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Keys to a Balanced Literacy Program

What does it mean to be literate? Some synonyms for the word literate include educated, learned and knowledgeable. How would you then describe balanced literacy? Balanced literacy programs are what today’s schools are aiming to enact. A balanced literacy program incorporates six components of knowledge into your teaching strategies.

To have an effective balanced literacy program, you must incorporate reading and writing. They are essential parts of the program because they stimulate communication and critical thinking. Reading can be taught in a variety of ways. Incorporating an author’s chair into your classroom is a great way to promote reading and writing. It allows your students to assume the role of “star performer” while they are sitting in the chair. They are both the author and the reader, giving other students the opportunity to communicate and ask questions about the author’s work. Literature discussion circles are also an excellent way to promote reading and writing together in the classroom. By reading selections and having discussion groups about the book, it allows the students to take control of their own reading. Teaching reading and writing together is vital because both are constructive processes that lead to critical thinking. There are four domains of writing that should be incorporated into your planning. Sensory writing, which describes something in clear detail, allows the reader and writer to feel almost as if they are “living” the book. This type of writing prompts the student to think creatively, yet develop a sense of character analysis and characteristics. Great attention is paid to detail during this type of writing. Closely related, imaginative writing allows the student to be creative by telling a story through their writing. Imaginative writing need not be based on fact, which is why you must use your imagination to create a story your readers will enjoy. Practical, or Informational writing is done by students to state basic information in a clear manner. This is used in captions students write, or a one sentence line to describe events or happenings. The final writing domain is Analytical, or Expository writing, which is the most difficult for most students. As the writer your job is to explain, analyze or persuade another to see your reasoning. To write an expository piece, you must have a vast amount of information (depending on your topic). For all writing, you nuts incorporate reading so that your students may gain information and knowledge before they write. Critical thinking and analysis happen when you promote reading and writing. Open discussions lead to creativity as well, which leads to two more components of a balanced literacy program – listening and speaking.

For effective communication, when one person speaks, another must be there to listen. Your ears are always hearing, but are they always listening? How many times have you recalled a piece of information, but can’t remember where you heard it from? You mind is always absorbing background information. You receive this information through listening skills. Once your mind absorbs the information that you hear, how will you display that information for others? One way is speaking. Without verbal communication our society would cease to exist. Literature Discussion circles are excellent to display listening and speaking skills along with reading and writing. Give the students several ways to display listening and speaking skills. Go beyond yes and no questions and ask ones that will illicit responses from students. Retelling a story is great way for children to practice listening. Read a story, and ask children to retell it in their own words. This teaches the students to actively listen as opposed to passively hear the words. Even asking the students to give a summary of the story trains them to listen because you are asking them to recall a sequence of events.

The final two components of a balanced literacy program are thinking and viewing. Where ever we go, what ever we do, we are thinking. Challenge your students to use their thinking skills. Give the students visuals so that they are able to use all of their senses to learn. Students learn in many different ways. Some students are auditory learners, some are tactile learners, some are visual learners, or a combination of all three. By creating and displaying visuals for your students, you encourage them to interpret visual information to mentally process. Visuals can range from colorful posters and interactive bulletin boards to simply writing on the board and using overheads. Try discussing Geography without showing a map or measurement without showing a ruler. Most children K – 6 (and maybe longer) need to see some form of concreteness in their learning to be successful. Abstract concepts are difficult to grasp, especially for the younger grades and visual aids help make some things concrete for the children. Encourage students to think about their thinking. This is referred to as metacognition. Help your students become aware of what they are thinking about at all times. If your students are aware of their thinking, they are more in control of their thoughts and able to redirect and focus their thoughts on productive projects.

The six components of literacy are important for a balanced program, but there are other areas that you as a teacher need to address. Effective classroom management is needed for balance as well. In your classroom, you need to balance your time so that students stay on task with their assignments and utilize down time, while still giving them down time with less demanding work as well. Remember, learning occurs all of the time, especially during play. Sentencing your students to eternal seat work makes for a long day and by 3:00 most of your students are so mentally exauhsted that they are not able to stay on task and focus their thinking. Structured free time and interaction with each other gives the children time to let out their built up energy and frustrations. It also lets their mid escape for those few short minutes. Be aware, classroom management also requires classroom rules. Rules should be used consistently, and remain positive. Keep the list short, but to the point. They should be posted in a clear and accessible place, and should be filled with do’s instead of do not’s. Look at your set of rules. Are they realistic? They should not be so rigid that they are impossible to follow. Expectations for a Kindergarten class to stay seated do not speak out of turn would be examples of rules that are impossible to follow. Remember the grade you are teaching, and make the rules age appropriate.

Classroom arrangement aids in classroom management. Where you place your students will have an effect on their learning. Place desks or tables so that every student can see you, and you are able to see each one of them. Students can stray off task when you are not visible to them. Make sure you utilize each student’s abilities in the classroom. Group the stronger readers with the weaker ones for peer tutoring. Both students will benefit from the experience.

And where does assessment fit into this whole balanced literacy program? Accurate record keeping and assessment is essential to track your students’ progress. Keeping records that record not only grades, but also behaviors, pertinent history, and family information could help you not only as their current teacher, but could be the key to unlocking a problem, or stumbling block for a future teacher. Assessment of performance can determine where that student may need improvement, but also where you as a teacher need improvement as well. Sometimes, no matter how well you think your lesson went, student grades reflect your success. If the majority of your class performed poorly on a unit test, as a teacher, you need to self reflect to figure out what went wrong and develop solutions to remedy the error. What happens if your only method of assessment is the end result? The student has already learned the wrong information, tested poorly, and you have moved on to the next unit. By this time, it is too late. Assess children before, during and after everything that you do. Assessment can take the form of KWL charts, journals, creative writing, poster and newspaper creations, and games. If you continually assess your students you can detect a problem before it gets out of control.

All of these things (the components of literacy, assessment, classroom management and arrangement) together promote for an effective literacy program. Not one strategy works without the union of the others by its side.


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