Balanced Literacy

Transitioning From Balanced to Structured Literacy

What We Do - Balanced Literacy

Learning A-Z is the perfect companion to support your transition from a balanced literacy approach to a science of reading-aligned approach.

What is Balanced Literacy?

During the first two decades of the 21st century, many educators searched for ways to simplify the complexity of teaching reading, often resulting in a focus on the act of reading itself rather than the many skills that must be acquired to read independently. This practice is known as balanced literacy. Using this approach, teachers engage their students with different types of reading each day to strengthen literacy development. This approach, however, leaves much to be desired when it comes to strengthening key foundational skills. To address this, many classrooms have transitioned away from balanced literacy to a more comprehensive, research-based approach- structured literacy. 

What Is the Difference Between Balanced Literacy and Structured Literacy?

Balanced literacy varies from classroom to classroom, but the thinking behind it is to provide varied exposure to text through multiple means. Some phonics instruction is included, but it is often loose and not reliant on a structured scope and sequence. Classrooms that utilize balanced literacy often include whole-class and small-group experiences with text, including guided reading in small groups. However, some of the practices associated with balanced literacy have not been proven to improve reading outcomes.

On the contrary, classrooms that use structured literacy are based on a Science of Reading-aligned approach that relies on evidence-based best practices to inform literacy instruction. The goal of any evidenced-based literacy program is for educators, curriculum developers, and districts to use routines, instruction, and strategies that are built around empirical, scientifically-based research studies when designing curriculum and instructional strategies. When this type of instruction is delivered explicitly and systematically, it leads to the ability to decode words, which is a key part of any Science of Reading-aligned approach. This “bottom-up” instructional strategy is not at the forefront of balanced literacy.

The good news is that most balanced literacy classrooms have found making the shift to structured literacy much less daunting than anticipated. The chart below lists common instructional practices and demonstrates how applying a Science of Reading lens can lead to research-based improvements.

  • Offers an interactive experience that includes student engagement in the text via dialogic conversation.
  • Builds language comprehension and decoding.
  • Used to deepen comprehension, build background knowledge, model strategies, and build vocabulary.

Varying Approaches
to Reading Instruction

Balanced Literacy

Science of Reading

Research-based support Research supports some of these practices but requires pedagogical shifts to become effective. Research has been proven to support these literacy practices.
Read aloud
  • Offers an interactive experience that includes student engagement in the text via dialogic conversation.
  • Builds language comprehension and decoding.
  • Used to deepen comprehension, build background knowledge, model strategies, and build vocabulary.
  • Offers an interactive experience that includes student engagement in the text via dialogic conversation.
  • Builds language comprehension and decoding.
  • Used to deepen comprehension, build background knowledge, model strategies, and build vocabulary.
Shared reading
  • Allows students to read a common text with teacher support that is chosen based on skills and strategies.
  • Usually done in a whole group setting.
  • Text used in shared reading is not used in small reading groups.
  • Text is read over several days with fluency as a key goal.
  • Enables students to read a common text with teacher support that is chosen based on skills and strategies and the ability that the topic has to support knowledge building, familiarity with themes, or conceptually related topics.
  • Involves direct, systematic, explicit instruction.
  • Text is re-read over several days for different teaching purposes. For example, knowledge and vocabulary building might be the focus for one reading, with subsequent readings focused on elements such as text structure, plot, or author’s craft.
  • Usually done in a whole group setting.
  • The same text might be used in small reading groups and during independent reading.
Independent reading
  • Students choose “just right” books at their “independent” reading level.
  • Texts students choose are unrelated to theme, topic, or knowledge building.
  • Texts read independently during the reading block are related to a specific theme, topic, knowledge building, and strategy instruction.
  • Offers an intentional opportunity for students to connect their independent reading with larger classroom goals.
Foundational skills (phonemic awareness and phonics)
  • Phonemic awareness is haphazardly taught.
  • Phonics instruction is not structured but is taught as needed using leveled readers during “guided reading” with no scope or sequence in place.
  • Although letter-level work can occur, the focus is mainly on the word level. For example:
    • Memorization of high-frequency words
    • Prompted by meaning cues
    • Prompted by structure cues
    • Prompted by visual cues
  • Utilizes structured, explicit foundational skills instruction.
  • Phonemic awareness and phonics follow a systematic, sequential, and explicit approach.
  • High-frequency words are not taught through memorization but are based on phonics instruction and parts in irregular words that do not follow that pattern.
  • Focuses on phonics and sounding words out.
Knowledge building
  • Not focused on knowledge building or connecting units across content areas; rather, skills are taught and practiced in isolation
  • Activates prior knowledge before reading.
  • Instruction is focused on comprehension strategies.
  • Texts used are theme-based or contextually related to content areas so that students build content area knowledge while receiving reading instruction.
  • Builds knowledge explicitly for students to use later as background knowledge.
  • The focus is on the vocabulary, content, and comprehension strategies needed to help students understand the content or gain content knowledge.

What Research-Based Strategies Are Present and Missing in Balanced Literacy Classrooms?

How Can Using Raz-Plus Help You Shift from Balanced Literacy to Structured Literacy?

Raz-Plus, our award-winning product that offers high-quality, Science of Reading-aligned resources, teaching materials, and an engaging student portal, seamlessly supports the transition to structured literacy by addressing the following foundational skills:

Phonological Awareness and Phonics

  • Help students recognize the sounds of language with phonological awareness resources that focus on word awareness, onset and rime awareness, rhyme awareness, syllable awareness, and phonemic awareness.
  • Commit time to teaching phonics using deliberately sequenced phonics instruction and practice with decodable books.
  • Teach students phonics-based scaffolds for reading unfamiliar words rather than relying on a three-cueing system or guessing.

Fluency https://www.raz-plus.com/fluency/

  • Motivate students and help them build oral fluency skills, including accuracy and expression, with engaging practice passages and Reader’s Theater Scripts to read aloud. Fluent readers read more quickly and smoothly, allowing them to focus on comprehension.

Vocabulary and Comprehension

  • Develop oral language comprehension, reading comprehension, and vocabulary through structured read-alouds, reading books and passages or text sets, and close reading packs and passages around a specific topic or theme.
  • Develop instructional routines that create opportunities for intentional and incidental academic conversations. For example, use the discussion cards attached to each book’s lesson plan to promote conversation.
  • Strengthen vocabulary across content areas and in conversations using Raz-Plus books that are based on research.
  • Build knowledge, vocabulary, and comprehension skills simultaneously by curating text sets, for example, that combine social studies and other subjects. Leverage content area topics and literacy instruction to build knowledge. 

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