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Balanced Literacy: Weaving Top and Bottom

Balanced Literacy: Weaving Top and Bottom

Read on for a short description of balanced literacy.
For teaching and learning resources, please scroll down the page.

The reading wars (“whole language vs. phonics great debate”) among reading experts is largely a thing of the past .  Reading is an interactive, meaning-making endeavor that includes both top-down and bottom-up processes (Birch, 2007; Campbell, 2004). While adult language classrooms vary greatly, generally instructors include both bottom-up and top-down reading instruction in their classrooms, as each approach develops different skills that strong readers need (Parrish, 2004; Vinogradov, 2008). Low-literate adult ELLs, as adult emergent readers new to alphabetic print literacy, need lessons that both focus on meaning and also bring attention to the building blocks of literacy.  Effective low-literacy ELL lessons are balanced: grounded in interesting, relevant contexts that emphasize meaning, while also explicitly teaching patterns of sounds, syllables, and word families (Fish, Knell & Buchanan, 2007; Hamayan, 1994; Vinogradov, 2008).  As Michael Pressley writes, “balanced-literacy teachers combine the strengths of whole language and skills instruction, and in doing so, create instruction that is more than the sum of its parts” (2006, p. 1).

One method that integrates such explicit phonics instruction into meaningful, theme-based lessons is termed Whole-Part-Whole (WPW).  Here teachers begin with a topic that is interesting, important, and familiar to learners.  They elicit words, phrases, and stories from students, and they strengthen their vocabularies surrounding the given topic.  Then, once learners are engaged in the topic, they examine particular words to present and practice alphabetics (phonics and phonemic awareness skills).  Later, they return these words to the larger context to continue reading and oral language practice.  Instead of presenting phonics in a decontextualized way with nonsense words and endless worksheets on word families, WPW strives to provide a balance: on one side of the coin is meaningful language, and on the other side are the building blocks that combine to create this language.  When students are familiar with a given topic and have a bank of words, teachers can then spend time on sound-symbol correspondence, and learners can discover how letters and sounds are related (Brod, 1999, p.16).  This creates a much needed connection between the larger topic at hand and the emergent reading activities (Hamayan, 1994).

Birch, B. M. (2007). English L2 reading: Getting to the bottom.  Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Brod, S. (1999). What non-readers or beginning readers need to know: Performance-based ESL adult literacy, p. 16. Denver, CO: Spring Institute for International Studies.

Campbell, P. (2004). Teaching reading to adults: A balanced approach. Edmonton, Canada: Grass Roots Press.

Fish, B., Knell, E., & Buchanan, H. (2007). Teaching literacy to preliterate adults: The top and the bottom. TESOL: Adult Education Interest Section Newsletter, 5, 2.

Hamayan, E. V. (1994). Language development of low-literacy students. In F. Genesee (Ed.), Educating second language children (pp. 278-300). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Parrish, B. (2004). Teaching adult ESL: A practical introduction. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Pressley, M. (2006). Reading instruction that works: The case for balanced
teaching. New York: The Guilford Press.

Vinogradov, P. (2008). "Maestra! The letters speak!” Adult ESL students learning to read for the first time. Minne/WITESOL, 25.


Three Principles

Three Principles When Teaching Phonics to Emerging Adult Readers:

1.Communication first!  Start with a topic (problems in the house, describing family, getting a job, shopping for food, transportation, etc...)  Once your students are comfortable with the vocabulary the topic involves and have had many, many opportunities to interact within the topic, THEN you can do some phonics work. 

2.Give students ample time for reading.  There is no doubt—the more you read, the better you get at it.  Fill your classroom with opportunities for students to read: label things in the classroom, have a basket of interesting library books that students can flip through during breaks, allow students time to read silently, chorally, with a partner, and with you.  Encourage strong reading habits by making meaningful reading a frequent and enjoyable activity in your classroom.

3. Find ways to integrate phonics instruction with your regular textbook texts as well as student and class-generated texts (i.e. LEA stories).  Instead of using a supplemental “phonics” book, use your main text and look for patterns.  This helps keep phonics instruction contextualized, relevant, and interesting for learners.  Most adult ESL texts are organized thematically, which helps keep our phonics work contextualized.

Want to know more about balanced literacy?

New American Horizons. (Producer). (2010). Building literacy with emergent readers. Available to view for free online at

Building Literacy with Adult Emergent Readers: a 30-minute video with Andrea Echelberger of St. Paul, Minnesota.  In this lesson, Andrea demonstrates a Whole-Part-Whole approach to teaching literacy, using a learner-generated story of a shared experience and demonstrating activities to develop beginning literacy skills.

Vinogradov, P. (2010). Balancing top and bottom: learner-generated texts for teaching phonics.  Proceedings from the 5th LESLLA Symposium - Low-Educated Second Language and Literacy Acquisition.  Banff, Canada, September 2009. Available:

Pressley, M. (2006). Reading instruction that works: The case for balanced
. New York: The Guilford Press.