Archive for August, 2009

Chall, J. S. (2000). The academic achievement challenge: What really works in the classroom? New York, N.Y.: Guilford Press.

I am about 1/3 of the way through Chall’s last book, where she discusses views on school reform targeted towards those deemed as facing challenges in learning–and literacy learning in particular. Her outlook is based partly on data from seminal studies as well as her own research, ultimately advocating for  a more direct, teacher-centered approach in line with views supported by Lisa Delpit, Marva Collins, and others who might critique a more holistic, constructivist approach to learning.

Chall discusses, historically, the more general trends and philosophies that have shaped our nations’s very polarized perspectives on how beginning reading instruction should be taught. These views don’t have to be dichotomized into the binary of “phonics” and more “progressive” and child-centred paradigms of reading instruction–but they often are. Curricular methods to teaching often take one or the other stance. We’ve seen the attempt to blend the two frameworks in the notion of “balanced literacy”, or, the somewhat eclectic use of what is found to be best about both sides. The holistic approach to literacy education can be seen as the more “student centered approach” while the code-emphasis approach can be seen as more “teacher centered”; Chall advocates strongly for the latter.

Compared to other countries, we, as Americans, have favored more progressive, child-centered approaches. She states, “Born in rebellion, with a strong belief in individual freedom, we seem to be more open to a greater sense of freedom in the rearing and educating of our children than the older nations (p. 36).”

I”m not sure we have a totally clear consensus or understanding of what balanced literacy is, much less a clear and systematic framework in which to implement it in the classroom. Children who struggle with reading or face challenges often benefit from a more explicit approach to learning the alphabetic principle.

Building on, and agreeing with Chall’s position, I pose these questions relating to our current use of the term ‘balanced literacy’:

1) What if balanced literacy overlooks the depth of time and explicit instruction that is needed for children who need more? With classroom based intervention, at the elementary level, students may receive an extra 20-45 minutes a day of instruction from the teacher and/or in pullout, but is this enough? There are classrooms, more often in large urban districts, where up to 50% (or more) of the students in a classroom struggle with learning to read. Are there needs being met? Passing the end of year summative standardized assessment may not be an indicator of literacy skills.

2) How well do teachers understand the notion and definition of balanced literacy? Is there one definition? How well do teachers feel ready and confident to teach students who”not responsive” to the general classroom instruction and balanced literacy model? How well do teachers feel in implementing a more structured, teacher-centered, code-emphasis approach [meaning teaching access to the “code” in order that students can begin reading connected text independently in order to build fluency] that might help build a foundation towards acquiring the alphabetic principle and basic decoding skills?


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