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What is Balanced Literacy and How is it Different From the Approach to Teaching Reading in EL Education’s Curriculum?

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    Christina Riley, Director, Curriculum Design, Beth Miller, Chief Knowledge Officer

“Balanced literacy” is a term that grew out of the “reading wars” of the 1980s between the “whole language” and “phonics-first” camps, with the idea that a combination of the two approaches that would work best. Instead, research over the past three decades has pointed powerfully to a set of approaches known as “The Science of Reading.” This research-based approach demonstrated that reading proficiency is the result of two things: a child’s decoding skills and his or her background knowledge (vocabulary). To ensure the first, EL Education’s Skills Block provides a structured phonics program with decodable texts. To build vocabulary and background knowledge, the curriculum also includes daily, content-rich on module topics ranging from trees to the Harlem Renaissance. These units are centered on high-quality texts that engage children’s interest as they create “windows and mirrors” into a wide variety of worlds.

Because the term “balanced literacy” can mean different practices, in different combinations, it has been difficult to evaluate it as an approach to teaching reading. However, there are several common Balanced Literacy practices that have not been supported in numerous studies: three-cueing, leveled texts, and separating reading from writing. In depending primarily on three-cueing to teach reading, a balanced literacy approach relies on a reader’s experiences and context to understand the text. Students are taught to look for: (1) meaning cues, i.e., “does it make sense?,” (2) sentence structure cues, “does it sound right?,” and (3) graphic/visual cues or “does it look right?.” In contrast, instruction in the EL Education curriculum emphasizes graphic/visual cueing to teach students how to read. Students are encouraged to solve an unknown word by noticing the letters or word parts in the word and reading it based on their knowledge of the sounds that match each letter. A large volume of research now supports the phonics approach used in the EL Education curriculum.

In the balanced literacy classroom, students often participate in teacher guided reading of leveled texts that are not controlled for spelling patterns. Instead they are leveled according to background knowledge, sentence length, font size, repetition, etc. These texts are often on a variety of topics rather than supporting students in building knowledge in a specific topic area. In the EL Education curriculum, teachers use texts controlled for the spelling patterns and words that are explicitly taught during instruction because when learning a spelling pattern, students need opportunities to read text that lets them apply that pattern. Students also independently read texts at their level on the specific topic, in order to build background knowledge about the topic.

In a balanced literacy classroom, literacy skills are often taught in silos with separate times allocated in the school schedule for reading and writing. The two are often not connected in content. In the EL Education curriculum reading, writing, speaking and listening, and language are integrated. Students read to build knowledge about a compelling topic, they think and talk about it to further develop their understanding of the topic, and finally when they have gathered sufficient evidence and have ideas worth writing about, they write about it. Everything students do has a purpose in a longer term goal, rather than learning isolated skills seemingly for the sake of doing so.

It should be noted that recently some of the most prominent advocates of balanced literacy are beginning to rethink the balance in balanced literacy, and therefore shifts might be seen in this approach in the future.

Resources for further reading: