99.7% of the variance in comprehension skills at seven years of age are dependent upon two variables: language comprehension and word recognition or decoding (Hjetland et al. 2019)
The term 'Balanced Literacy' was first coined by the California Department of Education in 1996. A task force had been set up by the Department to investigate declining reading achievement in the wake of the Whole Language movement that had become popular among many educators over the preceding two decades. While three international inquiries into the teaching of early reading had confirmed the need to explicitly and systematically teach word recognition or decoding as well as Phonemic Awareness, Vocabulary, Fluency and Comprehension to reach a wide range of students, this was largely ignored by mainstream education and within university faculties.
Initially, however, Balanced Literacy had the intent of combining the key recommendations of these reports as well as the more generalised comprehension skills that had now become widely used in schools, as shown here by McKenzie (2002):
Balanced literacy employs the fundamentals of letter-sound correspondences, word study and decoding as well as holistic experiences in reading, writing, speaking and listening to create one integrated model that addresses all facets of literacy (McKenzie 2002, p. 2).
However, a lack of clear direction as to what Balanced Literacy was and how to teach it, gave way to multiple interpretations and ultimately, an increasingly uneven application of skills and knowledge over time. Perhaps most damaging has been the diminishing recognition of the importance of phonics instruction in favour of generalised comprehension skills. In doing so, educators have (often unknowingly) bypassed the central tenets of the Simple View of Reading (1986), still the most reliable theory of how early reading is enabled for young readers (Catts 2018; Chiu 2018; Hjetland 2019; Snow 2018; 2019).
This is far from teachers' fault. Some academics in faculties of education also chose to minimise the importance of phonics in teaching children to read, effectively reducing the importance of the known science at a time when scientific studies of how the brain learns to read were becoming increasingly nuanced and accurate. The introduction of functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) in 1990 in combination with electroencepholography (EEG) have created extraordinary opportunities to understand how the brain learns to read and provided educators with vital information of how to teach reading more effectively and for more children than ever before. (See How the Brain Learns to Read).
The move away from science caused Balanced Literacy to also continue to uphold some of the common beliefs that supported Whole Language. For example, it is still widely believed that learning to read will occur naturally for most children, when in fact the opposite is true. Reading was only invented around 5,000 years ago and while language and speaking are natural to humans, reading is not and must be taught (Dehaene 2009; 2013). The myth that reading is natural to the human brain led many teachers to focus on strategies that encourage students to guess or to use context or other cues such as pictures to help them comprehend text. This , in turn, has led to many students not being offered the explicit instruction in phonics that they needed in order to learn to read and to become skilled readers (McCardle & Chhabra 2004; McCutcheon et al. 2002; Moats 1999; 2020).
In addition, because it was believed learning to read is a skill that will be acquired naturally, it was assumed that there was no rush to teach children to read and that they would 'pick it up' eventually and in their own time. Since the 1980s, however, studies have shown that when students don't learn to read within the first 3 years of formal schooling, they are vulnerable to an exponentially increasing gap in achievement (Stanovich 1986) loss of confidence and poor reading self-concept and an inability to keep up with their peers (Beck, Perfetti & McKeown 1982).
Once children are able to recognise the individual sounds that make up words as letters or groups of letters in printed text (through the explicit teaching of phonics), repeated practice becomes a means to increase automatic retrieval from long-term memory, as well as to continue developing vocabulary and fluency and learning the many skills needed to comprehend, infer and analyse increasingly complex texts (Fuchs & Fuchs 2005; Kang & Shin 2019; Share 1995). (See The Bridge of Comprehension on the page ,Why Follow the Science?).
Watch the video below as teachers, administrators, parents, academics and psychologists discuss why they have chosen to move away from teaching Balanced Literacy.
Below is a video by Lyn Stone on the effect of BL and the common errors made when phonemic awareness and phonics are not taught explicitly and systematically.