Post 1: Unpacking Practices: Whole Language, Structured Literacy, and Balanced Literacy Defined

Whole Language Instruction

So how can we define “whole language instruction”? It turns out, that’s more easily said than done.

Wikipedia describes it as a “literacy philosophy” which emphasizes that children should focus on “meaning and strategy” instruction. Teachers strive to help children develop a knowledge of the graphophonic, syntactic, semantic aspects of language (commonly referred to as “msv” – meaning, structure and visual, or a 3-cueing system).  Whole Language Instruction can also been thought of as a “constructivist” method. Constructivist Philosophy holds that knowledge develops out of an individual’s effort to construct meaning out of experience. Students who successfully become readers through whole language instruction figure out how to read by being exposed to meaning-rich, engaging texts. They use what they know (background knowledge), their understanding of how we speak (syntactic knowledge), and their understanding of letters and sounds (graphophonic knowledge) to construct their own  understanding of the English Language.

What does this actually look like in the classroom? Here, I can only speak from my own experience and observations – forgive me if I simplify the process a bit. Teachers who use Whole Language Instruction use Guided Reading instruction and Leveled Readers to teach children to read. At the very beginning (usually in Kindergarten), students start with short, meaningful texts created with meaningful high frequency words. Students use the pictures and some letters and sounds to work their way through books. Because natural language structures are used, students can rely on what would make sense and what the pictures indicate to fill in the words they don’t know how  to read. Once students have developed a small sight word vocabulary from multiple exposures to certain high frequency words, they begin to notice patterns in words, either independently or with teacher guidance. For example if a student can read the word “look”, then they can figure out “cook”. The “ook” part is the same. Students learn to manipulate words – take them apart and put new sounds at the front. They know that “stay” and “play” look the same, and they sound the same. They may not be able to explicitly tell you that “ay” says the long “a” sound, but they can figure out new words by using the words or parts of words they already know. As more and more high frequency words are introduced, a  “self-extending” system is created. The more students read meaningful texts, the more words students are exposed to. The more words students are exposed to, the more new words they can figure out by recognizing parts, by thinking about what they already know, and/or by making an educated prediction based on what would make sense.

Leveled Readers are the main resources used to support Whole Language Instruction. Leveled books traditionally are meaning driven. They are written with high frequency words and natural language structures. They have very purposeful pictures that provide clues to the reader as they read. There are several different leveling systems, but the most common are the PM system, which levels books from Level 1 – Level 30, and the Fountas and Pinnell Text Level Gradient Scale, which goes from A  – Z.

Structured Literacy

The Ontario Branch of the Dyslexia Association describes Structured Literacy as the following:

Structured Literacy is characterized by the provision of systematic, explicit instruction that integrates listening, speaking, reading, and writing. Structured Literacy teaches the structure of language across the speech sound system (phonology), the writing system (orthography), the structure of sentences (syntax), the meaningful parts of words (morphology), the relationships among words (semantics), and the organization of spoken and written discourse.

One of the key features of Structured Literacy is that there is a scope and sequence to instructions. Key concepts are taught in a logical order that has been preplanned. New concepts build on known concepts, until a student can read and write a wide range of complex words. For example, when teaching phonics in a structured way, teachers will introduce a key concept (e.g., short vowel sounds) and the patterns in the English Language surrounding that concept (e.g., closed syllables). Students will practice blending sounds to make words, will read phrases and simple sentences, then put these skills together to read decodable books which are crafted from just concepts that have been explicitly taught. When the student has demonstrated mastery of a concept, more concepts will be layered on.

As well as teaching patterns in the English Language, Structured Literacy also systematically teaches irregular words, or words that seem to break English Language conventions. Often, these “irregular” words can be explained through their meaning or history. When words are related in meaning (even in the past), they are related in spelling. Delving into morphology and etymology of a word can help students understand why words are spelled the way they are and provide a memory anchor for both reading and spelling.

Balanced Literacy

Balanced Literacy can be considered a framework for literacy instruction. It includes elements from both Whole Language Instruction and Phonics Instruction. Balanced Literacy involves the theory of gradual release – skills are modelled, shared, guided, then completed independently. Mini-lessons (taught to the whole group or to a smaller group) are used to teach specific concepts throughout the literacy block.

In reading, the components of the Balanced Literacy program are:

  • Modelled reading (read aloud): The teacher reads a story, an article, a poem, at passage, etc. aloud to students. The teacher may model comprehension strategies and/or decoding strategies as he/she reads
  • Shared reading: The teacher and the students read a text together. The focus can be on vocabulary development, comprehension, decoding skills, fluency, or another strategy of teacher choice.
  • Guided reading: Students are grouped according to reading level or strategy focus. Students read their own books, with the teacher present to support with challenging words or comprehension strategies.
  • Independent reading: Students read their own books independently.

Writing includes:

  • Modelled writing: The teacher composes and writes a text as a demonstration.
  • Shared writing: The teacher and students work together to compose a text. The teacher holds the pen and does all the recording.
  • Interactive writing: In interactive writing, the pen is shared. The teacher may write some, and students may be chosen to write specific parts as guided by the teacher.
  • Guided writing: Students are placed in small group. Students do the writing with guidance from the teacher.
  • Independent writing: Students write their own ideas down independently.

Balanced Literacy also includes a word study component. In word study, students learn about letters and sounds, letter combinations, spelling patterns, prefixes/roots/suffixes and word etymology. Topics are chosen as needs are observed rather than systematically planned an covered throughout the year.


Here are a few interesting articles and websites that are worth checking out:

ONBIDA’s Structured Literacy Page

Structured Literacy instruction

Reading Rockets has a great phonics introduction page with many links and resources:

Put Reading First is a summary of reading research completed by the National Reading Panel in 2000:

An article on Whole Language Instruction from the Language Arts Journal of Michigan:

Balanced Literacy Diet is a website from OISE that gives a framework for understanding and teaching reading. It recommends differentiated instruction depending on the age and development stage of students:

This article, published in Phi Delta Kappa, outlines the history of the so called “reading wars”:

The article in reading rockets talks about how phonetic the English language is:

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