Ask schools how they teach reading and spelling to beginners, and you’re likely to be told they take a “balanced literacy” approach, combining the best of all approaches.
This sounds eminently sensible, but what does it mean in practice?
As we are about to start the school year here in Australia, let’s think about this question from a learners’ perspective.
Experience balanced literacy
Imagine you’re a five-year-old starting school, and you’re a true reading/writing beginner. Your parents/grandparents/kinder teachers have not already taught you how to read or write. You can’t recognise any letters or words, and you don’t know that words are made of sounds and letters are how we represent these sounds.
To you, the alphabet might as well be Wingdings, so that the sentence “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” would look like this:
In a “balanced literacy” school, teachers are very likely to firstly present you with a list of high-frequency words, for example starting with the “Golden words”: “a”, “and”, “be”, “I”, “in”, “is”, “it”, “of”, “that”, “the”, “to” and “was”.
Your job is to memorise these words, which to you look like this:
These 12 words in ordinary letters mean that the very first thing you learn about literacy at school is that when you see the letter A, say “u”.
You might notice that the sound “u” is also in the word “the”, except that in “the” it’s written with a letter E, not a letter A.
You might also notice that the letter A, which you just learnt to say “u” to, sounds different in the words “and” and “that”, and different again in the word “was”.
The sound “z” in “is” and “was” is written with a letter S, and the sound “v” in “of” is written with a letter F.
Just 12 little words, but already you’re being presented with a whole lot of spelling complexity that nobody unpacks for you. You’re just told to swallow it whole.
As well as high-frequency words, beginners are usually taught the alphabet, which has 26 letters, each of which (beginners are told) “says” a single sound.
There are friezes around the classroom with pictures and words on them showing the alphabet and giving example words. The text on these friezes looks like this:
For example, you learn that the letter A has two forms, uppercase “A” and lowercase “a”, and that it is at the beginning of words such as “apple”, “arm”, “apron”, “alarm”, “aeroplane”, “Australia” and “always”. If you’re observant, you might also notice a storybook by “Aesop”, and a sign saying “aikido”. To you, these words look like:
This makes sense for words like “apple”, “ant” and “astronaut”.
However, to your ears (and everyone else’s), the first sound in “arm” is “ar”, not “a” as in “apple” at all. The first sound in “apron” sounds like “ay”, and the first sound in “alarm” sounds like “uh”.
The first sounds in “aeroplane”, “Australia”, “always”, “Aesop” and “aikido” are “air”, “o”, “or”, “ee” and “I”. There is no “a” as in “apple in any of these words.
So either there is something wrong with your ears, or your teacher is only telling you part of the story about what the letter “A” represents. Or perhaps the relationship between sounds and letters is even more random than you thought.
Letters also appear in the middles and at the ends of words, but you don’t usually study them in these locations. You’re taught to mainly focus on pictures and first letters.
The only typically syllable-final spelling you’re likely to study while learning the alphabet is the letter X, but your first-sound-fixated classroom frieze probably says “X is for xylophone”, or possibly “X is for X-Ray”. This helps you deduce that the letter X represents the sound “z” (true, but rare, at syllable beginnings – think Xerox, xylem and Xena the Warrior Princess), or the sound “e” as in “egg”.
You and your classmates’ names include all the most popular baby names of 2009, so you’re also being encouraged to read and write:
The difference between what the teacher is telling you about the spellings “ch”, “i”, “y” and “th” and:
- the “ch” in “Chloe”, “Charlotte” and “Lachlan”,
- the “i” in “Olivia”, “Mia”, “Sienna”, “Amelia” and “William”,
- the “y” in “Emily” and “Riley” and the
- “th” in “Thomas”
might finally convince you to give up trying to work out how sounds and letters are related, and just try to memorise words as wholes.
Reading Real Books
Your class is also listening to your teacher read books, and you are being encouraged to attempt to read them yourself. You are allowed to choose your own books in the library, so you look for ones with good pictures and not too many Wingdings. In class you’re trying to read books which are considered Level 1 books, for absolute beginners.
The text in these books is often quite repetitive, and these books usually have lots of helpful pictures, so you get in the habit of “reading” them by looking at the pictures, looking at first letters, and guessing.
This is encouraged by your teacher.
Sometimes the teacher points out a letter you have been studying while reading a Big Book to the class. For example when you’re studying the letter “c” you might notice “cat”, “duck”, “chicken”, “bicycle”, “science”, “ocean”, “cello”, “moustache”, “special” and “ciao”. From these words you might, if you’re very smart, deduce that the letter “c” has something to do with representing the sounds “k”, “ch”, “s” and “sh”, but since you don’t get to study these patterns in decent samples of words, one by one, you can’t figure out how any of them work.
When it’s time to write, you first do some tracing letters and copying, so that you know what their shapes are. You form some letters in an inefficient way that will make it harder for you to write quickly later on, starting at the bottom instead of the top, and going round the wrong way. You may or may not be given corrective feedback.
After that, you pretty much graduate directly to being given a blank page and encouraged to put your name on it, draw a picture and then write a few words about the picture.
You can write any words you like. The only problem is that you don’t know how to spell them, so you try to stick to words you’ve memorised, or ask the teacher to tell you how to spell them, or copy something from the dozens of words on the classroom wall, or just try your best to sound out a word. This gives you many opportunities to practise spelling mistakes.
You practise spelling high-frequency words, but you do them in order from most to least frequent, rather than learning words with shared spelling patterns together. This makes it hard to identify and learn the patterns.
Sometimes your spelling words might be related to a classroom theme, for example if you’re studying tadpoles, your spelling list might include the following words: frog, water, pond, tank, swim, tadpole, tail, legs, eggs, jump. Again, these words contain a mixture of spelling patterns so it’s hard to learn anything useful about spelling by studying them as a group.
“Balanced literacy” means “literacy chaos”
I hope by now you agree with me that from the learner’s perspective, “balanced literacy” could more accurately be called “literacy chaos”.
It’s not balanced, it’s just a mess. The logic underpinning it is unclear, and it has no proper sequence. It contains inaccuracies, contradictions and many gaps e.g. middle and ending sounds/spellings, blending, segmenting and handwriting.
It’s a small miracle, and a tribute to the hard work and lateral thinking of many early years teachers, that only about 20% of children still can’t really read or spell after a year of “balanced literacy” instruction. I suspect that lots of kids are also being given the low-down outside school – all those parents and grandmas and grandpas with their alphabet fridge magnets and Dr Seuss books, bless them.
Teachers deserve to be given a more coherent, evidence-based and effective system to teach early literacy, either at university or inservice training, not least for their own job satisfaction.
In my experience, teachers really hate getting to the end of the year and still having some students in their class who can’t read or spell.
Little children should initially be taught just a small number of sounds and their letters, and then practice these until they can both read and spell little words containing them, without being distracted and confused by other sounds/letters and more complicated spellings.
Then more sounds and spellings should be added in a gradual, explicit, systematic way, till children have mastered reading and spelling words containing all the main patterns of our language. There are 44 sounds in spoken English and each has more than one spelling, made up of 1, 2, 3 or 4 letters. Many spellings are shared by more than one sound. It’s complicated, but teachable and learnable.
This sort of explicit, systematic, sounds-and-letters early literacy teaching is called Synthetic Phonics, and the sooner it replaces “Balanced Literacy” in early years classrooms, the happier I will be, and the more children will successfully learn to read and spell in their first year of school.
P.S. Synthetic Phonics does not mean children missing out on quality children’s literature. Until kids can read this literature themselves, adults should read it to them.
P.S.2 on 19/3/16: I’ve just discovered a great article by the Thomas B Fordham Foundation which explains in much more detail what’s wrong with “balanced literacy”. It’s called Whole Language Lives On: The Illusion of Balanced Reading Instruction.