Balanced Literacy


Balanced Literacy can be defined as an all-round system of teaching language whose goal is to ensure that the learners gain adequate skills in the area of spoken as well as written communication. Conventional teaching methods and syllabi often lay emphasis on the course content whereby what a teacher teaches is considered to be most important. With balanced literacy however, the most important element about the teaching is how the instructor carries out his or her teaching duty (Diamond et al, 2007).

Balanced literacy as a concept originated from a realization across the educational fraternity regarding the inadequacy of existing teaching methods in equipping learners with skills relevant to their understanding of existing literature. It became important to instil in the learners a genuine appreciation for quality literature. The specific areas that are emphasized in balanced literacy programs are actions that the learners will engage in voluntarily or involuntarily during the course of teaching (Hinkel, 2006).

These are listening, speaking, reading, writing and also viewing. On the part of instructors, it became imperative that they had to include in their teaching lessons on grammar skills, comprehension strategies, phonics, reading and also writing as individual and specific skills which would ultimately combined by the learners and therefore boost their literary experience. At the same time, the teachers also saw a need to provide their students with experiences through instructions on indirect reading, direct reading, shared reading and also the independent kind of reading.  As a result of this, a prerequisite for success in balanced literacy is the presence of a teacher who is in touch with the students in such a manner that he or she is well aware of their individual needs and possible challenges in their learning (Diamond et al, 2007).

As mentioned in the introductory section, teachers participating in balanced literacy programs are obliged to employ strategies focused on five major areas. These are listening, speaking, reading, writing and viewing. Each of these strategies needs to be analysed in detail so as to paint a clearer picture concerning their relevance to a balanced literacy program (Kellogg, 2008).

Strategies for Developing Listening Skills in learners

Listening is a fundamental skill necessary for a student to have a meaningful understanding of literature he or she will come across in the course of studying.. Three of these will be discussed below and they are the top-down strategy, the bottom-up approach and also metacognitive strategies (Diamond et al, 2007).

Top-down Listening Strategies

Specific examples applied here include listening in wait for the key idea or concept, drawing inference on the topic being discussed, summarizing the matter and also prediction (Nunan, 2002; Kellogg, 2008).

Bottom-Up Listening Strategies

Specific strategies that are used in bottom-up listening include listening to the passage for particular information pertaining to the topic, the listener’s act of recognizing word-order patterns and thirdly recognition and identification of cognates (Nunan, 2002; Hinkel, 2006).

Metacognitive Strategies

An example of the application of metacognition is when a learner is asked to present an idea by combining his thoughts with what has just been read (Veenman et al, 2006).

In Vandergrift, L., & Tafaghodtar’s (2010) empirical study on the effects of teaching children how to listen, it was established that Metacognitive, top down and bottom up approaches all have a positive impact on children’s ability to understand and therefore speak the different languages they are taught. This was established following an empirical study on just what happens to a child’s spoken vocabulary when they have been taught how to listen.

Speaking Skills

The ultimate measure of an individual’s understanding of a language is through speech and one’s level of fluency in the same. Teachers can employ strategies such as the use of minimal responses, the recognition of scripts and also the use of a language to discuss language (McMillan and Schumacher, 2010). The most common way of teaching speech is by the learners reading out aloud things that are on a chart, the board and also text books (Cohen, 1996).

The Use of Minimal Responses to Teach Speech

Many learners who are uncertain of their grasp of the language will shy off from engaging in the conversations and this means participation in class has an even slimmer chance of taking place. Since it is hard for them to talk the language, the teacher can encourage their participation in the class by giving them opportunities to provide minimal responses to questions. These may be greetings, and also the expression of affirmation, doubt or otherwise. The importance of these responses is that they gradually accumulate in the learner’s vocabulary thus building up their confidence slowly but surely. Soon they may graduate to initiating the conversations and asking questions (Hart, 1975).

Recognition of scripts

By encouraging students to participate in different script scenarios, the instructors helps build their awareness on various situations and the ways in which speech will be applied (Harper, 1998; Hinkel, 2006). A conventional way of doing this is through printed examples that are readily available in text books where the learners read through a dialogue with different students reading for different characters in the conversation.

The Use of Language to talk about Language

The instructor can then teach them how to use the different forms of clarification such as ‘pardon me.. or did you mean…’ (Richards, 2001). The teacher should then respond favourably to the learner’s queries thus boosting their confidence in seeking to understand the language better. This will help student to cope better in conversation scenarios (Afflerbach et al, 2008).

Practical speech lessons initiated by the teachers are very helpful in motivating learners to keep practising at their own time (Guilloteaux, and Dörnyei, 2008).

