Cum hoc non propter hoc.
Causation does not equal correlation, especially when it comes to children and test results. In today’s NY Daily News, Robert Pondiscio, a former fifth-grade teacher at Public School 277 in the South Bronx and now the executive director of CitizenshipFirst, lauds the NYC Education department for “… abandoning the literacy curriculum used to teach a generation of our children to read”. In the shift to the Common Core, he says the NYC Dept of Ed is leaving behind the balanced literacy approach of Lucy Calkins and the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, which he says has done a disservice to students. Having taught at a Project school here in NJ and at non-Project schools, I beg to differ.
I began my teaching career in a 3rd grade heterogeneously-grouped class that used Lucy Calkins’ methods. I attended training workshops, Saturday reunions at the Project, and read every piece of material I could get my hands on. And I watched those third-graders blossom as readers and writers. It was hard to facilitate the workshop and took a lot out of me as a teacher, but I was a better teacher for it. I was constantly reading and writing alongside my students, pushing them to reach higher and higher. While they may have started by reading books that were “just right”, my mentor and I were always pushing them to follow the reading ladder, as Teri Lesesne shows us. Students did not stay stuck on a lower level, never moving forward, as Pondiscio insinuates in his op-ed. That’s not the point of the method! The students receive individual attention, conferences, and book recommendations. They read constantly, both in and out of class. In the year that I spent with those third graders, they grew into stronger readers and writers, as evidenced by their assessment scores.
When I moved to my own classroom and started teaching sixth grade, I brought the balanced literacy approach with me. Today, I teach high school in a co-taught humanities class (alongside the world history teacher). I continue to use a balanced literacy approach, modified for my high school students and schedule. And guess what? It still works. Which is why I am baffled by Mr. Pondiscio’s claims.
What is wrong with balanced literacy? It assumes you build readers by encouraging kids to find books they love and read a lot. But over the years, that approach has consistently and systematically failed. Only 23% of our eighth-graders score “proficient” or higher on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a figure that hasn’t budged in a decade.
Before I moved to my current job, I taught at an average middle school in suburbia. It wasn’t a Project school, but I used the same methods and ideas with my sixth graders at that time. I still attended Saturday Reunions, on my own time, and brought new ideas and methods back to my classes. And once again, I watched my students grow into readers and writers. Like Pondiscio’s students, many of mine came to me without background knowledge and needing scaffolding. Over 80% admitted to being nonreaders on my annual first day survey. So we read. A lot. Just like I do with my students in high school. They read their independent novels, where I challenged them with Donalyn Miller’s 40-book challenge. We read shared texts in class, both whole class novels and shorter pieces. And we used Kelly Gallagher’s Article of the Week to share great informational pieces at least once per week. I expected my students to read and they did. I expected them to improve as readers and writers, and they did. I had the test scores to prove it. Again, these were classes that were grouped heterogeneously and included students from all kinds of economic backgrounds. High expectations yielded higher results.
How does Mr. Pondiscio’s statement relate to balanced literacy? Where is the evidence that there is a connection between the balanced literacy approach and the percentage of eighth-graders who score proficient and higher? Causation does not equal correlation. My guess is that poverty and other issues outside the classroom contribute a great deal to those numbers. Do we know what the passing rate would be if the students were not being encouraged to read and write on a daily basis? Of course not. But we do know that Mr. Pondiscio taught at a school where 89% of students receive free and reduced lunch. Noted researcher Stephen Krashen has been telling administrators for years that our crisis is not literacy, but poverty. As Mr. Pondiscio points out in his op-ed, students who come from poverty typically don’t have access to books, museums, and parents who stay home with them. So if, as Krashen says in his research, “more access leads to more reading, and if more reading leads to better reading, writing, spelling, grammar, and a larger vocabulary (Krashen 2004),” then we need to flood students with books and reading material at school. And that’s exactly what a balanced literacy approach does.
