program, and when they ask what that is, you can look down your nose and answer (as if everybody knows), “it means that we balance the literature selections by White and Black authors.” They’ll love it. 

The same ploy will probably work at the NOW convention.

And, Common Core? It asks for 50-50 coverage of literature and informational text. So CCSS is a set of “balanced literacy standards.” Oh me, oh my.

The term “balanced literacy” was coined by the late Michael Pressley. He even published a book on it, during the “reading wars.” Michael was a proponent of phonics (he was an author of the Open Court reading series at the time), but he wanted to heal the great divide between people like him and Whole Language advocates. His felt that we needed to balance the demands of the two groups.

He supported the explicit teaching of decoding but believed the Whole Language folks were right when it came to motivation. He took it that Whole Language was all about or mainly about getting kids interested in reading.

He didn’t see balanced literacy as simply a political compromise between two warring camps, but as an acknowledgement about what each group had right. He himself had conducted observational studies in high success classrooms and was amazed at how motivational the teachers were (Michael, a psychologist who had never taught children or spent much time in classrooms before this, so his amazement is understandable).

Of course, Whole Language advocates didn’t love this compromise at the time—let’s face it, they saw their position as being more than the dessert after the vegetables. And, many of my explicit teaching colleagues still see it as a way of avoiding sufficient amounts of explicit teaching. 

I’m probably more in the camp of the basic skills folks than the whole language ones, but not rabidly so. One school I know adopted my literacy framework (2 hours of literacy instruction each day divided equally among word knowledge, fluency, reading comprehension, and writing), but then added an extra 30 minutes dedicated to motivating kids to be lifelong readers. This included time for teacher reading to kids, student self-selection, book clubs, and other activities and discussions aimed at promoting literacy.

I had no problem with that, but I don’t see it as balanced. The two hours of explicit instruction and guided practice is supported by research and has been found to benefit kids. The motivational efforts, whether good or bad, are on thin ice when it comes to evidence that they work. I accepted that compromise as reasonable because it didn’t interfere with a heavy dose of effective teaching. Too often it does. 

Unfortunately, “balance” these days tends to mean a minimum of substantial systematic explicit instruction in phonological awareness, phonics, vocabulary, spelling, handwriting, oral reading fluency, reading comprehension, or writing. Studies show convincingly that explicit teaching of these things is beneficial in moving kids forward in literacy learning and the idea of balancing these essentials against anything else just because someone likes whatever else may be is irksome.  

It’s time that we retire “balanced literacy,” focusing less on ideological and rhetorical gamesmanship and more on what has been found to actually help kids to become better readers.



See what others have to say about this topic.

Eric Brace Jun 13, 2017 06:40 PM


Dear Timothy,

Thank you for the article. I found it illuminated and clarified the abuse of the concept of balanced literacy.

That said, I have found your literacy program as an example of a balanced program:
-- focus on core, foundational skills
-- establishing meaningful reading, writing and speaking routines
-- encouraging authentic and disciplinary literacy practices.

Therefore, I still feel a need to use the term Balanced Literacy, since it call upon teachers to orchestrate the different dimensions of literacy in a way that Chall described as combined the structured, developmental approach with creativity and challenge.

(For background, some of my thoughts can be found:
-- here: http://wittgenstein-on-learning.com/instructional-framework/
-- here: http://wittgenstein-on-learning.com/balanced-teaching/)
-- here: http://wittgenstein-on-learning.com/all-seasons/

Reading I have found interesting are below. One is yours.
-- Au, K (2002). Balanced Literacy Instruction: Addressing Issues of Equity. In C. M. Roller (Ed.), Comprehensive Reading Instruction Across the Grade Levels: A Collection of Papers from the Reading Research 2001 Conference (pp. 70–87). International Reading Association.
-- Shanahan, T. (2008). Literacy across the Lifespan: What Works?. Community Literacy Journal, 3(1), 3-20.

Kind regards,

Eric Brace

Dale Webster May 09, 2018 11:46 PM

Thanks Tim! As usual you are (and were back in 2014) spot on! I like the term that we adopted in California in 1996. Balanced, comprehensive reading/language arts program. That term "balanced" has been a hot button issue since then. The word comprehensive tries to communicate not leaving anything out. We replay the same rhetoric over and over and over and over.

Karin Chenoweth May 10, 2018 10:41 AM

Anecdote you will appreciate: I once sat through a master's degree class for teachers, conducted by a professor at a local university, who was talking about balanced literacy. And finally she said, in a conspiratorial undertone, "We say balanced literacy because we're not allowed to use the term whole language any more."

Cat DeCata May 10, 2018 10:05 PM

Where can I find more info on your literacy framework?

Jennifer Walton May 13, 2018 01:12 PM

I have been a teacher for 10 years now in middle school and 4th grade. I moved down to 1st grade this past year and learned much about the foundations in reading. I am now switching to reading intervention this next year, so I’ve been reading to learn how best to help struggling students. My question: If we level ELs as emerging, expanding, and bridging, why don’t we do the same in reading, working to move them to the next level as quickly as possible with high expectations and complex text as we do in ELD? Truly wanting to know how best to help my students feel successful because I had a 7th grader tell me in my first year of teaching that he couldn’t read the science text, so he couldn’t do the work. My heart broke for him.

What Are your thoughts?

Leave me a comment and I would like to have a discussion with you!

Comment *

Unbalanced Comments on Balanced Literacy


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

He studies reading and writing across all ages and abilities. Feel free to contact him.