Classroom Strategies, Research and Reflections

What Balanced Literacy Can Learn from Biliteracy

My introduction to Balanced Literacy (Fountas & Pinnell, 2000) came at the orientation for my first teaching job in New York City. It was 2004; I was fresh out of college, and I knew nothing of the “reading wars” or how to teach reading (frankly). I was assigned a 4th-grade bilingual transitional classroom and handed a stack of papers with the watermark “DRAFT” strewn across each page. I didn’t know it then, but the packet was the first copy of The Teacher’s College Reading and Writing Project (TCRWP), and I was among the first cohort of teachers to ever use this new “workshop model.” So I rolled up my sleeves, sat my 9-year-olds on a rug, and modeled, listened to their turn-and-talks, and attempted reading and writing conferences. Did they deploy the strategies that I modeled? Were they successful at moving through the writing process? Nope–it was a hot mess. And although I was a baby teacher at the time, and I had years of learning ahead of me, I still knew something was amiss. I just wasn’t quite sure what it was or how I could adjust my pedagogical focus.

My hunch was that the TCRWP curriculum–the stalwart curriculum that socialized many new teachers into a Balanced Literacy framework–was never designed with Emergent Bilinguals (EBs) in mind. As I learned years later, the Balanced Literacy recipe (reflected in TCRWP) of modeling global reading strategies with mentor texts, inconsistently identifying features of “author’s craft,” and applying those features in a writing-process cycle with time allocated for phonics and guided reading work was fundamentally incongruent with lessons learned from bilingual education research (Escamilla et al, 2014; Proctor et al, 2021). Understanding this incongruence matters because our school system’s key players (e.g., principals, superintendents, elected officials) and market-based players (e.g., publishing houses and ed-tech programmers) design and promote instructional practices that similarly center monolingual children. Sure, there’s “supplemental” supports (e.g., preview vocabulary! call on them more! choose culturally responsive texts!) but no doubt a curriculum that was never designed with EBs in mind will never result in proficiency or grade-level mastery of literacy skills (García, 2009).

If we’re serious about getting our linguistically diverse students to succeed in American public schools, then nothing short of a curriculum or program that begins with their biliteracy “from the start” will do. The purpose of this post is to help teachers of EBs onboard the fundamental principles of paired literacy instruction and to put those concepts in conversation with what a Balanced Literacy framework is missing. The post concludes with explicit goals, written in can-do form, for how you can pursue a new line of thinking and designing instruction with these fundamentals in mind. Vamos!

1.EBs require a curriculum that embeds second language acquisition, and this piece is absent from a Balanced Literacy model.

To begin, the challenge of any teacher working with an Emergent Bilingual is to address and support their English language acquisition in fundamental ways. Of course, all children are born with the innate cognitive tools and wiring to acquire language, but acquiring LITERACY requires a more sustained and explicit focus on what things mean (word meanings, morphemes, affixes, etc…) as well as how to put it together (e.g., syntax and structural features). This is often what your ESL provider is supplementing or attending to when they pull your EBs into small groups. The research suggests that a more complete literacy program infuses second language acquisition knowledge (e.g., the length of time to develop social and academic registers differs; dialogic teaching strategies facilitate language development) to nurture the language knowledge our EBs require for application to new literacy tasks and activities. This may mean scheduling an additional 5-10 minutes of small-group-time to strategically integrate the phonics work into your guided reading instruction, doing cross-language comparisons between the vowel sounds of the home language and English, or using digital translation tools to access specific terms that open up comprehension for a grade-level book.

2. EBs benefit from explicit and sustained exposure to form-function relationships.

Next, if we expect our EBs to master an argumentative piece of writing (say, to advocate for reduction of ICE patrols in their community spaces) as well as to critically examine a piece of historical fiction (to see whose voices are included or omitted), then a curriculum built around the awareness of form-function relationships is needed. This relationship highlights how language functions (such a predicting) are reflected in specific language forms (future tense structures: “I think that…will happen”). In academic language, the forms become more complex as an EB’s ability to logic and reason through abstract concepts similarly increases in sophistication (e.g., scientific evaluations and political arguments both call for advanced grammatical constructions; see Christie, 2012 for a full review of how language demands increase across K-12 schooling). I’ve modeled how to harness the power of functional grammar as a framework to notice, analyze, and reflect on the word choices authors make and the meanings they construe in a piece of text (or TikTok video or Minecraft ad). Regrettably, Balanced Literacy units of study do not apprentice readers with this attention to linguistic detail in mind. Instead, we need to begin literacy work with a deep dive into genres, specifically how genres are structured around goals that get accomplished through language and graphics, e.g., to entertain (fiction), to teach lessons (non-fiction), to convince others (persuasion). Conducting an explicit study of how authors pull from the language system to achieve those goals extends classroom discussions beyond simplified “author’s purpose” to show how language “gets the job done.” [More on this topic is available by Beverly Derewianka, Pauline Gibbons, and Meg Gebhard. The WIDA 2020 framework is another helpful resource!]

3. Oracy and metalanguage are cornerstones of a biliteracy framework and deserve top billing in any language-centered curriculum.

Two fundamental pieces of a robust biliteracy framework are woefully missing from the Balanced Literacy framework described at the start of this post: oracy and metalanguage. While oracy is the development of oral language skills with attention to academic registers, metalanguage is a set of words and phrases used to describe, notice, and talk about how language works. You can’t do the work listed in step two above without a healthy dose of metalinguistic awareness in your teacher toolbox. Now, Balanced Literacy was instrumental in introducing the “turn-and-talk”: a moment of peer-to-peer interaction in the midst of the workshop model. This is one clear example of oracy, but it isn’t enough. Escamilla and colleagues suggest planning for talk in three ways: dialogue, vocabulary, and language structures. If you can anticipate what you will listen for during the turn-and-talk (dialogue), the specific words and terms you expect students to use (vocabulary), and the tenses needed to demonstrate mastery of the objective (language structures), you are starting to put language teaching at the heart of your lesson plans. For metalanguage, I encourage you to bring The Dictado (Dictation) into your literacy block! The talk-through portion of the protocol gives ample discursive space to notice, analyze, and reflect on language forms in a contextualized learning activity. [See more on the Dictado on my website.]

If reading this post has inspired you to adjust your pedagogy with lessons learned from biliteracy scholars, consider which of the following can-do statements to adopt as yearlong professional goals:

  1. I can plan with a biliteracy framework in mind.
  2. I can use metalanguage when I teach ELA, science, math, or social studies. [I suggest starting with one subject area.]
  3. I can plan with linguistic scaffolds.
  4. I can describe the features of academic language and explain them in student-friendly ways.
  5. I can apply a biliteracy lens to classroom assessments.

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About the Author: Lillian is first and foremost bilingual (English and Spanish). A recent graduate from New York University’s Steinhardt School of Education, she received both a Masters and a PhD in Bilingual Education. Language Matters LLC combines her 15+ years of bilingual classroom experience with her passion for language teaching research and teacher education. She wants teachers and students to fall in love with languages (and the study of languages) like she did. Listening and learning: that is what Lillian brings to her staff development work. She will listen to teachers’ reflections on practice. She will learn about their concerns, aspirations and goals. The other pieces will fall into place. Pronouns: she/her. You can access her website at