Planning for Great Balanced Literacy Instruction

Planning for Great Balanced Literacy Instruction
By Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris

When Who’s Doing the Work? How to Say Less so Readers Can Do More was introduced to the world in the spring of 2016, it was warmly received by educators who have, throughout the implementation of their balanced literacy instruction, encountered the frustrating reality of working hard to teach students important skills and strategies only to discover students don’t necessarily use them when working independently. Teachers expressed to us that it felt like our book directly addressed how they might adjust their practices to combat this exasperating problem in their classrooms, but there was always a request for more: What exactly does it look like to teach the gradual release of responsibility across instructional contexts? Do you have videos? Can you show us what it sounds like when you use the prompting funnel?

As we listened to teachers’ concerns, we felt compelled to figure out what more we could do to help. Early on, the idea for a curriculum resource arose, however, that had to be reconciled with our deeply held belief that teachers, not programs, are best equipped to teach students. Going in this direction meant figuring out how to provide a scaffold for teachers while simultaneously making space for responsive teaching, honoring what teachers know about their students and sound instructional practices.

As you can imagine, creating a resource that does both of these things posed a unique design challenge. Because we had no model for this work, we began by carefully scrutinizing all aspects of our planning process. Guided by the objective of identifying the parts of our work we hoped would transcend this resource, we recognized the following three points as integral to our lesson sets. By sharing them with you, we hope that these points become the building blocks to a framework that supports your instruction and helps you to teach in ways that allow you to say less so students can do more.

Jan and art
1. Art creates a level playing field for learning literacy concepts.

Throughout Who’s Doing the Work?, we refer to each of four instructional contexts: read aloud, shared, guided, and independent reading. We ask people to reconsider the gradual release of responsibility as something done only in a single lesson to something that can be done across each of these instructional contexts thereby giving students lots of models for new learning and opportunities to practice implementing new skills and strategies. However, in our lesson sets, we add one more instructional context: the art lesson. We have used visual art to teach reading for almost two decades now, so it seemed quite fitting for engaging all readers in the lesson sets. Each of our lesson set cycles begins with a lesson that focuses on a piece of visual art that serves as the “text” for whatever skill or strategy is the targeted objective for the lesson cycle. By removing all of the print demands, we level the learning playing field and allow all students, no matter their reading ability or facility with language, access to the new ideas, skills, and strategies.

2. Text is the backbone of all great literacy instruction.

Great texts help children fall in love with reading and when we consistently present children with texts that are engaging, thought-provoking, and accessible, we increase the odds of students becoming better readers. It is critically important that students see the inherent, intrinsic value in the act of reading. As we created the Who’s Doing the Work? lesson sets, we spent no less than 60% of our time reading and looking at texts, trying to decide which ones best fit the many criteria that we have for selecting great books. As we developed the lessons, we had to make final decisions about which texts to go with, knowing that what we chose may not be what is best for the students of all teachers using our resource. For this reason, we also provided careful insight into our selection process and offer guidance so that teachers can select alternatives if our choices don’t meet the needs of their students. Text is not a one-size-fits-all conversation. When a text doesn’t fit or work for a group of students, it should be changed. Children simply do not have enough hours in school to waste on books that do not serve their needs as learners!

3. A teacher’s job is to respond to students’ needs as learners.

When using a teaching resource, one of the greatest conundrums teachers are faced with is whether to follow the material just as they are written or to vary it to meet the needs of the students in front of them. Firmly rooted in our belief that nobody knows students better than the teachers in the classroom with them, we are staunch supporters of the latter. As we wrote our lesson sets, we were acutely aware that there are an infinite set of variables that influence whether it’s possible for a teacher to execute a lesson exactly as written. In fact, we were so committed to the idea of thoughtful teacher interaction with our lessons that we included a “commentary” column where we share our inner dialogue and describe the why behind our suggestions, as well as a “responsive teaching” section after each lesson, in which we anticipate possible stumbling blocks and offer ideas for amending the lesson. When we combine careful noticing of student learning behaviors with instruction that responds to what these needs reveal, we forge the path to effective teaching. No matter what resource you use to support your instruction, responding to what you know about your students as learners should always take precedence over delivering a lesson “with fidelity.”

If you have ever asked yourself the question, “Why isn’t my instruction transferring?” or found yourself feeling like you’re doing far more work than your students are, you have heralded the call to adjust your practice. These three components are integral to our lesson sets and serve as key instructional planning reminders of what action can be taken to address questions and concerns about student agency and progress in your classroom. No matter what anchors your balanced literacy instruction–Reader’s Workshop, a basal reading program, The Daily Five, The Literacy Collaborative–our supplemental units are meant to scaffold you as you work to find a place of true balance within your balanced literacy instruction.

Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris are the authors of Who’s Doing The Work? How to Say Less So Readers Can Do More and the Who’s Doing the Work? Lesson Sets. You can request a free lesson sampler here.