The ‘Balanced Literacy’ Hoax

My chief mentor, the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan, occasionally warned against “semantic infiltration,” which he correctly attributed to the late arms-control expert, Fred Ikle. It is, of course, the judo-like practice of using terms that are appealing to an audience as fig leaves for practices that the same audience would find repugnant—turning one’s own language against one’s interests, you might say.

Moynihan noted, for example, that countries that style themselves “democratic republics” are almost never either democratic or republics.

So it is with “balanced literacy,” which has reared its head once again in New York City, as schools chancellor Carmen Farina places Teachers College professor Lucy M. Calkins back on the English language arts curricular and pedagogical throne that she briefly occupied a decade ago until Joel Klein learned what a catastrophe that was.

Balanced literacy is neither “balanced” nor “literacy,” at least not in the sense that poor kids taught to read via this approach will end up literate.

Rather, it flies in the face of “scientific reading instruction” (phonics, phonemic awareness, etc.) and reinstates the disastrous approach to early reading known as “whole language.”

“Balanced” is supposed to signal that it conjoins the best of scientifically based instruction with the best of whole language. Indeed, “balanced” is a perfect example of semantic infiltration. Who would want their children taught to read in an “unbalanced” way? (And who would want them not to be literate?)

But “balanced literacy” is, in reality, and especially as interpreted and applied by Professor Calkins, a fig leaf that (barely) conceals “whole language”—which can work okay with the upper-middle class children of well-educated parents who make them learn at home how to sound out words and such, but which is a disaster when used in classrooms full of poor kids.

At Fordham, we have repeatedly ripped off the fig leaf, particularly in two exemplary works by reading expert Louisa Moats: Whole Language Lives On: The Illusion of ‘Balanced’ Reading Instruction and Whole-Language High Jinks.

Nothing has changed. Indeed, nothing has really changed since 1967, when the late, great Jeanne S. Chall published Learning to Read: The Great Debate, except that the purveyors of “whole language” won’t quit—and in Dr. Calkins, they have a resourceful, smart, and tireless ally. So, too, now in Chancellor Farina.

Too bad for poor kids in New York and in every other place taken in by this pernicious hoax.

– Chester E. Finn, Jr.

This first appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

Last Updated


Notify Me When Education Next

Posts a Big Story

Business + Editorial Office

Program on Education Policy and Governance
Harvard Kennedy School
79 JFK Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
Phone (617) 496-5488
Fax (617) 496-4428

For subscription service to the printed journal
Phone (617) 496-5488

Copyright © 2024 President & Fellows of Harvard College