'Balanced literacy' approach wins reading wars in Columbia schools

Monday, May 13, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:30 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, May 14, 2013
Sara Howes helps first-grader Grayson Fick work through new words, which are written on the board, from a story they started during a Reading Recovery session in mid-March at Derby Ridge Elementary School. Students typically spend 12 to 20 weeks in the program to improve their reading skills.

COLUMBIA — When he makes a mistake — such as pronouncing "smelled" as "smiled" — Grayson Fick doesn't get upset. He doesn't freeze up or give up. He'll just stop and go through the sounds in each word until he gets it.

Grayson, a 6-soon-to-be-7-year-old first-grader at Derby Ridge Elementary School, reads steadily with a quiet confidence, which cracks only slightly as he fidgets during a tough word or phrase. Listening closely, his teacher Sara Howes takes notes about his progress.


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It's a routine Grayson knows well. Every day, he gets 30 minutes of one-on-one time with Howes in Reading Recovery, a "safety net" program the Columbia Public School District uses to help teach reading and literacy to first-graders. The program is designed to prevent failure before it happens, and it adheres closely to the district's "balanced literacy" approach for all students, said Susan Blackburn, the Title I professional development director for Columbia Public Schools.

Balanced literacy, which has been integrated into schools' curriculum across the country, is designed to draw on the best of two warring philosophies about how children best learn to read — one that is "phonics-based" and another built on what researchers term "whole language."

The so-called "reading wars" pitted literacy scholars against each other for decades. But Columbia's school officials think that when a program uses just one approach, it's the child who loses. In blending elements of different methods of instruction, teachers are better able to cater to what is developmentally appropriate for children learning to read.

Two approaches, many opinions

A quick primer: phonics-based approaches to reading champion a strong emphasis on learning parts of words, how they correspond to sounds and how those work together to help children sound out any word they might meet. For example, understanding that the sounds "suh-tuh-ah-puh" are blended together to form "stop." Children sound out words to read, they don't need to rely on pictures and context to understand words.

Whole language proponents, on the other hand, dismiss the value of teaching phonics to every child. Rather, they say, students get the phonics they need when they show they need it. Children will read books about familiar topics and infer what a word is based on background knowledge or pictures. Most importantly, the more they love reading and feel connected to it, the more they'll read. The more words children see, the more they learn.

Columbia Public Schools has taught balanced literacy for years and hopes to use it to transcend the limitations the reading wars impose. Students get the best of both worlds: strong support for fundamental reading skills and a more holistic, individualized take on what is needed to be successful.

Reading Recovery is a way of making balanced literacy and the district's approach even more potent. By incorporating one-on-one time for 30 minutes every day, children get narrowly focused lessons on the specific skills they need to work on. The program has been in place since 1992 to help first-graders who require extra attention as they learn to read.

Now, new academic standards, know as the Common Core State Standards, have created an atmosphere where being a competent reader is even more important. The standards, adopted by the district in 2012, set a baseline for achievement in the schools. This year, elementary school teachers are refocusing their energy on making sure their reading curriculum complies with the standards. So far, so good; the district already uses curriculum materials that align with Common Core.

The catch? With new standards come new tests that will replace the annual Missouri Assessment Program in spring of 2015. To prepare students for the tests, which measure student progress and school effectiveness, curriculum needs to be solid. Reading curriculum is especially significant because it forms the foundation of a child's test-taking skills.

The first year of new tests in 2015 will occur when this year's first-graders will be in third-grade, the year students embark on the journey that is standardized testing. In third grade, they will be expected to be proficient readers. If students can't read well, reading advocates believe, they won't test well.

Reading Recovery close-up

Grayson sits with his hands folded in front of him, elbows on the table, as he peers at his book, "Gilbert the Pig Has an Adventure."

"Gilbert the Pig was taking a nap when he saw the farmer drive out of the gate," he reads smoothly. It's a book he's read before.

After a few more sentences, Howes stops him.

"What's going to happen in the rest of the story?" she asks, demonstrating a strategy native to balanced literacy where children use pictures and background knowledge to help them figure out what they're reading.

"Gilbert's going to go home and wonder where the farmer went," Grayson says.

Howes and Grayson sit at a small, child-sized table in a small classroom. They sit close together so Howes can hear Grayson read aloud from his book. Howes joined the Reading Recovery program two years ago, after 14 years teaching kindergarten and first grade. She is one of 17 teachers in the district trained for Reading Recovery.

