Balanced Literacy Components

In our model of literacy instruction, a balanced literacy approach, students engage in meaningful literacy activities through which they develop literacy habits. From grade to grade and from classroom to classroom, differences exist in the management of reading, writing and word study instruction; however, the components of a balanced literacy approach remain the same and include:

Read Aloud and Accountable Talk

Read aloud is the practice of reading to students.

Reading aloud to students is a key component in any balanced literacy program. During the read aloud the teacher is responsible for the actual reading -- leaving time and energy for students to focus on their own comprehension. A daily read aloud allows teachers and students to enjoy great literature together. Reading aloud, from both fiction and nonfiction texts, helps readers develop an appreciation of literature and the rhythm of language. It is also an instructional practice that teachers use to model both decoding and comprehension strategies.

During a read aloud, teachers will stop at the end of a chapter or at some other natural stopping point and give students time to reflect and share their thinking. Sometimes, students will be asked to talk with the classmate next to them, and at other times students will be asked to jot down their thinking.

Instruction during read aloud time models and promotes focused conversation. Richard Allington (2002), a highly respected author of professional texts on literacy, has noted that classroom talk is critical to reading instruction. He writes, "The classroom talk… is more often conversational than interrogational. Teachers and students discuss ideas, concepts, hypotheses, strategies, and responses with one another."

As a way to promote and initiate conversation during a read aloud, teachers prompt students to think deeply about texts and ask questions such as:

  • What are you picturing in your mind as you read? (Visualizing)
  • What does this remind you of from your own life? How might that help you understand the book better? (Making connections)
  • Does this remind you of anything else you've read? How might that help you when you are reading this book? (Making literature connections)
  • What did you learn about the character during this reading? How do you know? How is the character changing? (Recognizing character development)
  • What questions do you have? (Questioning)
  • What do you notice about the way the author wrote the book? What makes it effective?(Noticing literary elements)
  • What are the powerful words or phrases that the author use? What makes them powerful? (Recognizing powerful language)

Listening and responding to stories read aloud is critical because it affords students the necessary support and practice for transferring these targeted thinking and conversational skills to the work of their book clubs, reading partnerships and independent reading.


Fisher, B. & Medvic, E. (2000). For Reading Out Loud. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Nichols, M. (2006). Comprehension Through Conversation. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Keene, E. (2008). To Understand: New Horizons in Reading Comprehension. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Keene, E. & Zimmerman, S. (1997). Mosaic of Thought: The Power of Comprehension Instruction (2nd edition). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Laminack, L. & Wadsworth, R. (2006). Reading Aloud Across the Curriculum. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Wilhelm, J. (2001). Improving Comprehension With Think-Aloud Strategies. New York, NY: Scholastic.

Shared Reading

Shared reading is the instructional practice of reading with students.

Shared reading can be described as an interactive reading experience that occurs when children join in the reading of a big book, chart, poem, song, or other enlarged or projected text.

Shared reading is an invaluable component of the literacy block because it invites students of varying abilities to participate in the reading experience. The reading process and the use of reading strategies are demonstrated by the teacher explicitly through shared reading. Shared reading, for example, provides excellent opportunities to demonstrate concepts about print and features of books, reinforce language and word study, teach high frequency words and conventions in context, create a body of known texts children can reread, and model think aloud and comprehension strategies. A key reason for conducting shared reading is that children learn to perceive themselves as readers in a risk-free environment and to enjoy the reading experience.


Allen, J. (2002). On the Same Page. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

Fischer, B. & E. (2000). Perspectives on Shared Reading. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Parkes, B. (2000). Read It Again! Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

Small Group Literacy Instruction

Small group literacy instruction allows a teacher to work with a targeted group of students with similar needs, opportunities or challenges. These groups are fluid and flexible throughout the year since they are based on students' ever changing needs. Teachers continually assess and observe students in small group work, one on one conferences, and independent work. Using these informal and formal assessments, teachers are able to group together students with similar abilities or needs. As students' performance changes over time, the teacher regroups students and provides the necessary instruction based on their identified needs.

