Last Sunday on the front page of the New York Times was a major piece on the proponent of “balanced literacy,” offering some type of retreat for the philosophy behind “balanced literacy” that has been espoused for decades having failed legions of children (NYT Article).
I have always been bothered by these theories and am even more so now. It seemed that this stated “retreat” was too little, too late
Just to clarify, before thinking I am becoming a “get off my lawn” crank, I felt exactly this way when I was much younger in this field.
To elaborate on this a bit, there are essentially two groups of children – those on the “Smooth Road” and those on a “Rough Road.”
The “Smooth Road” types are fairly immune to whatever is given to them, even when questionable methods are used. From a very young age, their reading (spelling and writing) progresses down a smooth road in a “natural” process.
A different story altogether are the “Rough Road” types. Such children do not respond well to these methods espousing terms terms like, “top-down,” “balanced literacy,” “comprehension-above-all,” and the like. Probably 95 % of the schools and education departments in universities have been behind them for decades, as noted in the NYT article.
Even though these children of concern have been struggling since kindergarten, few have been directly taught how to overcome their challenges. That’s not how it’s done in these “top-down” models.
It’s analogous to handing a child a tennis racket and telling them to go play tennis, as if it will happen magically.
When I attended NYU for my Masters Degree (a long time ago in a galaxy far away), this movement was then an emerging groundswell.
As I sat there listening to what seemed like nonsense to me as these methods and theories were presented as truth, I couldn’t help but think about a boy, 9-year-old Frankie, who I then had in my resource room class. When I screened him with words like “cat” “them” “for” and “house,” he looked at me helplessly shrugging, unable to read any of the words.
When I asked the professors what to do with Frankie, lock-step they answered with concepts from these very hot theories – “You start with comprehension and present stories for him to internalize in his higher-order thinking and…(“blah, blah, blah”).
“Yes,” I said, “But he can’t read words like, ‘dog’ and ‘house,’ so not sure where higher-order thinking comes in.”
It didn’t matter. The “blah blah blah” went on and I had still Frankie to deal with the next morning.
Very fortunately, I went to a workshop presented by the late Dr. Gerald Glass, who presented an exact opposite approach embodied in a method he had developed, the “Glass Analysis for Decoding.” Glass spoke disdainfully of the emerging Whole Language, “Balanced Literacy” movement.
There was no higher thinking in Glass’ approach. It was pure meat and potatoes, bottom-up word instruction. First teach children how to read words, then later, once this skill has been mastered, comprehension will follow. Of course, the Whole Language professors and proponents of that model scoffed at Dr. Glass as old-school and out of touch with modern theories.
When I used Glass’ method with Frankie he loved it and made clear progress. In a fairly rapid time, he was recognizing words and his whole mood and discouraged demeanor changed. (So did mine.)
Since that time I have met thousands of Frankie.
When they are taught with sensible methods, it’s like giving them oxygen.
When they are not, they remain shut-down and discouraged.
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