Balanced Literacy at Adelaide West – a short summary.

I recently received an email asking about our balanced literacy program at Adelaide West. This is the text of my reply which gives a pretty good summary:

For me, as a school principal and educator, communication is an essential human right and we have a moral imperative to teach this to all of our students. It is therefore at the heart of much of what we teach here at Adelaide West Special Education Centre. Our student cohort are mainly living with severe and multiple disabilities; 3/4 of them use wheelchairs for transport, 1/4 receive their nutrition via gastrostomy and approx 1/3 have epilepsy.  All of our students have complex communication needs, only about 10% of them have any verbal skills at all and the others use either Pragmatic Organised Dynamic Display communication books or iPads with Proloquo2go as their communication systems. Communication, is of course, a fundamental part of literacy and is taught across the entire school curriculum. For us, literacy skills are the most important functional skills we can teach our students and having basic literacy is the most important factor in them having positive post school options.

Introducing balanced literacy based on Erickson & Koppenhaver’s (2007) Four Blocks to Literacy has been based on the idea that ‘No-one is too anything to learn’ Using Carol Dweck’s (2008) growth mindset and Donnellan’s (1984) least dangerous assumption means that we offer all our students learning experiences from the Australian Curriculum. We do not expect age appropriate outcomes but do give age appropriate experiences, including literacy texts and expect them to respond.
The main benefits to the school community of using the four blocks to literacy model as a whole school  initiative have been two-fold:
– For the students it has made it clear to  them that there are reasons to communicate at school that are not simply related to bodily functions such as eating or personal hygiene.
– for the staff it has provided an explicit structure for teaching specific literacy skills to students. This structure has helped to make the teaching programs in all classes predictable and consistent, resulting in great outcomes for the students.
Prior to introducing the four blocks across the school, literacy teaching was unstructured and mainly based around reading to the students, rather than being interactive and requiring their involvement. There were people who felt that our students would not benefit from specific literacy teaching at the beginning, but with the support of Jane Farrall, who acted as mentor, coach and critical friend, everyone found a way to use the four blocks in a way that supported all of our students. Using Caroline Musselwhite’s videos helped to make it clear that even if students did not become highly literate, providing good literacy education would make their future life more enjoyable. This was a good tool for those who were operating in the ‘care’ frame of mind rather than the ‘education’ frame of mind.
The four blocks model has also provided a great way of ensuring accountability. Assessments have always been hard to find for our students and much previous assessment relied solely on teacher judgement, which could not be objectively moderated. The assessments that we have used as part of the four blocks have enabled us to present real data to demonstrate that over 80% of our students made improvements in their literacy learning last year.
We are still on the journey of improving our literacy teaching so I would love to hear from anyone else who is using a great balanced literacy program and how they have implemented for their students.
Donnellan, A, M (1984) The Criterion of the Least Dangerous Assumption. Behavioral Disorders, v9 n2 p141-50 Feb 1984
Dweck, C (2008) Mindset. Random House USA: New York
Erickson, K & Koppenhaver, D. (2007) Children with Disabilities: Reading and Writing  the Four-Blocks Way. Carson-Dellosa. North Carolina
Musselwhite, C Literacy for All: engaging in conversation with Dr Caroline Musselwhite Accessed 10th May 2016