Following is an op-ed in from the New York Times followed by response letters.
The Fallacy of ‘Balanced Literacy’
By ALEXANDER NAZARYAN JULY 6, 2014
THERE was the student who wanted to read Tolstoy, but abandoned “War and Peace” after a bewildering day with the Russian aristocracy. There were the students who had just come from Albania, to whom a Harry Potter novel was as inscrutable as Aramaic. There were the students who needed special attention, which I could barely offer. And then there were the ones who read quietly and would have welcomed a discussion about “The Chocolate War.” I couldn’t offer that, either.
So went “independent reading” in my seventh-grade classroom in Flatbush, Brooklyn, during the 2005-06 school year, a mostly futile exercise mandated by administrators. On bad days, independent reading devolved into chaos. That was partly a result of my first-year incompetence, but even on good days, it proved a confounding amalgam of free period and frustrating abyss.
This morass was never my students’ fault. A majority of them were poor, or immigrants, or both. The metropolis of marvelous libraries and bookstores was to them another country. To expect them to wade into a grade-appropriate text like “To Kill a Mockingbird” was unrealistic, even insulting.
Writing instruction didn’t go much better. My seventh graders were urged to write memoirs, under the same guise of individualism that engendered independent reading. But while recollections of beach trips or departed felines are surely worthwhile, they don’t quite have the pedagogical value of a deep dive into sentence structure or a plain old vocab quiz.
Now the approach that so frustrated me and my students is once again about to become the norm in New York City, as the new schools chancellor, Carmen Fariña, has announced plans to reinstate a “balanced literacy” approach in English classrooms. The concept’s most vociferous champion is probably Lucy Calkins, a Columbia University scholar. In her 1985 book, “The Art of Teaching Writing,” she complained that most English teachers “don’t know what it is to read favorite passages aloud to a friend or to swap ideas about an author.” She sought a reimagination of the English teacher’s role: “Teaching writing must become more like coaching a sport and less like presenting information,” a joyful exploration unhindered by despotic traffic cops.
Ms. Calkins’s approach was tried by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, but abandoned when studies showed that students learned better with more instruction. My own limited experience leads me to the same conclusion. But Ms. Fariña seems to be charting a course away from the data-driven Bloomberg years, perhaps as part of her stated plan to return “joy” to the city’s classrooms.
I take umbrage at the notion that muscular teaching is joyless. There was little joy in the seventh-grade classroom I ran under “balanced literacy,” and less purpose. My students craved instruction far more than freedom. Expecting children to independently discover the rules of written language is like expecting them to independently discover the rules of differential calculus.
Balanced literacy is an especially irresponsible approach, given that New York State has adopted the federal Common Core standards, which skew toward a narrowly prescribed list of texts, many of them nonfiction. Ms. Calkins is a detractor of Common Core; Ms. Fariña isn’t, thus far, but her support of balanced literacy sends a mixed signal.
I am somewhat prejudiced on this issue, for my acclimation to the English language had nothing balanced about it. Yanked out of the Soviet Union at 10, I landed in suburban Connecticut in the English-as-a-second-language classroom of Mrs. Cohen. She taught me the language in the most conventionally rigorous manner, acutely aware that I couldn’t do much until I knew the difference between a subject and a verb. Mrs. Cohen was unbalanced in the best possible way.
Two decades later, I became a teacher because it seemed a social good to transmit the valuable stuff I’d learned from Mrs. Cohen and other teachers to young people who were as clueless as I had been. After leaving the middle school in Flatbush, I went to a selective high school in Bushwick, where I taught Sophocles while rhapsodizing about semicolons and gleefully announcing vocab quizzes. My students were seeing the beams that support the language; they went on to write poems, papers, newspaper articles and personal essays that earned a number of them admission to the nation’s best colleges. If any of it was soul-crushing, I missed the cues.
The fatal flaw of balanced literacy is that it is least able to help students who most need it. It plays well in brownstone Brooklyn, where children have enrichment coming out of their noses, and may be more “ready” for balanced literacy than children without such advantages.
My concern is for the nearly 40 percent of New York City schoolchildren who won’t graduate from high school, the majority of whom are black and brown and indigent. Their educations should never be a joyless grind. But asking them to become subjects in an experiment in progressive education is an injustice they don’t deserve.