We do build readers by encouraging them to find books they love and read a lot. And unlike Mr. Pondoscio, I can share examples with you. Take this email that I received a few weeks ago from a former student. Now in high school, she tracked me down via this blog and sent me an email that still has me on cloud nine:
I don’t know if you remember me but I thought I should contact you because I owe you a thanks. Before having you as a teacher, I wasn’t a fan of books or reading, but you changed that for me. I was able to find my love for books in your class. When you first handed out that reading packet, where we were challenged to complete 40 books by the end of the school year, I was horrified. When the end of the year came and I saw that 38 of those boxes were completed, I felt so accomplished, and to know I enjoyed most of those books was an even greater feeling. It was like I discovered something new about myself. I have a learning disability that is associated with reading so to have flipped my view on reading like that gave me a lot of self confidence, since it was such a difficulty before. I am so thankful to you for helping me discover my love for books, which in the long run helped to minimize my disability. You always encouraged us to read what we would enjoy…
Tell me that a balanced literacy approach doesn’t work and I’ll show you 200 more survey responses, emails, and notes from students that show you it does. Students who now score higher on their SATs/ACTs, receive higher grades in all of their classes, and are more knowledgeable about the world they live in.
That student is still a reader, so I asked her what her favorite book is (seeing as tastes change after middle school!). What she said simultaneously broke my heart and made my heart sing:
It’s so hard to pick a favorite book when there are so many good ones out there! I guess if I had to pick I would say that Too Kill a Mockingbird and Penny from Heaven are tied for first. I heard a lot of good things about To Kill a Mockingbird, but my brother and sister told me they hated it for the reason that in high school their teachers made them dissect every detail of the book to the point where the sight of the book made them sick. I wanted to read the book on my own, before I could have the chance to hate it. I needed to read this classic on my own without bias so in the seventh grade, I did. It turned out to be a very great favorite of mine.
Stop buying programs. Stop buying novel comprehension kits, scripted texts, and items like Accelerated Reader. They do not work. They aren’t real. Instead, they create a false sense of security because students can game the system and “pass” an assessment. An assessment that looks nothing like the real world. I asked this student about her favorite book because I wanted to know if she still read. After leaving my class, students moved on to a new building where they were forced to use Accelerated Reader. Unfortunately, I’ve shared my frustrations with AR (and similar programs) many times in the past. Student after student would come back to me and say they were only allowed to read AR books, so they just stopped reading. We need to stop this.
Mr. Pondiscio is right: “The more children know, the more they can read with genuine comprehension.” So let’s give them more knowledge. Surround them with books, newspapers, read alouds, magazines, websites, technology, and fabulous teachers. No one method is everything. Mr. Pondiscio talks about E.D. Hirch’s early-childhood curriculum, one of the many recommended by the Dept of Ed, and says, “Its central premise is that an essential goal of reading instruction must be to ensure that all students — and disadvantaged kids most specifically — are explicitly taught the knowledge and vocabulary that speakers and writers assume they know.”
Exactly. And we don’t do that when we hand teachers a curriculum and standardize education. Excellent teachers know that children get smarter when they are all provided with the opportunity to learn more and become more knowledgeable. So we need ELA and content area teachers working together to flood all students. That means dropping the standardization and being flexible. Taking the time to read one more chapter in that great read aloud because it sparked a cool research project for the class, or debating an article in the newspaper because the students have strong feelings about the topic, or throwing out the lesson plan because an issue in a popular novel or nonfiction text has inspired the students to write letters to a local politician. Students need real-world experiences and real audiences. They need to read like adults read, talk and write about books the way educated adults do, seek out more information the way your or I might, and write like they will when they are adults. And we get them there by encouraging them read and write as much as possible in school.
And that’s what I see when teachers use a balanced literacy approach. It’s a balance between choice and shared reading using authentic texts, not some piece created for a textbook company to use. As Mr. Pondicio says, “…stops treating reading comprehension as a skill to be taught and sees it as a reflection of everything a child learns about the world.” Exactly, sir. More authentic reading. More authentic writing. And the result? Smarter, more engaged citizens of the world.