The USC Balanced Literacy Approach

    The reading and language arts program at the elementary level is called the Upper St. Clair Balanced Literacy Approach. It is a comprehensive, research-based curriculum, instruction, and assessment framework aimed at developing the individual literacy skills of each student. The curriculum has been designed according to Upper St. Clair School District’s continuous progress philosophy in which each student is taught according to the individual’s rate and level of achievement.

    The framework consists of four instructional modules: reading module, word work module, language arts module, and writing module. Progress through each module is informed by assessment of the individual student.

    The Reading Module

    Strategy study, guided reading lessons, literacy centers, shared reading, independent reading, and reading aloud to the students are the components of the reading module. The main components of this module include strategy study and guided reading and are further explained below.

    In the strategy study portion of this module, students are guided in learning the strategies that good readers use to make sense of text. Students are directed in thinking about reading in ways that enhance learning and understanding. They are taught to make connections between the text and themselves, the world, and other texts. They are shown that good readers ask questions as they read and look for answers in a variety of ways, as all information is not explicitly stated in the text. Students are also taught how to infer information from text, to visualize what they read, to determine important information, and to synthesize the information that they have read into a meaningful whole. These strategies are repeatedly modeled by the teacher and then applied by the students as they read books in small groups at their instructional reading level.

    The teacher meets with small groups of students with similar reading skills several times each week during the guided reading portion of the reading module. Students are taught through the use of literature or decodable text at their instructional reading level. An instructional reading level indicates the level at which a student can read accurately, fluently and with understanding when instructional support is provided. The structure and content of the guided reading lessons may vary, depending on the guided reading level and the grade level of the student. In general, guided reading lessons attempt to accomplish the following:

    address students’ accuracy, fluency, and comprehension needs

    give opportunities to apply strategies for decoding words when reading in context with teacher feedback and coaching

    develop vocabulary

    • apply comprehension strategies with teacher feedback

    • require students to make meaning, "on-line", during the act of reading the text

    • interpret the meaning of the text through discussion with verification of answers, ideas, and inferences using support from the text

    • provide students with opportunities to read independently

    • address levels of meaning found in the text: literal, inferential, and critical

    • expose students to a variety of leveled literature and decodable text as students read books at their instructional reading level

    The Word Work Module

    The word work module provides students with the opportunity to learn the system for reading or "decoding" words. Students are exposed to a systematic and explicit approach for learning the alphabetic system that allows them to read and decode words through their ever-increasing knowledge of common phonics patterns. Students are taught to apply this alphabetic system to reading and decoding words in the context of stories. The premise on which these strategies are based is that working through a word (decoding, sounding it out) is a self-teaching system. That is, the process of decoding words helps those words to eventually be recognized automatically by the student. Poor readers have been shown to over-rely on context for helping them to determine unknown words. Stronger readers first make use of the letters and sounds they encounter and then use syntax and meaning/context as secondary cues in reading unknown words.

    Students are also expected to master sight words, words which are not phonetically regular but which occur often in the texts they read. The goal is for the students to eventually be able to recognize many words automatically, both words that are phonetically regular and those that are not, so that mental resources can be freed for act of comprehension.

    Language Arts Module

    Spelling, handwriting, and mechanics, usage, and grammar skills are the components of the language arts module.

    Spelling instruction consists of teaching students how to spell common phonetic patterns in words and the methods for making spelling changes to these words to create other word forms. Students are also directed in learning to spell personal words that may cause them difficulty in their writing. Words are organized into spelling lists that are assessed each week. Students are also introduced to high frequency and frequently misspelled words that are placed on a word wall. Students may refer to this word wall when writing. Once a word has been introduced and placed on the word wall, it must be spelled correctly in all of the students’ writing.


    Handwriting Without Tears, a program designed by an occupational therapist, is used for handwriting instruction in kindergarten and first grade.  Handwriting Without Tears is a developmentally based curriculum for printing.  The goal of this unique program is to make handwriting a natural and automatic skill while meeting the needs of all learning styles – visual, auditory, tactile, and kinesthetic.  Handwriting Without Tears uses a child-friendly and consistent language to teach the children to form the capital letters first followed by lowercase letters.

    Peterson Directed Handwriting is the program used for handwriting instruction in Upper St. Clair for grades 2-4.   Second grade students learn slant printing and are introduced to cursive writing. Cursive writing is continued in third and fourth grade.