Reading Skills in balanced Literature Education

Reading skills are extremely important to any learner since this is the most commonly used skill in the acquisition of knowledge in the course of one’s learning. It can however prove to be troublesome if the learner has limited knowledge on the subject or limited confidence resulting from the teaching language being the learner’s second language. Such learners tend to read very slowly, paying too much attention to each word and quite regularly looking up new vocabularies on a dictionary or some other translation mechanism. This is typically a bottom up approach and it is quite time intensive and even wasteful in many instances (Hinkel, 2006).

The onus at this juncture is then upon the student’s language teacher to work towards improving the reading method to be one that is more diverse thus enabling the student to cope with various topics and reading scenarios. For the student to be able to cope with different reading scenarios, he or she must first be taught the different strategies which will then be applied to a wide host of literary situations demanding the student’s attention.  Some common strategies that a student can adapt to his/her reading methods are previewing, skimming, scanning, prediction, guessing from the given context and also paraphrasing (Afflerbach et al, 2008).

Previewing of Literature

The term preview refers to the act of seeing something before its time. An example of how this is carried out is through taking a quick look at the table of contents, topics, sub-topics, pictures in the text and also the captions under the photos. The purpose of these actions is to provide a reader with a feel of what the text is about and this enables him or her to then predict and also get psychologically prepared for the same (Richardson, 1990; Paris, 2005). Another aspect that the reader will be familiarized with is the structure of the selection to be read. For these to be effective, the teacher can instruct organize the students into literature circles where they will go through the introduction, contents and also the images to get a feel of the story’s contents. This way the learners get to exchange ideas that they have on what they think the literature will have (Richardson, 1990).

Skimming through or scanning the literature

This is an example of reading that involves a learner taking a quick look at the content. The purpose of such a survey is to get the main message that the text carries with it. This will also afford the reader an opportunity of identifying the structure of the text and also the style in which the work has been prepared in. Skimming and scanning are slightly different in their purpose. With skimming, the reader aims to get a general feel of the written literature while with scanning, the individual is looking for specific key words or questions (Manset-Williamson, 2005). The teacher can demonstrate how to skim or scan when the class is learning comprehensions (Carter and Long, 1990).

Paraphrasing of Literature

This is a reading tool that is mostly used to evaluate one’s comprehension of a passage or section of text. Paraphrasing takes place at the end of the text  or reading session and it is done by the reader writing or stating the passage in his/her own words in a summative manner (Carter and Long, 1990; Manset-Williamson, 2005). Paraphrasing can either be done in writing or verbally by the learners after they have gone through a class reader text.

For the best results in the teaching of these strategies, teachers can use several approaches that will complement whatever they have already taught their students. One way would be through modelling the strategies aloud and taking the learners through a step by step process of how to apply each method. Thinking aloud will not only show the students how to apply these strategies but also how they are supposed to work (Kellogg, 2008).  For the learners to properly internalize the methods, it will be important to give them a chance to preview and then predict what a given text is about. Giving these activities time in class will help in affirming their importance to reading. Another way of achieving this will be through group discussions between the learners whereby students openly discuss the different strategies and the ones they found most applicable in a given assignment done in class or at home (Kellogg, 2008).

When placed under scrutiny by Bitter et al (2009), it was established that the application of differentiated teaching methods during instructional lessons in language is a beneficial method for learners. This is because majority of the knowledge available in both academic and non-academic form is captured through printed matter. Consequently this implies that a person who has learnt the different reading techniques stands a better chance of getting the most out of his or her education.

Writing Skills

This is the process of expressing one’s understanding on paper and as a result of the medium in use also the most susceptible to inspection for mistakes. Fortunately or unfortunately, the only way one can learn about writing is through writing. There are three main strategies that are employed in writing. These are writing for the learners, writing with the learners and writing by the learners. The instructor’s level of involvement greatly varies depending on the specific strategy in practice.

Writing for the Students

In this strategy, the teacher presents to the students the basics of language by means of writing on a board visible to all the learners. Since the teacher will be vocalizing whatever is being written, learners also get to understand how phonics work. Other skills that learners are taught in this manner include the mechanisms of writing through elements such as Capitals and punctuations. The close relationship between reading and writing is also emphasized at this level for the learners’ benefit. Examples of these strategies in practice include the basic teaching of the alphabet and also the writing of simple words such as students’ names on the board (Carter and McRae, 1996). According to Kellogg, (2008) first hand examples by the teacher greatly reinforce a student’s ability to apply the same.

Writing with the Students

Unlike the first strategy where only the teacher does the writing, here the writing is more of a collaborative process between an instructor and the learners. The practical writing skills that are gained here are more or less the same as the ones the students get when the instructor writes for them. The key difference here is that students also attempt to write on their own under the teacher’s supervision. The best books for these are those which are ruled with big spaces between the lines. Another difference is the language experience that a student gets in this strategy of teaching. This can be done through the use of close reading exercises done by the whole class whereby the teacher and the students fill in the blanks in a cloze test exercise. (Clarke, 1980; Pressley, 2006).