While all small group work allows the teacher to differentiate instruction, this work will take different forms, depending upon student need:

The teacher may conduct reading strategy groups, where the focus is on helping students master a key reading strategy. This choice is often made when a teacher has identified a common skill or strategy that a group of students needs. In this type of instructional group, students may be reading at different levels, and may be asked to bring their own books to the table. But the teacher has selected a common strategy they all need. For example, a more proficient reader could be grouped together with a more struggling reader for a fluency strategy group that targets their similar need for reading expressively.

The teacher choose instead to conduct guided reading groups, where the focus is on helping students understand the challenges in reading material they cannot read independently. Guided reading helps students to progress to the next reading level by bridging the gap between their independent and instructional reading level. In a guided reading group, students will all be reading from a shared text, and the teacher will work with them to help them navigate this challenging text.

Both of these examples of small group instruction happen inside of reading workshop. But this small group structure allows teachers to differentiate their instruction in other areas of the elementary curriculum as well.

A teacher might pull students with a common writing need for a writing strategy group or pull students who need to learn about an aspect of grammar or spelling within a word work group. Regardless of literacy topic, all small group work is designed to meet the learner at the point of need. The goal of small group instruction is for students to transfer and independently apply the strategies learned to their reading and writing lives.


Fountas, I, & Pinnell, G. S. (2006). Teaching for Comprehending and Fluency. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Goudvis, A. & Harvey S. (2005). The Comprehension Toolkit. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Goudvis, A. & Harvey, S. (2008). Primary Comprehension Toolkit. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Keene, E. & Zimmerman, S. (2007). Mosaic of Thought (2nd Edition). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Taberski, S. (2009). It's All About Comprehension. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Independent Reading

Independent reading is the practice of reading by students.

Students who read widely and voraciously in (and outside of) school become confident, motivated and enthusiastic lifelong readers. To promote a love of reading, students are given time to read independently each day. The more students read, the more successful they become. Critical components of independent reading include:

  • access to a wide range of high-interest reading material
  • student choice in what they read
  • time to read independently

The materials students read during independent reading are those they select from the classroom library. The self-selection process of independent reading places the responsibility for choosing books in the hands of the student. Children are taught how to choose books based on interest and how to monitor whether these are "just right books" (i.e., texts that are at their independent reading level).

Teachers use a variety of informal and formal methods to assess students' independent reading levels. The independent reading level of a student is the level that he/she reads with 96% to 100% accuracy as well as with fluency (appropriate rate and expression) and comprehension (e.g., literal, inferential, interpretive). By matching students with texts that are appropriate, students are able to read with volume (i.e., many texts), stamina (i.e., longer periods of time) and fluency - the habits of proficient readers.

Shared Writing

Shared writing is the instructional practice of writing with students.

Shared writing is an interactive writing experience in which the teacher and students work together to compose texts such as letters, lists, messages and stories. During a shared writing session, the students provide the ideas while the teacher supports the process as the scribe. The pen, in other words, remains in the hands of the teacher which is the key difference between shared writing and interactive writing.

Specifically the teacher's role in shared writing is to provide full support, modeling and demonstrating the process of putting ideas shared by students into written language. Shared writing is a key component of a balanced literacy curriculum because it allows the teacher to model and demonstrate what a proficient writer does when composing text.

Each shared writing session has a particular instructional focus selected by the teacher based on the ongoing assessment of the needs of students. Sessions may be used, for example, to teach the conventions of print, grammar, spelling, punctuation or capitalization. Shared writing is also an effective instructional practice to model genres, stages of the writing process (e.g., rehearsal, revising, editing) as well as craft and elaboration strategies.

