A balanced literacy approach

The second paper of my Post Graduate Diploma in Education (Teaching and Learning) has been submitted and marked. Plenty of valuable new learning taken away this year:

  • how children learn to read in different ways

  • what causes the differences in early reading achievement and subsequent difficulties in some students

  • what we need to do in our classes to cater for these individual differences in order to close the gap in achievement levels in reading in New Zealand

Here is the final section discussing how to balance code-based and whole language approaches within our literacy programmes along with my conclusion.

A differentiated reading programme.

Code-based and whole language approaches can be combined to produce more effective beginning reading instruction. An effective, differentiated reading programme however must begin with effective assessment of cognitive entry skills. Studies have found that children who arrive at school with limited cultural capital (cognitive skills such as alphabet knowledge, vocabulary range, phonological awareness, and print knowledge) are dependent on the environment to provide instruction that makes the connections between print and speech explicit (Arrow & Tunmer 2013, Tunmer & Nicholson, 2010, Tunmer et al., 2003, Liberman & Liberman, 1992). If these children are not provided with supplementary teaching to overcome their weakness in the phonological domain they are likely to then rely more increasingly on ineffective word identification strategies such as  using picture cues, partial word-level clues, and contextual guessing (Tunmer, Chapman et.al., 2003).

A differentiated programme would include phonemic awareness instruction; assisting those who need it to develop the ability to reflect on and manipulate the phonemic elements of spoken words. Consonants and vowels are the essential structural elements of phonology. The critical function of phonology is to form meaningful words by combining these abstract units thus relating sound to meaning ((Liberman & Liberman, 1992). There are two advantages of providing beginning and struggling readers with this sort of instruction. One is that when instruction is outside the context of reading it allows the child to pay full attention to the letter-sound patterns being taught. Secondly carrying out isolated word study helps ensure learner-readers see the importance of word-level cues as a useful way to attack unknown words rather than a tendency they may have to rely primarily on sentence-context cues when identifying unfamiliar words.

However it cannot be assumed that beginning readers who are successful at learning word analysis skills will automatically transfer these when they are reading a text. There needs to be a balance between activities designed to facilitate the acquisition of letter-sound knowledge and those designed to foster an understanding of how to use such knowledge when faced with an unfamiliar word in a text. To help children learn how to transfer their word strategy skills when reading the teacher should use modelling, demonstrating, direct explanation, and guided practice.  For children who enter school with abundant literate cultural capital – that is high levels of essential reading-related knowledge, skills, and experiences – the whole language approach has been found to be more beneficial (Tunmer & Nicholson, 2010). These children are more learner-dependent and tend to “grasp the idea of what is required to discover orthographic patterns after having had only a small amount of phonologically-based skills and strategies explicitly taught to them” (Tunmer et al., p. 30, 2013). These children require less explicit instruction in letter-sound instruction as they already have the cognitive skills to enable them to attack unknown words through phonological decoding (Arrow & Tunmer, 2012). A differentiated programme for these children would include balancing systematic skills instruction, including word recognition, with immersion in real literature and student writing. In a study carried out by Tunmer et al. (2003) it was found that incorporating materials and procedures designed to help children develop an awareness of sound sequences in spoken words and make greater use of letter-sound patterns when identifying unfamiliar words into a whole language programme resulted in significantly greater gains in reading achievement than the standard whole language approach.

Culturally responsive instruction becomes an important factor in a differentiated literacy programme too. A mainstream constructivist approach tends to assume that children’s similarities such as age override differences related to ethnicity, social class, and first language. Teachers should adjust their teaching to support these individual differences. Examples of culturally responsive instruction would include making learning experiences more personally meaningful to students by engaging them in activities which relate to them and the experiences they have had outside of school, their prior knowledge, personality, and preferred ways of doing things (Tunmer et al., 2003).  This can be done while maintaining the same expectations of achievement for these students of diverse backgrounds as for those from the dominant culture. There is no room for deficit theorising if the literacy achievement gap is to be closed. Failing to respond to differences will continue to result in negative Matthew effects for these students. Au (1998) believes that adopting a diverse constructivist approach where educators establish students’ ownership of literacy should be the overarching goal of the language arts curriculum. Although she does continue to say that ownership alone is not sufficient for the learning of reading. There still needs to be systematic instruction in the cognitive processes of reading and writing.


The acquisition of a complex skill like reading is a developmental process that occurs over time and involves different phases which can overlap.  For some children the process can break down at certain points.

Rather than focusing on constructivist versus explicit approaches to teaching reading greater attention should be placed on differentiated instruction to cater for the differing skill needs of beginner readers. In this view we must consider the cognitive entry behaviours that students bring to new entrant classrooms. The ability to determine which instructional approach to use requires high levels of teacher knowledge and early assessment of the critical cognitive entry skills. Neither approach on its own will be successful in teaching all children to read.

The key to learning to decode words is the principle that letters represent sounds. While whole language provides plenty of opportunity for children to read it is weak on explicit teaching of the alphabetic principle. On the other hand too much focus on skills instruction and not providing enough opportunity for putting this knowledge into practice through actual reading is not ideal either.

What we need is an approach which draws on the key elements of both theories to provide instruction which best suits the needs of individual children. A ‘one size fits all’ approach to reading instruction which fails to respond to differences in essential reading-related skills will continue to result in reading failure in some children and therefore the achievement gap will continue to exist. This is especially relevant to us in New Zealand if our aim is to close the gap between our priority students and others.

The most effective approach to use with any given child will depend on the reading-related knowledge and skills and experiences the child brings to the task of learning to read. The implications for educational practice are that for reading instruction to meet the learning needs of every child we must adopt a diverse approach and carry out early assessment of critical cognitive entry skills such as alphabet knowledge, phonological awareness, and vocabulary knowledge. As Juel and Minden-Cupp states the critical question may be how teachers can most efficiently help children gain enough skill to successfully enter the world of print so that in a sense, they can then read enough to become their own teachers (as cited in Tunmer et al. 2003).


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