Writing by the Students

This is also known as guided writing and it may be initiated by a mini-lesson. Learners then begin to write following the lesson. The subject matter that they write about can either be of their own making or one initiated by the instructor. The teaching now happens at a personal level or in smaller groups. The benefit of this to a learner is that it builds his/her confidence in writing the language, enables the learner to further engage in reading activities given an increased knowledge of the workings of a given language. The learners can write simple essays in the classroom on their weekend or even favourite meal. As the learner gets better at basic writing, opportunities are created to learn other forms of writing thus greatly augmenting the total language experience (Manset-Williamson, 2005).

In a study conducted to determine the usefulness or practicability of interactive and normal writing my language learners who were in kindergarten at the time of the study, it was found that none of the writing approaches had superiority over the other. What was noted however was that both contributed uniquely to a positive growth in the child’s use of vocabulary and also proper understanding of the language being taught in (D’on Jones, 2010).

Viewing in Literature

To equip a learner with such skills, the instructor can employ methods such as the use of picture books, drama or skits and also audio-visual media (Singer and Singer, 1998).

The use of pictures

Here, textbooks with illustrations are read in the classroom as learners describe what they can see in the books. The images presented are usually related to the literature that is in the text. The idea here is for the learners to practice relating what they see in the real world with material that they read. In line with this, the teacher may also use black/whiteboard illustrations done by the instructor and also the students. Indoor games such as pictogram will also be of help (em Reade, n.d.). The reciprocity between images and literature also gets strengthened. With time, the learner gets to form mental images by reading (Pressley, 2006).

The Use of Drama or Skits

The use of drama, regardless of whether it is done by professional actors or an armature is another powerful tool in the teaching of viewing skills. A learner who is exposed to this gets situational awareness of language and a lot of the scripts discussed earlier come into play. The conversations and changes in scenes make for a great alternative teaching method, provided the teacher reinforces lessons that were learnt or to be learnt. The learner’s listening skills are also sharpened a lot over here. The dramatic nature also keeps the student alert and thus serves to imprint the memory (Gunning, 2008).

Audio-visual methods of teaching Viewing skills

In this category, the instructor uses recorded media to impart viewing skills on the learners. Examples exist in form of a movie, a short film or even pictorial games stored on computers. With today’s technology, this can also include videos sourced from the internet in sites such as YouTube where commercials and other types of clips can be accessed. Here, the learners participate as a group with each member weighing in on what is going on onscreen. For films, subtitles can at times be of great help in helping a learner keep up (Singer and Singer, 1998).

Application: Potential challenges and suggested solutions.

The first challenge that I am bound to face as I implement Balanced Literature in Education is having a class where the students learn at different rates. Being a highly personalized approach to teaching means that my efforts to bring up the ‘slower’ learners will inadvertently drag the entire class since such student will be in need of more time (McMillan and Schumacher, 2010).

Another challenge that I am bound to face in the course of using Balanced Literacy is that the approach I employ is bound to be in conflict with the content of the syllabus provided. This will arise from the fact that I will be expending a lot of effort on the method rather than on the actual content.

The third challenge that I may face in using the above methods is having learners whose first language is not English. This will make it very hard for me to introduce them to the content’s basics.

Possible Solutions to the above challenges

For the first Challenge of different rates of learning, it may be necessary for me to come up with remedial classes for those with difficulties keeping up. At the same time, I will encourage them to participate during regular classes so as to boost their confidence.

Regarding the issue of the syllabus, the best strategy in my view will be to strike a compromise whereby I prioritize the most important elements of the methodology and content then proceed with them, giving the less important elements less energy.

If there is a significantly large population of learners whose first language is not English, I will have to take up classes in that language if it is common with them. This is likely to happen with Spanish which is a common first language for many learners


I think balanced literacy is an important approach to teaching students how to interact effectively with literature they come across. As a matter of fact, it makes the learners all round, better communicators in verbal as well as written form. However rather than simply teach it as an accompaniment of language, I think it would be more effective if it were to be taught continuously in all subjects that students take albeit with varying intensity. The fact that this approach to education lays emphasis on the method rather than the content to be taught indicates a shift from quantity to quality. Many a time, teachers simply rush through to complete the syllabus, forcing learners to read for the exams rather than for understanding and future application (McMillan and Schumacher, 2010). It is however important to realize that the syllabus too is important and for this reason, I will have to employ my better judgement on how to employ the two creating a win-win situation. Balanced Literature in Education was designed with the learner’s interests at heart and for this reason, it is important for any teacher who is applying it to maintain a student-centric approach.




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