SUMMARY: Balanced literacy lessons – The “Reading Wars”

[Pressley, Roehrig, Bogner, Raphael, and Dolesal. Balanced Literacy Instruction (2002) Focus on Exceptional Children, 34(5) p. 1-16.]

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There are “reading wars” surrounding the skills of reading: the developmental order and relative importance of decoding versus comprehension skills. (See Paris: Reinterpreting the Development of Reading Skills. Reading Research Quarterly, 2005) Paris categorises the skills of reading as either constrained (letter knowledge, phonics, concepts of print; less so: phonemic awareness, oral reading fluency) or unconstrained (vocabulary and comprehension). The constrained skills being so because of the small and finite amount / number of concepts, to be mastered. Whilst the unconstrained you continue to learn into adulthood and there is a greater variation among people of the specific elements that are learned, the degree of expertise attained and the onset and duration of acquisition.

The New Zealand MOE (Ministry of Education) created the ‘dimensions of effective practice:




Pressley, Roehrig, Bogner, Raphael, and Dolesal (2002) was an influential study in the development of this model.

Research conducted through observational studies of outstanding primary level teachers (in the US).


* students were provided with frequent opportunities to read and write.

* Literacy was integrated into all subject areas.

* Fine balance between the school-orientated and text-based approach, and mini lessons providing for the development of skills, when required.

* Scaffolding provided by the teachers was closely monitored.

* Result: the writing was more advanced, longer in content, more accurate and student engagement was high. (This could link to Cambourne’s ‘Model of Learning” :




* The balanced instructional model is particularly appropriate and beneficial for students who have initial difficulties in learning to read and write.

* Balanced instruction requires: the knowledge of how to carry out effective skill instruction as well as high awareness of how to teach holistic reading and writing.

* Teaching is both complicated and coherent, as well as tailored to individuals’ needs.

* High motivation and high engagement = high reading and writing achievement. (Literacy being part of virtually everything that goes on in the classroom – integrated throughout the day).

* Teachers with the greatest reading and writing achievements seemed to integrate the skills instruction with the holistic activities better.

* Careful monitoring of students to decide when mini, skill-orientated-lessons were needed (but keeping the immersion in reading excellent children’s books and writing real stories.)

* Encouraging transferring skills learnt in skills-orientated mini-lessons to holistic experiences.

* Scaffolding -also not that it requires that teachers monitor students carefully and consistently.

* Teacher knowledge of the student-tasks so that tasks are not ‘overloading’ children (See Cognitive Load Theory).

* Children being taught how to be independent learners, and self-regulating.

* Cross-curricular connections evident: e.g. projects that integrated reading, writing and content.

*High expectations from the teacher of the students.

* Communicating a ‘can do’ attitude and a ‘we might make mistakes, but we learn from them’ policy.

* Mechanisms to engage learners:

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* To engage children: Interesting content and tasks,  appropriately challenging material, and depth of coverage.

* Cont. : Teachers presented abstract content personally and concretely, had clear learning objectives, used effective praise an feedback, modelled thinking and problem-solving skills, encourage stick-with-it-ness, and explained the relevance of what was being taught.

* Choice of literature – to expand children’s knowledge and understanding of the world.

“A rich, multicomponent instructional world, a world in which every child received a balance of skills instruction and holistic experiences appropriate for him or her.”

* The use of “Reading Recovery” skills and pedagogy in the classroom.

* Development of phonemic awareness accounts for only a very small proportion of reading success – not a one-time quick fix; only one ingredient.

*Explicit teaching of the meanings of vocabulary is important, so that there are no misconceptions taken form inferences.

* Effective comprehension strategies instruction begins with extensive teacher explanation and modelling of strategies, followed by teacher-scafolded use of the strategies,  culminating in student self-regulated use of the strategies.

* Balanced reading instruction teaches children to be aware when they are having difficulties with reading and to react constructively to problems during reading: self-monitoring.

* Encourage more reading – increases word recognition and likelihood that students will become fluent readers; vocabulary expand; world knowledge and understanding develops.

* Use of “why-questioning” to help children to relate reading to prior knowledge, aka elaborative interrogation by Pressley and associates.

* Teaching process writing instruction, e.g. to plan, construct / draft, and revise / edit.

* Motivating reading and writing:  teaching students to believe that they can be successful with some effort; providing rich print and reading experiences; providing holistic experiences; connecting literacy instruction with content-area learning; and encouraging cooperative learning.


“Excellent literacy teachers do it all! They balance skills teaching and holistic experiences while flooding their classrooms with motivation.”


Having just read an article (Taylor, Peterson, Pearson and Roderiguez. Looking inside classrooms: Reflecting on the ‘how’ as well as the ‘what’ in effective reading instruction (2002). The Reading Teacher 56(3) p. 270-279.) I think that it is important to add here to discussion on a ‘balanced literacy programme’ that the teaching style a teacher adopts has a big impact on the effectiveness of the teaching and the children’s development.

If teachers choose to be ‘tellers’ then they are “robbing students of opportunities to test their own knowledge and skills acquisitions, and themselves of opportunities to evaluate students’ growth toward independence” and the less the children will grow in their reading achievement. Try instead to be ‘coaches’ e.g. what could you do to work out what that word says? so the next word you want to write is ‘like’, can you sound it out and write down some of the sounds that you can hear?





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