Before beginning a narrative unit in writing workshop, for example, the teacher and students may compose several shared writing narrative texts. (A shared experience such as a recount of a field trip could be used as the idea for the narrative. Writing about a shared experience is strategic because it allows for all students to have the chance to contribute ideas about the event.) Through these types of experiences, students will become familiar with the structure and features of the genre they will be expected to practice independently during the writing workshop. These texts also serve as excellent mentor texts to use during the writing workshop lessons. Finished shared writing pieces often remain on display throughout the room and are often used for future shared reading experiences as well as texts for students to read independently.

Interactive Writing

Interactive writing allows children to use literacy and language. Children develop their competency with oral language, reading and writing as they participate in interesting experiences, express their ideas, and build a shared set of understandings. The process is carefully guided by a teacher who is aware that students are learning in many ways at the same time (McCarrier, Pinnell, Fountas, 2000).

Interactive writing is the instructional practice of writing with students. Interactive writing is a key component of a balanced literacy program because it allows students to attend to print while using their knowledge of oral language. It also affords the teacher the opportunity to model strategies for problem solving as an independent writer.

During interactive writing, the teacher works with the class or small group to create a written text. What distinguishes interactive writing from shared writing, is that during an interactive writing session, the teacher and students "share the pen," both literally and figuratively.

The instructional focus of an interactive writing session reflects the ongoing needs of students. During an interactive writing session, the teacher will demonstrate a specific writing strategy and provide students with the necessary guidance and feedback as they "try-out" the designated strategy. The texts created during interactive writing, just as in shared writing, are ones that model the craft, structure and conventions of our language.

In the primary grades, teachers often use interactive writing to teach the concepts of directionality, one to one match between the spoken and the written word as well as the conventions of capitalization, punctuation, spelling and spacing. An interactive writing session in a primary classroom may be used, for example, to teach students to listen for the beginning and ending sounds of words. The session would begin with the group negotiating and agreeing on what to write (e.g., usually one or two sentences in length). The teacher would repeat the sentence and then proceed word by word, prompting students to articulate the sounds they hear at the beginning and ending of each word and write the corresponding letter. As each word is studied it would be recorded by the teacher on chart paper while the students would write on individual dry erase boards. Another option would to have students alternate with the teacher composing the text on the chart paper visible to all students.

Although interactive writing is often thought of as a primary instructional practice research has shown that like shared writing, it is a highly effective practice to use with students in grades 3-5. The purpose of interactive writing sessions for students in the upper grades could include teaching the conventions of grammar, craft, paragraphing, spelling and text structure.


Collom, S. & Tompkins, G. E. (2003). Interactive Writing With Young Children. Upper Saddle River: NJ: Prentice Hall.

Dorn, L., French, C. & Jones, T. (1998). Apprenticeship in Literacy. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

Fountas, I. , McCarrier, A., & Pinnell, G.S. (2000). Interactive Writing. Portsmouth , NH: Heinemann.

Swartz, S. (2001). Interactive Writing and Interactive Editing. Carlsbad, CA: Dominie Press.

Independent Writing

Independent writing is the practice of writing by students.

Since students learn to write by repeated writing, independent writing is a crucial aspect of a balanced literacy program. In a balanced literacy classroom, students participate in a daily writing workshop during which students have opportunities to have long, uninterrupted blocks of time to write. The daily writing workshop provides students with the opportunities to build their writing fluency and stamina as well as to practice writing in a variety of structures and genres (e.g., personal and fictional narrative, persuasive and informational nonfiction). In writing workshop, students write for authentic purposes using the writing process. The writing process includes brainstorming/rehearsing, drafting, revising, editing and publishing.

Independent writing practice each day is typically matched to the instructional focus of the lesson or the unit of study, and teachers monitor their students writing progress by conferring with student writers during independent writing. These one-on-one conversations allow the teacher and student to explore a shared love of writing, while providing student writers with new tools and techniques that will allow them to achieve their writing goals. The goal of independent writing is for students to develop the skills and habits of lifelong writers as well as the passion and joy for writing.


Anderson, C. (2005). Assessing Writers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Anderson, C. (2000). How's It Going? Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Calkins, L. (1986). The Art of Teaching Writing. Portsmouth