After working through the story about Gilbert the Pig, Howes and Grayson move to a short easel with a magnetic board. Howes moves a cluster of magnetic letters off to one side and draws a large circle. She asks Grayson to put all the letter B’s, both uppercase and lowercase, into the circle. Then she pulls a few other letters into the circle and builds the word "brother."

"Break my word," she instructs.

Breaking words is part of "word work" in balanced literacy instruction. Howes asks Grayson to separate the word into its component sounds. He sounds the word out as he separates the letters on the board.


"What other words have 'other?'" she asks.

Grayson rattles off a short list: "other, mother, another."

Howes makes sure Grayson is integrating reading and speaking by switching his focus between the written words in front of him and words recited from memory. By indirectly coaching him on word-sound patterns such as "other," Howes is not always teaching phonics in separate lessons; she often embeds it into lessons on spelling or writing.

Students in the Reading Recovery program spend 12 to 20 weeks working with a teacher one-on-one on the reading skills they haven't yet mastered. Some need help decoding, or understanding how letters and sounds represent written words. Others struggle with comprehension and vocabulary.

By the end of the program, about 75 percent of students will improve to the average reading level of their class, said Blackburn, the Reading Recovery leader for the district.

Regular classroom reading teachers use many of the same techniques as Reading Recovery, just on a milder level, Blackburn said. Whether one-on-one or in a group setting, teachers try to touch on how reading, writing and speaking work together, a method that sets balanced literacy apart from pure phonics.

Preparing for change

Since 2009, Columbia schools have used a set of reading materials called "Good Habits, Great Readers," published by Pearson, which specializes in educational materials. Pearson says its materials align with Common Core, but Becky Stanley, K-5 language arts curriculum coordinator for the district, said teachers want to assess the extent of that alignment for themselves.

To prepare for the new tests, which will first be administered in the 2014-15 school year, elementary teachers worked in groups to drill down into which lessons cover which standards, which work as they're written and which need to be improved. If the Pearson materials aren't doing the job, the teachers will adapt them or develop their own.

"We know that the writing area is going to be huge," Stanley said of Common Core and the related tests. "Our materials address it but not to the rigor and the level we are going to have to provide."

For older elementary school students, increased rigor could mean more work on learning new words or understanding more complicated ideas in books rather than trying to learn specific letter-sound relationships. It's trading in "Gilbert the Pig Has an Adventure" for, say, "Charlotte's Web."

Teachers need to make sure students can put information together from different sources and support arguments with information from what they read. To that end, teachers must expose their students to just as much nonfiction as fiction. Along with storybooks, young children might read about how animals live or how plants grow from seeds to vegetables.

Learning together

Howes now asks Grayson to make up a sentence to write.

"What are you doing this weekend?" she asks to help him find a subject.

"I’m going to drive to Oklahoma for a NBA game," Grayson says. "I’m going with my dad and my papa and my cousin."

Out of that information, they craft a sentence: "I won’t be here on Friday because I’m going to a NBA game." Howes lets him write the sentence without correcting his use of the article "a."

Before Grayson writes the sentence, Howes reviews how to understand the word "won't" — explaining that words that are contractions have an apostrophe that replaces the missing letters. Grayson writes the sentence on a piece of white paper with an orange marker.

His large letters slant diagonally down the page. As has become his habit, he sounds out the words as he writes.

"Nice saying it as you write it," Howes encourages. "That helps you get it in your head, doesn’t it?"

They go over the sentence together, and Howes covers Grayson's errors with pieces of white paper tape.

"I’m not very good at capital N," Grayson offers.

"Slant down, straight up," Howes coaches, writing a few N's before Grayson practices on his own. "Try one more by yourself."

Individualized instruction

The reading wars that have long pitted phonics advocates against whole language believers don't seem to have much foothold within Columbia Public Schools.

"We really started looking at children individually," Stanley, the K-5 curriculum coordinator, said. "It's all about good instruction and what does the child need at the time and what is developmentally appropriate."

For many schools here and across the nation, that means using balanced literacy.

Some phonics scholars remain critical of balanced literacy, saying there is no scientific research proving its effectiveness. Some say it's just a new-and-improved name for whole language, which was roundly rejected when research in the early 1990s suggested it didn't make children good enough readers.

