The Science of Reading Vs Balanced Literacy: What’s the Difference?

While research shows that learning how to speak is an innate process, learning how to read, unfortunately, is not. The sad reality is that many people across the country can’t read properly, they lack fluency and literacy skills, and some can’t even read or comprehend what they read at all. 

It’s true that we’ve come a long way in terms of support and technology, and teaching methods have been constantly evolving over the decades. Unfortunately, reading scores and statistics show a troubling reality, and teachers and administrators are struggling to identify the main pain points in the learning process and find effective ways to teach students how to read. This reality became all the more pressing during the pandemic, and as a result, most U.S. states are now switching to evidence-based instruction to teach children how to read. What exactly is evidence-based instruction? It’s instruction based on the Science of Reading. 

What is the Science of Reading?

One big misconception around the Science of Reading is that it’s focused only on phonics instruction. While phonics and phonological awareness are a big part of it, the science of reading includes a lot more. But some people might be reluctant to embrace this concept and put aside the Balanced Literacy approach they’ve been relying on for years. Is it really better, and why?

The science of reading focuses on answering the question of how the human brain learns to read. It’s a concept evolved from Gough and Tumner’s 1986 theory on how reading comprehension is the product of decoding and language comprehension – otherwise known as the Simple View of Reading. Additionally, in 2000, the National Reading Panel established the five pillars of effective reading instruction, namely phonics, phonemic awareness, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. 

The science of reading simply dives deeper into these concepts and looks at the basic building blocks of literacy and fluency, through approaches like Orton-Gillingham and the Wilson Reading System. It’s focused on the idea that effective teaching methods must focus on the core, or foundational, reading skills, and explicit instruction. It does this through an instructional approach dubbed Structured Literacy. 

You can already guess, or take a hint as to the differences between Balanced Literacy and Structured Literacy. The core belief of the science of reading is that children require structured, explicit, cumulative instruction that teaches them to master the basics of the reading process. There’s no room for guesswork or interpretation, as it sometimes is the case with Balanced Literacy programs. Instead, it provides an evidence-based, structured framework that aims to firmly establish basic notions in a child’s mind. 

Research supports the idea that the science of reading is superior to a Balanced Literacy approach, showing that, through evidence-based instruction on the foundational skills of reading, 95% of students can learn to read. Without an explicit and cumulative approach to teaching reading, some children will be left behind and struggle, and reading will become a source of anxiety and frustration instead of an enjoyable activity. 

How does it work?

The science of reading focuses heavily on phonics and phonemic awareness, and on explicitly and systematically teaching phonics to students. It works through a building-block approach that starts with awareness of letters and sounds, and explicit, interactive, responsive instruction from teachers on how to break down words.

For example, in Balanced Literacy, students use leveled readers and cueing systems, which teach children to recognize words by seeing the first two letters or looking at a picture. Structured Literacy uses decodable readers, which focus on the letter-sound correspondence to help students recognize a word by breaking it down into sounds, letters, or syllables. 

This approach eliminates the guesswork and teaches children a more direct and explicit way of processing words and sentences. While some suggest that focusing on phonics and minute details can deter children from enjoying reading or wanting to learn, research shows that children learn best when phonics is taught explicitly and systematically like this. Once they understand how words and sounds really work, then reading becomes easier and a lot more enjoyable, becoming a lifelong habit for many students. 

What is Balanced literacy?

Fountas and Pinnell were the earliest proponents of balanced literacy, which is the approach used in most classrooms across the country today. The instruction includes a mix of independent learning, small group sessions, and whole group reading, and its main goal is to help students reach literacy while also cultivating a love of reading. 

Balanced literacy isn’t easily defined and described, because its structure and approach varies from classroom to classroom. That’s what critics believe is the greatest weakness of this type of approach: its lack of structure, which makes it open to interpretation. While balanced literacy can be helpful and useful to many students, it can’t work for all students in a classroom because it lacks structure and explicit instruction. Students struggling with learning disabilities require a more structured, data-driven, science-based, individualized approach that leaves out any guesswork or interpretation. 

While it’s true that balanced literacy includes teaching phonics, it doesn’t focus on building the foundational skills of reading, and doesn’t teach them systematically. Its main focus is getting children to love reading at an early age, by exposing them to literature as much as possible, through guided reading, group reading, cue systems, and so on. But without setting the foundational skills in place, some students will struggle to make progress and will be left behind, which in turn will diminish their love of reading. 


Balanced literacy has been the approach of choice for decades now, and it’s used to teach reading across most classrooms in the U.S. But as test scores and literacy skills remain low, it’s time to rethink the way we teach children to read, through data-driven, evidence-based instruction found in the Science of Reading and Structured Literacy. Children will never get to love reading if they don’t possess the foundational skills to process words and their meaning, so it’s on us to give them access to tools and resources that provide knowledge through structure and clear, explicit instruction. 

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