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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

The Katzwer’s Out of the Bag: ‘Balanced literacy’ leads to balanced people

Published: March 16, 2012
Section: Opinions

Our country’s public education is in a sorry state; this is not some new discovery. For years the media has been reporting on how much better China’s children are at math and science and on how schoolchildren do not know many basic bits of data.
The United States’ public schools have been trying to push back. They have been tweaking their curricula and instituting new standardized tests. “No Child Left Behind,” as much as it failed, was meant by President Bush to improve children’s test scores.
Ten New York City public schools recently participated in an experimental reading curriculum and were then compared to 10 schools that maintained their past curricula. This three-year experiment covered children from kindergarten through second grade. The 10 experiment schools used a reading curriculum—designed by education theorist E.D. Hirsch Jr.’s Core Knowledge Foundation—in which their students were given non-fiction both to improve their literacy and their overall knowledge in topics such as science and history. The other 10 schools used multiple methods, all of which fell under the “balanced literacy” approach, which was championed and spread by New York City’s former schools chancellor, Joel Klein. Balanced literacy splits the content of students’ reading assignments down the middle, with half being non-fictional texts and the other half being fictional “fluff.”
Students who used the new approach scored a little higher on a literacy test and scored much higher on a general knowledge test. While there was a large gap between the two groups in kindergarten, however, by second grade it had evened out and most of the kids were at about the same level.
Despite this small yet present improvement, I have to urge schools not to abandon balanced literacy. Balanced literacy does not just balance the materials read by students; it balances the students. While reading about the Civil War and about oxidation will certainly improve a student’s knowledge of such matters, these lessons need to be interspersed with some lighter reading that a student can enjoy. It is the fluffy books like “Charlotte’s Web” and “Mr. Popper’s Penguins” that help develop untestable things, like a child’s imagination or empathy.
While reading non-fiction can be fun, sometimes a child just needs a book of pure fantasy. We must work not only to make sure our children are intelligent people but to make sure they are well-rounded people, something that Brandeis University takes very seriously. Brandeis is fortunate to have such a plethora of differently-minded students who are devoted to both the sciences and to the arts. But would we have so many Creative Writing majors if we had only read non-fiction in elementary school? Would Brandeis publications like “Where the Children Play” even exist?
Also, do these public schools plan to institute this new curriculum throughout the entire system, even into high school? Will high school students no longer read “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” or “Nineteen Eighty-Four”? These phenomenal texts really draw students in, allowing them to synthesize information about real issues in the world and about real emotions while they remain in the confines of a safe, fictional book. But, if students are not taught in elementary school to appreciate fiction, they may be unable to appreciate these classics and to learn the lessons from them that are so important. That idea just saddens me tremendously.
Reading fiction when we were children helped develop—for some of us at least—our love of books, a love that has persisted throughout the ages. I know that there is no greater joy than getting to a really exciting point in a book and itching to turn the page but also knowing that the sooner you turn that page, the sooner the suspense will end. There is always that trade-off of rushing to the end of a book to see what will happen to your favorite character but then being sad because his adventures must end with the final page. I would hate to be denied that feeling of losing yourself so completely in a work of fiction that you jump five feet into the air when someone calls your name and you are rudely drawn out of this new, enticing world.
I do not want the next generation of children to be oblivious to these joys.
Some people claim that learning should not be fun and that children can develop their passions and fall in love with fiction elsewhere. Neil Postman argues in his 1985 book “Amusing Ourselves to Death” that “Sesame Street” was destroying our country’s youth because it created the expectation in them that all learning should be fun. While a part of me agrees with Postman, a part of me knows that school should be more than just learning facts. In school a child should discover what he is passionate about or what absolutely fascinates her. Also, while all learning certainly does not have to be fun, some of it should be. They are children, not automatons.
New York City public schools must keep the balanced literacy approach to reading. Reading is a love that must be developed early on; once you have them hooked, then you can give them the boring textbooks. Don’t deprive our children of the joys of literature.