Expecting Too Much—and Too Little?—of Literacy Teachers

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I was reading a professional text fairly recently that, in many ways, moved me to nod my head so frequently as I read that I resembled one of those bobble head turtles that you find at craft fairs and flea markets. There was so much I loved about what the authors had to say about our collective practice as teachers. But the deeper I got into the book, the less I nodded my head and the more I started to cringe at the expectations these authors had laid out for classroom teachers — at the range and the number of teaching practices they insisted were essential cogs in the instructional literacy wheel. This wasn’t the first time I’d felt this way; as a matter of fact, I often develop that same cringe-y feeling when reading professional texts — particularly those that, in recent years, have become the most popular or sought-after among literacy educators.

When reading these texts, as I cringe, I often find myself wondering this: do we expect too much of our literacy teachers?

As a profession, we often talk about “balanced literacy” as if it were the most natural thing in the world: simply provide students with equal amounts of reading workshop, writing workshop, and word study, and you’re golden. Students’ reading and writing development will flourish. (The “reading wars” are but a distant memory!) When practicing literacy teachers fret about what they are “supposed to” teach and desperately ask, “What should I focus on?” too many of us — myself included — gently wince, smile condescendingly, and respond with something akin to, “Well…it’s all about balance.” We shake our heads and murmur, “It’s difficult, I know.” Then we pack up our laptops, our dongles, and our writer’s notebooks and sail into our next workshop, course, or consulting gig — leaving hundreds of teachers in our wake who struggle to keep afloat on a daily basis.

But if we were to look — really look — at what “balanced literacy” actually entails, we, too, would wring our hands in desperation. While some entities attempt to break balanced literacy into three essential components — reading workshop, writing workshop, and word study — others identify six components, breaking “reading workshop” into its more granular parts: independent reading, guided reading, shared reading, and read aloud. I would argue that a truly “balanced” literacy program incorporates no fewer than ten potential components, including:

  • read-aloud (for pleasure)
  • independent reading
  • interactive read aloud
  • phonics instruction / morphology / etymology
  • strategy instruction / guided reading
  • word study
  • independent writing projects / notebook play
  • craft study
  • handwriting and/or keyboarding
  • book groups

…and on and on. My rough list doesn’t even take into account oral language study, guided explorations of genre & form, and the exploration of literacy/language through a more global, social-justice oriented lens.

Of course many of the components on my list can be combined; for example, I often use the time I devote to “notebook play” to encourage and guide students to try out a particular craft move or form we’ve investigated. But honestly — who among us has successfully incorporated “balanced literacy” (in the way I have described here) into our classrooms? Show me a teacher who effectively manages the four most agreed-upon components of balanced reading instruction alone — independent reading, guided reading, shared reading, and read aloud — and I’ll show you someone who’s either lying or alarmingly delusional.

In this sense, I think we expect far too much from literacy teachers. No one can do all of this — never mind all of this well — and still find time to confer, kidwatch, and read or write alongside students.

BUT (and this is a big but, as evidenced by my masterful use of all caps): in another sense, I think we also — collectively — expect too little from literacy teachers. The ways in which I believe this, however, have less to do with literacy activities or “components” and more to do with literacy mindsets and behaviors. For example, I think all teachers of student readers should read on a (semi) regular basis. I think all teachers of student writers should write on a (semi) regular basis. I think we should spend the majority of our time and effort developing positive relationships with our students and striving to meet all students where they are, not where we — or our literacy mentors (and certainly not the authors of most literacy programs) — think they ought to be. I think we should teach students how to ask deep questions, seek appropriate answers, and reflect on their identities as readers and composers of text. I think we should teach students far fewer whats (like “strategies” and “genres”) and teach them far more hows and whys (e.g., “Why do you think the author used parentheses here?”). [Note to phonics enthusiasts: calm down — I said “far fewer” whats, not “zero” whats.]

Granted, this is a heck of a lot to ask. However, it’s also a lot to ask of teachers, year after year, to incorporate a ridiculous horde of components into their balanced literacy instruction — in the name of “programs,” “structures,” or “frameworks” — and end each school year feeling like a failure. (Or maybe it’s just me who always feels like a failure. If so, I will gladly eat my words.) Teaching, as we know, is incredibly challenging and complex; it always has been, and it always will be.

So which is worse: expecting too much of teachers (in terms of activities and components), or expecting too little (in terms of mindsets and behaviors)?

I have yet to find an answer. What are your thoughts?


Mar 15, 2019