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...