Alexander Nazaryan is a senior writer at Newsweek. He was the founding English teacher at the Brooklyn Latin School.
The Opinion Pages | Letters
How to Teach Reading and Writing
JULY 13, 2014
To the Editor:
Re “The Fallacy of ‘Balanced Literacy’ ” (Op-Ed, July 7):
Too often, educational debates become simple, reductive arguments against the imagined orthodoxy of the other side. We see this once again in Alexander Nazaryan’s critique of “balanced literacy” and his call for “muscular teaching.”
He sees balanced literacy as a complete abdication of any direct instruction. It isn’t. Classrooms will always need a balance between independence and direct instruction, and few “experts” claim otherwise. There is no simple recipe for success.
And Mr. Nazaryan’s assertion that “independent reading” doesn’t work because it failed in his classroom when he was a first-year teacher is tantamount to claiming that bicycles don’t work because you fall the first time you try to ride. In my years in the classroom, I was constantly shifting the amount of independence and direct instruction, as every teacher should.
Instead of silly arguments over which flavor of curriculum is best, our children would be much better served if we focused on a commitment to attract and train high-quality teachers whose judgment we can trust.
Stanford, Calif., July 7, 2014
The writer is a doctoral student at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education.
To the Editor:
I wholeheartedly agree with Alexander Nazaryan’s conclusions regarding the introduction of balanced literacy into the New York State English curriculum. As a middle school English teacher in New York City, I find that few pedagogical constructs anger me more than the notion that reading and writing should not be taught through direct instruction.
It is ridiculous to believe that English is learned through some sort of experimental, progressive approach in which students “discover” how to read and write critically. As Mr. Nazaryan points out, we don’t teach calculus that way.
All students crave structure, no matter the subject being taught. In my classroom, I teach writing through direct instruction. The students learn about thesis statements, topic sentences, evidence and analysis in order to write deeply and clearly.
Mr. Nazaryan is right; balanced literacy is a fallacious cop-out. Students learn to read and write by being taught directly how to read and write. Only then will they discover the power and joy of the English language.
Astoria, Queens, July 7, 2014
To the Editor:
Balanced literacy as an instructional model is not inherently problematic. All it means is that as a teacher you provide your students with an instructional diet that balances all aspects of literacy, including foundational skills and higher order thinking and problem solving. This is no easy feat, and it takes good teacher training, reflective practice and experience to do this well, especially in a high-poverty school with a broad range of learners.
So for the writer to condemn the model because he wasn’t able to make it happen within his scant year of classroom experience is misleading to all those unfamiliar with balanced literacy. More than anything else, this Op-Ed essay underscores the critical need for smart, well-trained, committed and reflective teachers and principals.
Charlottesville, Va., July 8, 2014
The writer is a reading specialist.
To the Editor:
Kudos to Alexander Nazaryan for his eloquent defense of “conventionally rigorous” teaching techniques.
The decision by the New York City schools chancellor, Carmen Fariña, to reinstate balanced literacy despite the unfavorable results of studies done during the Bloomberg administration reflects, in my opinion, a general aversion to empirical evidence within the educational establishment in favor of ideology and faddish group think.
I very much appreciate the excellent K-12 teaching I received in Brooklyn public schools during the 1940s and ’50s, when a “conventionally rigorous” approach was the norm.
My more recent experience as a volunteer tutor in Wisconsin elementary schools during the past 12 years mirrors that of Mr. Nazaryan in Brooklyn in 2005-06. Again, an approach appropriate for the Midwestern equivalent of “brownstone Brooklyn” kids was employed in classrooms where half the kids were poor or minorities or both. The results of this approach are what the local press has described as a notoriously high racial achievement gap.
Madison, Wis., July 7, 2014
To the Editor:
While Alexander Nazaryan makes some valid points, the problem with his thesis is that he equates independent reading with chaos. When my students did independent reading it was guided.
For each book they chose I devised a set of questions, chapter by chapter, they were required to answer. They read at their own pace, and if they didn’t like the book, they could turn it in for another. But they read, and they wrote, and they understood.
Granted, this is hard work for the teacher, for it requires him or her to read every book on the list, but no one ever said teaching was supposed to be easy. The result, for my students, was that, according to their own feedback, they read more books than they ever had before.
HANNAH S. HESS
New York, July 7, 2014