From Balanced to Structured Literacy: The Measured Mom

If you told me five years ago I'd be writing this blog post about why I embraced the science of readingafter twenty years in balanced literacyI'd have looked at you cross-eyed.

Balanced literacy was my world

As a classroom teacher, I used a reading workshop approach assessing students' reading levels using running records, providing leveled books based on the results, and coaching them as they read using three-cueing. When I taught my own oldest five children to read, I used leveled books and only a smattering of decodables. I published blog posts all about three-cueing. I created and shared over 100 sight word books that required students to use three-cueing to "read" them.

It's not that I didn't believe in phonics, but I considered it to be secondary. I felt that by teaching my students to solve words using context, pictures, syntax, and phonics, I was teaching them to be strategic.

I was absolutely convinced balanced literacy was the only right way to teach reading. And why not? My graduate school classes taught me about three-cueing and running records with nary a word about structured phonics lessons. I was confident my approach banished boredom and led to lifelong readers. In contrast, I was sure that structured phonics lessons and decodable books would kill a love of reading.

The viral article that changed everything

Fast forward to 2019 when Emily Hanford published her viral article, "At a Loss for Words."

Since I had been publishing balanced literacy related articles for over six years on my website, The Measured Mom, it's no surprise that a reader asked for my feedback on Hanford's article which called three-cueing "a flawed theory about how reading works.”

I admit it. The first time I read the article, I dismissed it. Why should I believe that a journalist knew more about teaching reading than I, an experienced educator, did? But the article received so much press I couldn't ignore it. On my walks, I tried to mentally formulate a blog post in which I would refute all of Hanford's points.

But I couldn't figure out exactly what to say.

The tide began to turn

When I reached out to fellow educators in a Facebook group, I was seeking advice for how to prove Hanford wrong (because, I was sure, she had to be.) Instead, the reading wars erupted in the comments. Many ex-balanced literacy teachers gave me a list of books to read.

These are the books that got me started:

  • Know Better, Do Better by David Liben & Meredith Liben
  • Equipped for Reading Success by David Kilpatrick
  • A Fresh Look at Phonics by Wiley Blevins
  • Teaching Word Recognition by Rollanda E. O'Connor
  • Reading for Life by Lyn Stone
  • Shifting the Balance by Jan Burkins & Kari Yates

I joined a large Science of Reading Facebook group. Initially, I could spend only ten minutes a day in the group because what I read made me feel physically ill. Could I really have gotten it so wrong for all those years?

But I began to appreciate all the discussion and, most of all, links to free webinars with research-based information including edWebs hosted by Just Right Reader on the latest science of reading research. I watched hour after hour of workshops and webinars. During this time I took several science of reading-based courses from people I could trust:

Afterwards, when I revisited Emily Hanford's article, I had tremendous respect for her. She had done her research, and it all started coming together.

I taught my youngest to read

It was time to teach my youngest to read and by this time I knew structured phonics was important and three-cueing was counterproductive. But...couldn't I hold on to my leveled books? Couldn't I use them alongside my decodables?

For our first reading lesson, I had both a decodable and leveled text. When my little guy read the decodable book, he sounded out every word. When I gave him the leveled book, he tried to do the same thing.

"No, you can't sound out that word yet. Use the picture and the first letter. What could that word be?"

A huge light bulb went off when I realized that I was giving him mixed messages. From that day forward, we stuck with quality decodables, like those from Just Right Reader, in all our reading lessons.

I won't lie—it was hard for me at first. He laboriously sounded out every. single. word. It was painful to listen to. My husband, who had heard the oldest five kids breeze through their leveled, predictable books, confided, "it makes me feel sad to hear him read like that."

Just Right Reader Science of Reading decodables

Before long though, my youngest had orthographically mapped CVC words and more. A few months into our reading journey, we used decodable books only during our reading lessons; he read books of his choice all on his own.

What finally convinced me

I will forever be grateful to the person in the science of reading group who acknowledged that "balanced literacy works for some kids."

Thank you! I thought. It wasn't just my imagination that I'd taught dozens of kids to read the balanced literacy way, including my oldest five children.

That person went on to say, "but it doesn't work for everyone. Some kids apply the phonics that you teach them, but others don't. Three-cueing becomes a bad habit. When they get to third grade and the pictures disappear, they lack the ability to read unfamiliar multisyllabic words. They hit a wall."

