Balanced Learning

The “science of reading” approach is based on phonics, which sounds out the letters of words: Bit. Buh! Ih! Tuh!

The “balanced literacy” approach believes “exposing students to the likes of Dr. Seuss and Maya Angelou is more important than drilling them on phonics.”

One of the most popular reading curriculums in the country — used in about 20 percent of schools… was developed by Lucy Calkins, a professor at Teachers College, Columbia University. She is widely admired for her emphasis on helping students develop a love of reading and writing. (Dana Goldstein, “An Old and Contested Solution to Boost Reading Scores: Phonics,” NYTimes, 2-15-20)

Drills versus exposure. Science versus love. There’s no doubt which should prevail.

In teaching Spanish I learned to avoid grammar and drills in favor of instilling in students a passion for traveling abroad. I helped them imagine the many scenarios — airports, restaurants, taxicabs — in which they would spontaneously utter, “Do you speak English?”

In like manner the U.S. Army trains platoons to parade in flawless formation using an approach called “balanced marching.” Sergeants renounce drills; instead, they foster in new recruits a love of rhythmic walking and synchronized motion.

When exposure and love replace science and drills, almost anything you can imagine virtually teaches itself.

(c) 2020 JMN

About JMN

I live in Texas and devote much of my time to easel painting on an amateur basis. I stream a lot of music, mostly jazz, throughout the day, and watch Netflix and Prime Video for entertainment. I like to read and memorize poetry.
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5 Responses to Balanced Learning

  1. Eric Wayne says:

    Who says, though, that drills have to be boring? As an EFL teacher who started out teaching little kids, I can make just about any grammar point into a competitive game. Last weekend I had to teach countable and uncountable nouns. After a very brief grammar explanation, I drew pictures of foods on the board and the students had to guess what they were in the process, but making the sentences, “I think it’s a/an ________” or “I think it’s some _________”. Then they had to throw a sticky ball at the foods, and make appropriate predictive sentences about what they’d hit, etc… for points.

    Later I included non food items, like news, work, data, money, dollars, etc. I had two chairs at the front of the room, one for countable and one for non-countable. I had words on slips of paper in a bag at the back of the room. One student from each team had to run to the back of the room, get a slip, and run back to sit in the appropriate chair first. Then they had to say, “______ is a/an countable/non-countable noun” (I might ask them why, and get, “it’s a liquid” or whatever). The winner asked the loser, “Would you like a/an/some ______”, and the loser answered positively or negatively.

    The students loved it, and it was just hammering home grammar with basic sentences, questions and answers, through repetitive practice. Later in the lesson I get to using the target language in a production that’s some plausible scenario, but there’s always a way to make grammar fun.

    • JMN says:

      All very good. “Hammering home grammar” is the key phrase. The textbooks foisted on teachers by the State of Texas had the premise that you could go straight to the fun without discussing grammar first. I sometimes wished I could teach in the elementary level, but I was in high school. I did have some success using music. I always had a guitar at hand during class, and my adolescents learned a lot of Spanish songs, which let me slip some structure to them unawares and get them vocalizing unselfconsciously. Also a lot of drawing. I had them design their “dream house” and label all its rooms and components with the Spanish terms. One of my more successful “games” for conveying structures to them had them design their own language with invented nonsense words, then explain its rudimentary grammar. I would give them a model to follow. This project could lead to a “comparison” with Spanish. The challenge was to subvert the prescribed curriculum, with its naive pedagoguery of grammar-avoidance, sufficiently to create a viable basis for productive gaming and role-playing. By the time I retired from it I had sort of figured out a few ways to do that based on lots of trial and plenty of failure. Also, it was necessary to accept that the time students would spend thinking about or practicing Spanish outside class would be virtually nil. Thank god it’s in the rear-view mirror now. I received enough instruction on “teaching strategies” from professional workshop barkers to last me a lifetime!

      • Eric Wayne says:

        Yes, I look forward to my teaching English also being in the rear-view mirror. Truth be told, despite all the new techniques we have to make our classes more engaging, fun, and interesting, it really comes down to the students themselves being motivated and doing the necessary work.

        By my standards my French teacher at community college was pretty bad, just walked us through the assigned textbook. But I learned a lot because I memorized everything using note cards on my own.

      • JMN says:

        I couldn’t agree more. I had a somewhat testy slogan during my high school teaching years: “Language is not taught, but learned.” To me it reflected the notion that the effort put in by students was at least as important as that invested by the instructor. Neither my Spanish nor my French teachers in high school were particularly inspired, but I burned with desire to learn the languages and did the work. No great virtue of mine, it was simply my particular leaning. I have great respect for good language teachers. They’re required to do so much more than just give lectures.

      • Eric Wayne says:

        Yup. Generally, I put in at least an hour of (unpaid) prep for every hour I teach. I can’t recall any of my teachers from kindergarten to graduate school putting in as much effort in any class I’ve ever had as I do in every class I teach. And art teachers were the worst. They struck me as having the easiest job I could imagine.

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