Ongoing Literacy Assessment: Finding a Balance

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During a recent instructional leadership team meeting, the teacher-leaders and I were discussing new literacy resources for consideration. We wanted to be sure they aligned with our beliefs and would likely lead to increased student achievement.

“What’s our goal?” asked one teacher. A pause. “Well…balanced literacy,” responded another. Several nods in agreement.

What is balanced literacy? For me, it means considering both engagement and achievement when planning reading-writing instruction. There is a dual focus on student motivation and skills/strategies.

Sometimes, one area takes a priority over another during a lesson. That’s not a bad thing as long as, over time, one approach doesn’t overtake another. Balance.

For example, without maintaining a broader perspective, guided reading can become the function of a literacy block instead of an effective teaching strategy that is one part of the larger initiative to guide students to become more independent readers. Effective teachers balance guided reading (focus: achievement, teaching skills/strategies) with the more affective aspects of literacy such as independent reading with student-selected texts (focus: engagement, student motivation).

Balanced Literacy: An Impossible Goal?

The reality of literacy instruction is, there is no one experience we facilitate that is purely about engagement or achievement. Guided reading can be very motivating for a student who is blossoming as a reader, passing level after level. Likewise, independent reading can be a great opportunity to reinforce skills and strategies through conferring.

Literacy experts at all levels have recognize these challenges for K-12 educators. For example, Dr. Nell Duke shared at a recent state reading conference that the workshop model has a 0.34 effect size on student achievement. “That’s good, but not great,” noted Duke. For students with learning disabilities, the workshop model has no effect on achievement.

Does that mean teachers should throw out the workshop model for teaching readers and writers tomorrow? No! There seems to be many benefits to this instructional approach which encourages student voice and choice within authentic literacy activities. What it requires, though, is a highly knowledgeable teacher who can adjust to the needs of each student and provide responsive instruction. And this demands continuous and effective professional develepment, which does not appear to be common in many schools.

Next I offer my own recent experience conferring with a 3rd grade writer. The purpose here is to highlight the complexities of embedding strategy instruction within the workshop model.

“Which piece of writing is your strongest?”

This was the first question I asked the 3rd grader as I sat down at her table. The teacher invited me to listen to a few of her students share real narratives from their writers notebooks during an instructional walk.

This 3rd grader selected a two-page story about her trip to a hotel with her family. As she read, I wrote down on my notepad a few possible talking points to share when she was done reading her own writing aloud. For the most part I listened actively.

Once finished, I responded with the following.

Well, there is much here to appreciate. First, you were specific with your language. See how you gave me the exact number of cousins in your hotel room? That helped me imagine how crowded it must have been in there. Second, you described how you felt to help me understand what was happening. For example, when you wrote ‘she yelled so loud my ears hurt’, I could tell from this description how loud she must have been.

After my sincere compliments, I asked her who she was writing for. “My mom. She wasn’t able to come with me because I was visiting my dad’s side of the family. So I wanted to tell her about the hotel so she could know what we did there.”

I smiled and responded, “You had a real audience and clear purpose for your writing, didn’t you? You know, that makes me wonder something else: Do you think that, because you had an audience and a purpose, it helped with your writing?” She thought about it, nodded humbly, then pointed to another piece of writing. “I thought this story was also pretty strong.”

“Did you write that for your mom, too?” She nodded again. “Good for you. I am sure she will enjoy reading what you wrote as much as I enjoyed listening to it. I think we also learned that having a purpose and an audience for any writing is important.”

What I didn’t ask this student was which piece of writing was her favorite. Through my questioning, I wanted her to start thinking about her writing as a reader, someone who has preferences for certain types of text over another.

I am not sure how much the teacher had stressed audience and purpose during her writing instruction, but I assumed she had in my follow up comments to her.

Thanks for letting me listen to your students reading aloud their own writing. I can tell how much pride and effort that have invested in their work. It is clear that you have created a literacy environment that encourages students to write about what is meaningful to them while ensuring they have a clear purpose and audience.

Looking Forward and Backward

When I first started teaching readers and writers in my 5th and 6th grade classroom, my curriculum consisted of day-to-day lessons plans that tried to align with the trade books and whole novel studies on hand. In other words, no curriculum. Our district compensated by adopting a basal program to ensure strategies and skills were taught consistently. Engagement was traded for achievement.

Balanced literacy requires a teacher to look both forward and backward. We need to be aware of what’s possible with new ways for teaching readers and writers, while holding close our core beliefs about effective literacy instruction. It’s one foot in the future where change can happen and one foot in the strong foundation of what we know to be true.

So what’s true? Who’s right and who’s wrong? If you search the internet with the phrase “research on the workshop model”, you’ll find arguments for both sides. This is not helpful, and likely a reason why teachers flock to questionable sites like Teachers Pay Teachers to find anything that might work for their students.

This is why I value the professional conversations I have with colleagues, such as through our instructional leadership team as well as in our new weekly online discussions here (Wednesdays, 7 P.M. CST). We are smarter together as long as we maintain an open mind while staying with our values. In other words, balance.

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