What Is The Difference Between Balanced Literacy And The Science Of Reading?

Gretchen SterbaIn the Media

In her response to the New York Times article “Taking a Fresh Look at the ABCs of Reading: A revolt over how children are taught to read is sweeping classrooms, school boards, and statehouses around the country.”, WITS CEO Tena Latona references both balanced literacy and the science of reading. What is the difference between balanced literacy and the science of reading? In order to understand that, we must first define these pedagogies.

What is balanced literacy?

Balanced literacy is a method of teaching reading and writing that, as its namesake describes, offers a counterbalance of reading materials, an emphasis on writing, and explicit decoding instruction. In the classroom, this looks like leaning into the workshop method, where skills are demonstrated, then practiced with minimal direct instruction.

What is the science of reading?

The science of reading is heavily focused on phonics instruction, but uses the following formula to describe its complexity: “Decoding (phonology, orthography, etc.) X Linguistic Comprehension (syntax, semantics, etc.) = Reading Comprehension”.

Why is structured literacy important?

Unlike balanced literacy, the science of reading cannot act as a literacy method of its own. This is where structured literacy comes in. In the structured literacy approach, it’s imperative that the practice is centered around being explicit, systematic, cumulative, diagnostic, and responsive.

Balanced literacy versus the science of reading

It is often stated that while balanced literacy is “not bad,” it’s not a one-size-fits-all when it comes to serving and teaching our students.

CalMatters reported in 2022 that in the state of California, balanced literacy is widely used as a classroom norm with teachers, but in 2019 it fell behind 22 other states in fourth-grade reading scores. In fact, EdSource cited that certain states (including California) are trying to pass legislation that will require schools to teach the science of reading for a more holistic approach to teaching.


Infographic by the Reading League Illinois

We owe it to our students to do the best we can for their education as a whole. As the largest provider of literacy programming in Chicago Public Schools we believe it is important to understand the pedagogies being discussed that will effect our students. WITS CEO Tena Latona cited in her blog, “Reading Isn’t Just Fundamental; It’s Grounds For A Solid Education,” that according to Advance Illinois’ report “The State We’re In 2022,” only twenty-eight percent of CPS fourth graders are proficient in reading. While WITS does not endorse or deliver curriculum, we believe that literacy is the foundation on which all other learning develops. We must do everything we can to ensure students are literate. The WITS mission is to empower Chicago elementary students to discover themselves through reading while developing foundational literacy skills. We do this by creating community through literacy-based mentorship, enabling teachers to build diverse classroom libraries, and promoting book ownership at home. What ever approach our teachers take WITS will support our students by continuing to deliver on our mission.