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Wow, two really BIG questions, and no easy answers. Regarding 'Balanced Literacy', here are several similar definitions:
Regie Routman gives this one in her book, 'Conversations'...
"By balanced I meant that all aspects of reading and writing received appropriate emphasis and that guided contexts were used to help readers and writers become critical thinkers, independent problem solvers, self-monitors, self evaluators, and goal setters. The knowledgable teacher was the decision maker who, based on students' needs, interests, and experiences, determined when, how, and how much to intervene."
Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell give this in their book Guiding Readers and Writers...
"The ultimate goal of the literacy program is to enable students to learn how satisfying reading and writing are and to establish lifelong reading and writing habits."
Constance Weaver has a great definition as well, but more technical...
*Focus not merely on reading, but on literacy, broadly defined;
*Integrate language and literacy across modes of language and across disciplines;
*Attend to reading, writing, and other kinds of skills and strategies in context-that is, in the context of reading, writing, and learning from whole and meaningful texts (texts that children themselves find meaningful);
*reflect a coherent integration of the best research available. (from Reconsidering a Balanced Approach to Reading, edited by C. Weaver)
OK, OK, it reads like a college text, but here are her recommendations for the classroom...
1. See that all children have rich literacy experiences in preschool.
2. Keep meaning the major focus, always: from the very beginning of reading, when teaching strategies and skills, and when assessing reading ability.
3. Remember that phonemic awareness, letter/sound knowledge, and word knowledge develop in the process of becoming an independent reader.
4. See that assessment does not focus on skills apart from their use in deriving meaning from texts. For example, assess phonics skills through reading and writing.
Now for what to do while you're meeting with small groups and individuals...
For K-2 children, I had Language Arts Block 'I Cares' (must do's) and choices.
The 'I Cares' were usually personal reading (from their book boxes set up according to their reading levels), a literature response (not more than two a week, recorded in their literature log or draft book), writing in their draft books (writer's workshop), & word work (spelling/word study).
Choices might be: Poetry (read and illustrate a favorite poem), Buddy read, Book browse (look thru a book that might be above your reading level, but the pictures/captions would be of interest for a project, etc.), Listening (books on tape), Read the room (use a pointer and read the charts, projects, etc. on the walls), Chants and Songs (read/sing songs using a pointer and charted poetry, etc.), Research (use the net or other resources to work on a question or research project)...essentially anything to do with reading and writing was part of this block. I try to keep these as meaningful and authentic as possible. It takes lots of modeling and practice in the beginning, but once you've determined each child's strengths and next steps as readers and writers, you can facilitate their learning using dynamic grouping (flexible groups that change based upon the purposes for meeting-could be children with similar reading levels for a guided reading group or children on multiple levels, who chose to read and discuss a great book together.
If you would like additional information on any thing or further clarification (and I know this was alot), please feel free to post again or email...I can also steer you to some additional professional resources to help you begin setting up a balanced continuum of learning in your classroom. I'd be happy to share and support as you wish. Debbie ;-D
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