Ouch. I didn't like to hear this, but it made perfect sense.

I studied Nancy Young's Ladder of Reading, and I felt sadness when I remembered students who were surely in the percentage who need a structured approach to learn to read. I wished I had given them a phonics assessment and then focused, explicit phonics lessons. Instead, I had encouraged them to keep practicing their leveled books.

More clarity came when I studied orthographic mapping, the mental process by which we remember words for future instant retrieval so we don't need to sound them out. 

When I finally understood that kids don't learn words by their shape, but by mapping sounds to letters, I began to see that early leveled books, which require kids to take their eyes off the words, are counterproductive.

Another key understanding was when I realized that we teach reading by training parts of the brain to work together. Unlike learning to speak, reading isn't a natural process. When I realized that surrounding kids with beautiful literature, while a very positive thing, wasn't going to teach them to read, I began to appreciate the value of systematic, sequential decoding instruction.

When I saw the brains of people with and without dyslexia, it hit me that using leveled books with beginning readers was actually promoting activity on the wrong side of the brain.

Where I am today

After twenty years in balanced literacy, I now embrace the science of reading. I share the science of reading-based interviews and episodes on my podcast, Triple R Teaching. I write research-based articles on my blog, The Measured Mom. I completely revised my online course about teaching reading, Teaching Every Reader, and I share thousands of science of reading-aligned printables in my membership for PreK to third grade educators, The Measured Mom Plus.

I am especially grateful to Just Right Reader for creating quality, research-based decodables which have shown me that decodable books are exactly what students need to find success…and a love of reading.

 

 

Anna Geiger, M.Ed., has classroom experience from first through fifth grade. After earning her Master's degree in Curriculum & Instruction, she began caring for her children at home. Now Anna serves educators through her blog, The Measured Mom, where she shares hands-on lessons, thoughtful articles, and printable resources. She has a weekly podcast called Triple R Teaching, sells two online courses for K-2 teachers, and delivers monthly video trainings and printables to members of The Measured Mom Plus.


8 comments


  • Abigail Van Alstyne

    I am not a teacher. I do realize different people have different ideas as to how things should be taught though. But I really have no idea what constitutes balanced literacy or structured literacy, three cueing, decodables etc.. Could you maybe explain this in less technical terms. I’m just a grandmother trying to work with my grandkids using your Letter of the Week Curriculum and other materials I’ve found.


  • Denise

    I am a second grade teacher and so appreciate you sharing your research about reading. I have a question about second grade writing.
    I have worked with teachers that say daily journaling is what 2nd graders need. Personally I lean to a more structured approach much like reading. Teaching the students all the writing genres and the writing process. What are your thoughts?


  • Stephanie Coffee

    Fantastic! I have taught in classroom/Title I and now sub, tutor and K-prep. (I have experienced) Children lost foundation over the pandemic and are STRUGGLING! And I have a waiting list. I SO appreciate this article and am going to go down the rabbit hole of links. Thank you! (And I too appreciate the comments to you from your reader that pointed out balanced reading works for some, but not all. Now that makes sense, because isn’t that the case in all learning/experiencing…we do not all process information and retain it in the exact same manner. I wonder; the holy grail of finding ONE set way to teach/receive information shall never exist as long as we remain individuals who have our own separate brains, individual prenatal and first five years experiences. And I wonder at the past 20+ years of moving into areas of teaching that are researched well and have promise with the data collected, yet end up lacking effectiveness…is it due to execution, expectations, other factors in the actual process of teaching/learning that transpire. (Classroom sizes and curriculum requirements, children coming to kindergarten with more varied levels of rich exposure, little brains that have been overloaded with screen/electronic time…? Oh, the variables! And yet variables have always been present from these things, albeit the screen exposure is a new add-on.) This is where I wish we were sitting and conversing…
    …And now I wonder if I should even hit ‘post’ because we aren’t in an auditory discussion and tone and lack of adequate wording may be inhibiting my ability to communicate myself clearly.
    Bottom line, THANK YOU for all of this information and the supports made available. -SMC


  • Janie Fontenelle

    What do you think of the Jolly phonics approach to teaching reading?


  • Saroj

    Wow you hit a nerve. Thank you so much for making me see another side to teaching children to read.
    Much appreciated 💝


Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published