    Grammar, mechanics and usage skills are taught explicitly in weekly skills lessons. Teachers make use of a morning message and focus lessons to teach these skills. Students also practice and apply these skills in daily sentence editing as well as in their own writing. Mastery of these skills is assessed quarterly.

    Basic spelling words are taken from the most common misspellings, which appear in children’s writing. The weekly spelling list often includes multiple forms of words (run/running). In addition, children are encouraged to learn to spell words from a "Lifetime" word list and/or "Personal" words. A pretest/posttest strategy is used for spelling so that children are able to concentrate on learning words which are not already part of their spelling repertoire.

    Writing Module

    Skill lessons, process writing and publishing of stories, shared writing, journal and literature responses, and writing in the content areas are all a part of the writing module. Students are asked to write daily in a variety of ways.

    The goal of the writing program at grades 1-4 is for students to develop the skills to independently produce focused, cohesive, and meaningful pieces of writing. The 6+1 Traits of Writing, developed by Ruth Culham and the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory, is the foundation for instruction in writing at the elementary level.

    What is 6+1 Traits of Writing?

    • It is a model to teach and assess focused writing skills in the areas of Ideas, Organization, Word Choice, Voice, Sentence Fluency, Conventions and Presentation.
    • Through 6+1 Traits, good writing is modeled, taught and practiced in a systematic way.
    •  A rubric is used for each trait to assess the writing. Students practice with the rubric so they can rate their own work accurately.
    • It provides a common vocabulary for talking about writing and allows students to become self-evaluators of their own writing.

    How is 6+1 Traits of Writing taught?

    • Each of the traits is introduced separately.  The teacher models the trait, and samples of exemplary work are displayed.  The whole class practices together with each trait before trying it independently.
    • A new rubric is introduced with each trait with the specific criteria for exemplary work.  Students also practice with the rubric as they write.
    • Student pieces are assessed specifically for the piece that is being taught.  Opportunities will occur for students to produce more elaborate pieces of text that are assessed with multiple criteria.

    What makes the 6+1 Traits of Writing effective?

    • 6+1 Traits of Writing breaks down writing into discrete and manageable chunks so that teachers and students alike can identify specific strengths and weaknesses of a piece.
    • The rubrics used in 6+1 give students a clear picture of what good writing looks like and allows them to understand how their own writing could be improved.
    • 6+1 Traits of Writing includes all of the elements of process writing; students are still prewriting, writing, revising and editing their work.
    • The focus in 6+1 Traits of Writing is to learn the crucial elements needed to write well through modeled and independent practice.  There is less emphasis on the production of work and more on the process involved in writing well. 


    Students are also asked to write a great deal in response to literature that they have read. The responses of the students may begin as simple sentences that become more elaborate and involved as the story complexity and the students’ writing abilities increase. In writing about what they read, students learn to support personal thoughts or inferences with information from the text. They connect their own ideas with events from the story.

    Phases of Reading Development

    As students progress through the reading curriculum in the Upper St. Clair elementary schools, they gain mastery of skills and strategies that enable them to read increasingly more difficult texts. Click here to view the chart that explains the typical reading behaviors that students exhibit as they progress and grow as readers.


    In brief, the USC Balanced Literacy Approach focuses on explicit and systematic instruction in the use of strategies for decoding and comprehending text. It makes use of sound instructional strategies that are applicable to all types of literature and, through coaching, it encourages students to become independent in making meaning from the text.

    Kindergarten Literacy

    Our literature component in Kindergarten is the Harcourt Trophies Reading and Language Arts program.  It is a researched based program that focuses on the three main areas of learning:  phonemic awareness, phonics, and comprehension. 

    Phonemic awareness is the awareness of sounds in spoken language and is recognized as the most potent predictor of success in learning to read.  Through the Harcourt program’s explicit and systematic instructional sequence, students are introduced to skills and strategies that will prepare them to become competent and independent readers.  The curriculum spirals, so that students have multiple exposures to key concepts and repeated opportunities to practice their learning. 

    In addition to the Trophies series, students engage in writing daily at the kindergarten level.  Independent journal writing, nonfiction report writing, and shared group writing are just some of the ways kindergartners learn to communicate through the written word.