But Blackburn, the Reading Recovery leader in Columbia schools, said that balanced literacy, or at least the district's interpretation and use of it, gives students a way to get a firm grasp on all aspects of reading, not just the printed words. And the special attention that comes through Reading Recovery encourages struggling students to get the strong start they need, build confidence and learn to love reading.

"I can't think of anything more rewarding than watching them learn to read," Blackburn said. "I'm excited to advocate for those kids."

Blackburn, who started in the district as a speech pathologist, doesn't remember exactly how she learned to read. But she remembers using the Dick and Jane series in first grade. She said reading was a big part of raising her own children, now in their 20s; "Goodnight Moon" was her favorite book to read to them.

The rhyming patterns in "Goodnight Moon" could categorize it as a phonics text. Funnily enough, or perhaps fittingly, that fact didn't come up at all in Blackburn's memories about the evenings spent reading the book with her children.

Measured progress

To end their lesson, Grayson and Howes start reading a new book called "Clucky." It’s about a cat, a chick and other animals.

Howes explains the plot and then asks Grayson questions about it. "What do you think might happen if the cat goes after the chick?"

"The cat might eat it," Grayson says.

He continues describing what he thinks might happen by looking at the pictures that sit below the words. When Grayson reads, Howes stops him every so often to go over a boldfaced word that represents vocabulary he should learn.

Grayson works through "Clucky" more slowly than he read the Gilbert book. He pauses at the word “would.” Howes explains the “ould” chunk and the sound it makes. Grayson does not seem frustrated by the words he struggles with. He listens to Howes, sounds out the word and moves on.

At the end of the story, he closes the book with a flourish.

"Piece of cake."

The principle that gives children a jumping-off point for reading instruction is called the alphabetic principle, which is the concept that letters in words represent sounds. Once this clicks with students, they can start learning to read. Before this point, however, they have to go through a few other phases, which could overlap and don’t necessarily end before the next phase begins. Graphic by Christina Trester

Supervising editor is Jacqui Banaszynski.

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Nicole Gerdemann May 13, 2013 | 11:55 a.m.

Hands down, the best program offered at our, and any elementary school. I was so fortunate to get my son enrolled in the program during his second semester of first grade. Since my son was a baby, I have read with him daily, at a minimum of 30 minutes most days. Once we hit first grade, I started to see that my son was not quite catching on when reading. I tried to help him, and much to my frustration, he still wasn't catching on. I spoke with his teacher and his principal frequently, and even to the wonderful lady who would become his RR teacher later that school year. I was given some other tools to work with him on, enrolled him in one of the local tutoring programs, and yet my frustration continued as he still was not catching on. I would cry daily, as I felt like a failure, and worried that my son would not get the help that he needed. Then the day came that I got the news that he was being put in the Reading Recovery program in the second semester. We went in and met with his RR teacher. I was so elated and thankful for the help that he was getting ready to receive, that I had to give her a hug and thank her for pushing to get him in the program. When my son went in to the program last February, he was reading at a level 6-8, where as he should have been at about a level 11-12. We struggled at the start, but his RR teacher saw, and learned from speaking with us, that my son will catch on to something when he wants to, not when he is told that he should. Sure enough, it finally clicked, and his progress continued to grow daily. When he finished the program, he was testing out at level 21-22 books. All of this in a matter of months. I love this program, have told many about it, have overheard a conversation between RR teachers at Murry's one night and thanked them for what they do, and will continue to tout the benefits of this awesome, life-changing program. I think it would be an awesome thing if each school doubled, if not tripled or quadrupled the number of Reading Recovery teachers that they have, as I feel that there are so many more students that would benefit from this program if there were enough Reading Recovery teachers in every school. My son is finishing up second grade this month, and he is doing fantatic, and I owe so much to Mrs. Carmel Skrabal at West Boulevard Elementary and all of the other wonderful educators that have touched his, mine and many others lives. I will close as I sit here at my computer writing this with tears of joy in my eyes this time. Thank you again!

(Report Comment)
Shaina Cavazos May 13, 2013 | 6:06 p.m.

Hello Ms. Gerdemann,

I'm the reporter on this story (I'm posting this in response to your Facebook comment as well). Thank you so much for sharing your experiences with Reading Recovery with us. It's gratifying to know that I'm reporting on people and programs that contribute so much to the community and its students. If you'd ever like to tell the Missourian any more of your stories, or have ideas about what our education coverage should include, please free feel to send something to our From Readers section at

Thanks again,

Shaina Cavazos

(Report Comment)

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