by Mark Federman is the principal of East Side Community School, a public school in New York City for sixth- through 12th-graders. He leads workshops throughout the country on balanced literacy and transitioning to the Common Core.
UPDATED JULY 3, 2014, 1:37 PM
We must end the absurd notion that balanced literacy is somehow at odds with the Common Core. The best balanced literacy practices have advocated for some of the smartest and most rigorous work around nonfiction reading and writing, and other crucial Common Core practices, long before anyone heard the words “Common Core.” Are there some schools that practice balanced literacy at the expense of rigor? Of course, but that is a flaw in the implementation, not the idea.
Standards are best met when students read books they can and want to read, and develop their writing voice, skills and stamina.
Strong balanced literacy work meets and exceeds the demands of the Common Core while addressing its potential fatal flaw: turning kids off to reading and writing before they can really read or write. Balanced literacy demands that students challenge themselves with grade-level texts and nonfiction writing, giving them the tools they need to meet the standards. Yet, it also recognizes that this can be best accomplished when students have the opportunity and time to read books they can and want to read, as well as a chance to develop their writing voice, skills and stamina.
In the professional development work I’ve led nationally around the Common Core, I’ve found that schools with many struggling readers who are not practicing balanced literacy are having the hardest time transitioning to the Common Core because they lack the foundation in literacy across the curriculum that students need. Students who can’t read and already resist reading are being forced to “read” primarily, if not only, texts that may be years above their reading level. Consequently, they are shutting down instead of stepping up when asked to meet the new standards. Unfortunately, the all-too-common response to this is to revert to test prep.
At schools that have practiced balanced literacy for years, we have found the transition to the Common Core relatively painless and smooth. Our balanced literacy work has created a culture where all staff members value and feel responsible for providing strong reading and writing instruction, especially nonfiction. Balanced literacy has created a school full of students who enjoy and embrace reading and writing. Our students are not only expected to read and write about several mandated grade level and challenging texts, they are also expected and allotted time to read books that are of great interest to them and are at, or just above, their reading level.
They are also required to take strong stands on issues that matter to them, and use writing to tell their stories. Our students, many of whom come to us as struggling readers and writers, develop a positive relationship with reading and writing, and experience much joy and success. As a result, they are more open to tackling difficult texts and writing tasks. They are also more likely to embrace books and genres outside of their comfort zone and take risks as readers and writers. And they are much more willing and able to rise to meet high standards.
Most studies trace the origin of the achievement and literacy gap to a lack of exposure early on in life to a variety of texts and words. Balanced literacy demands that our students read more and are exposed to a variety of texts and vocabulary words. A move away from balanced literacy, especially at a time when the socioeconomic gap is growing greater in our country, would be detrimental to our most vulnerable students.
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