In a truly balanced literacy program, how you teach is as important as what you teach. That's one of the conclusions my network of teachers, administrators, and curriculum supervisors has reached.

Like most educators today, we've been changing our practices to reflect new knowledge about learning and teaching. Our students are reading more, writing more, and learning through themes. Yet we share a mixed bag of excitement and uneasiness — excitement about the learning taking place in our classrooms every day, and uneasiness about the public perception that schools are not as good as they used to be, especially when it comes to teaching reading. We wonder: How can we maintain the good practices of the past without ignoring current evidence about how children learn? Have we gone too far in one direction? What we're searching for, then, is balance, and in that search, concerns common to all teachers have surfaced. In this article, I focus on some of them — and how we have found middle ground.

Teaching Basic Skills

"Teaching phonics with literature seems so hit or miss. What about a correct sequence of skills?"

Apply the thinking behind good textbooks to trade books. It's true that some sound-letter patterns are more consistent than others and, therefore, are better to teach early. For example, we know consonants are more consistent than vowels. We also know that certain consonants (such as j, m, r, and v) are more consistent than others. Most teachers and developers of core programs start with those more reliable sound-letter patterns, and you can do the same using literature. As a result, you move students from easy to hard, from the known to the unknown.

"I'd like to teach phonics using trade books, but I worry about abusing the literature."

Include some literature that naturally lends itself to language study — specifically, stories that contain repetitious language or language patterns, such as Bill Martin Jr.'s Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? and Chicka Chicka Boom Boom. Start by sharing the literature for its content and overall language qualities, with the intention of going back to look at some aspect of the words more carefully. You might ask, "Have you noticed that there are a number of words in this story that begin the same way? Let's take a look." After a while the children will initiate the process independently. Consider other types of whole texts as well, such as brief notes, shopping lists, and even traffic signs. These offer opportunites to anchor phonics in something real.

"Many parents want grammar taught 'the old-fashioned way.' What can I tell them?"

Use a whole-part-whole approach. Studies indicate that teaching grammar in isolation has little effect on students' oral and written language. Start by immersing students in real examples of whatever it is you want to teach. Talk about those passages, guiding students toward recognizing the aspects of language under study. Notice, for example, how the poet uses adjectival phrases to create pictures, or how the novelist conveys action through verbs. Introduce grammar terms and rules during the discussion. Also, encourage students to relate terms and rules to their own writing.

"My administrators want me to return to traditional spelling lists."

Develop lists inspired by other components of your language arts program. For example, you might select a particular aspect of language to study, such as vowel generalization, inflectional endings, root words, or word families, and choose examples for spelling lists. Words connected to a thematic unit are another option, but choose ones that are appropriate and useful. You can also use misspelled words from the children's writing. After all, teachers who look for patterns in errors across the work of individuals and groups, and respond with beneficial instruction, are more likely to make an impact on children's spelling development.

Effective Grouping and Planning

"Flexible grouping is still my biggest challenge."

Establish a routine and stick to it. Effective flexible grouping takes time, so don't get frustrated if things don't work immediately. Keep in mind, however, that careful planning, good organization, and an established routine are essential. Your day should include a regular sequence of whole-class, small-group, and one-on-one instruction. You may want to start the language arts block with whole-class instruction. After that, call a planning meeting with students to clarify who will come to you for small-group or one-on-one work, who will work at centers, and who will work independently or in pairs. Be sure to explain how they will rotate. Also, find time for small-group work with struggling readers — I recommend at least three times a week for about 20 minutes.

Strive to make activities multilevel. Multilevel instruction acknowledges that children come to the classroom with different backgrounds and abilities. Teachers typically assign one activity that invites a variety of responses, such as writing a biography of a family member. As a result, all students are engaged in the same literacy processes, yet the teacher assesses them individually in terms of past performance. The point, of course, is to maintain high but realistic standards for all children.

"I plan each day so carefully, yet I never have enough time to accomplish what I want to do."

Do your planning weekly, around thematic units. Before you begin a unit, determine teaching and learning goals for each week. If your curriculum guide has objectives that you must cover, try to link your goals to those objectives. You might want to start each day with shared reading, emphasizing important skills. You could then assign a series of independent follow-up activities that allow children to practice those skills, allowing time for sharing responses. Once you begin planning the week around themes, you will find yourself covering more territory in greater depth.

Covering Content

"As an upper-grade teacher, I have to teach facts. I don't have time for reading instruction during science."

Choose interesting activities that promote literacy skills and content knowledge. When you teach literacy and content together, you expand students' chances to learn both. Having students create their own information books, for example, is a collaborative activity that can be used in any content area. Not only does it build reading and writing skills, but it requires students to learn facts well enough to convey them to others. It also invites various kinds of inquiry, such as using the card catalog or the Internet. Remember, everything we do to facilitate process helps students gain access to content.

Dealing with Assessment

"With all the news reports about test scores, how can I convey to parents how their child is really doing?"

Tell them that standardized tests don't reveal as much about an individual learner as daily informal assessments do. In conferences, explain to parents that news reports give an overall picture of how a school is doing in relation to other schools. If they want to know what their child has learned, they need to look at the evidence. Work samples, anecdotal notes, and checklists demonstrate their child's progress. As you begin to discuss a child's work with his or her parents, they get a better idea of what a standardized test score really is — a snapshot of student performance on a particular day. A collection of the child's work gives a more comprehensive picture of progress over time.

"Portfolios are fine, but I have trouble gathering all that information for a conference."

Collect information on an ongoing basis. Portfolios are meant to be operational documentation of work over time — work that should be collected naturally, as part of daily instruction.

When observations of reading behaviors are assembled continuously, in addition to work samples, the resulting portfolio provides a vivid profile for parents, teachers, and the student. Most important, it forms a basis for instructional decisions.