Books were scarce but most schools had copies of books such as McGuffey Readers which taught phonics. Children started going to school at about age 8 and stayed in the one room school house until approximately age 13. During those years they learned reading, writing, and arithmetic. When they turned 13, they usually left school to work on the farm, apprentice to a trade (including home-making) or went off to college in another town.
It was a great system. Advocates point out that these young scholars started out learning the alphabet with McGuffey Readers, and when they were finished with the four volumes they were reading at a level above most 21st century high school graduates can read today. These old fashioned scholars went straight from McGuffey to the King James Bible.
Of course, there were a few children who didn't thrive with that system. They were labeled as misfits, made to sit in the corner with a dunce hat, and were ridiculed. Those who didn't "get it" dropped out fairly early.
"Good riddance", thought many teachers when these unteachable students quit. The dunce cap and doses of ridicule served as an example to some of the other less academically inclined chidren to study hard to avoid the same treatment.
As time went on, the one room school house gave way to the public school system. The chalk and slate were replaced with modern workbooks; and the dunce cap was replaced with remedial education. Reading specialists either embraced or denounced the phonic method. Multiple and complex models of reading were developed, and the entire town joined the debate.
Regardless of which method a school system taught, many children still had difficulty learning. In an average classroom of 22 children, four or five read significantly below grade level. Standardized tests evaluated students and schools. Teachers, administators, and parents fumed over the wisdom of holding a struggling reader back with younger children or moving them up to the next grade where they often fell further and further behind.
As reading programs became more complex and specialized, the phonics movement continued to grow as a popular alternative for families discontent with the schools and reading instruction. Phonics programs flourished with costs ranging from a few dollars to hundreds or thousands of dollars.
Meanwhile, some students still fell further behind.
Entire schools sometimes fell so far behind it became a national disgrace.
Homeschooling began as a tiny, barely perceptible movement and soon swept across the now-industrialized nation. And overwhelmingly, the parents preferred the phonics method. It was simpler. It worked. McGuffey readers were re-printed and joined the multi-colored graded workbooks available for purchase. And once again young readers took only a few years to progress from the ABC's to the King James Bible (and/or the comic version of Star Wars Trilogy.)
Meanwhile, many in the school system - and a few taught at home - still struggled to read. The literacy level of the once powerful nation was surpassed by third world countries.
"Back to the basics," cried voices on the right. "Children need phonics and the simple, systematic rules of language."
"Integrated, wholistic, inter-modal, neurologically-facilitated pseudo-didactitism," replied voices on the left. "Children need professional models of education that specialize in a kaledoscopic whole language approach requiring total restructuring of all curriculum and schools and re-education of teachers every 5.6 years."
"Help," cried the parents of children who couldn't read.
"Maybe," said some teachers, "we can systematically teach each student the skills they need to read. Maybe we can break down the reading process and find what good readers are doing mentally. Then perhaps we can teach those strategies to those with literacy problems."
And so, balanced literacy was born. Phonics and whole language were blended. Themed unit studies and the 7 intelligences were woven into inter-active curriculum. Students became peers, teachers became facilitators, and librarians became resource specialists.
And parents became confused. Report cards changed so even literate parents couldn't tell if their children were reading or not. The landscape has shifted. Powerpoints replaced readers; computer modules replaced workbooks, and Reading Groups 1, 2, and 3 turned into guided reading groups which changed weekly.
It would be great to say that balanced literacy ended the reading wars, solved the learning difficulties of all struggling learners, and put America back at the top of the educational world.
Well, maybe someday it will. At the present time, it is a model of teaching that has both educational strengths and weaknesses.
Have you found balanced literacy to be helpful? Counter-productive? Motivating? Distracting? Providing your assessment might be beneficial to others. Please share your input. While providing honest feedback, please be certain your comments are not disparaging towards others.
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