The following is an excerpt from the Introduction to Shifting the Balance: 6 Ways to Bring the Science of Reading into the Balanced Literacy Classroom, a new book from Jan Burkins and Kari Yates coming February 2021.
If you’re in there with the kids every day, doing your level best to help five-, six-, and seven-year-olds learn how to connect squiggly little marks on a page to meaningful ideas, it would be easy to feel attacked or confused by the rhetoric about beginning reading instruction. From talk radio to blogs to the evening news to state legislatures, everywhere we turn these days, someone seems to be voicing an opinion about reading instruction in schools.
Some argue that there is a disconnect between research and classroom practice. Some argue that things are out of balance in the balanced literacy classroom. Still others argue that the methods in many classrooms are making learning to read harder rather than easier, especially for the children most at risk of reading difficulties.
The public debate is rooted in widespread concern that too many children aren’t learning to read as well as they need to. Of course it’s easy to take issue with standardized assessments or to question exactly what various numbers mean. But can we really argue with the fact that, despite our current and best efforts, many children are still having a lot of trouble learning to read?
Chances are there are children experiencing reading difficulties in your own school as well. And probably, if your data are reflective of the historic and national trends, a disproportionate number of the children having reading difficulties are children of color and/or are from marginalized communities (Morgan et al. 2017; Hanford 2020; Rearden et al. 2018). Perhaps these are the very reasons you picked up this book.
Many educators—whether “balanced literacy” or “science of reading” proponents—are gravely concerned and committed to disrupting systems that perpetuate reading failure. Many science of reading advocates blame balanced literacy for inequitable literacy outcomes. And many balanced literacy advocates resist the science of reading fearing it will make literacy access even more inequitable. We would argue that this dichotomy is false and neither side’s concerns should be dismissed.
All children, especially those locked into systems that seem to guarantee their failure (Minor 2018), need access to both the secrets of the alphabetic code and relevant experiences with texts. They need both explicit information about how reading works and immersive experiences that show them how to leverage reading and writing to change the world.
In truth, most science of reading proponents actually do want children to have great books and time to read them, and most balanced literacy educators do want children to know how the phonetic system works. We hope this book will help you make space—both in your head and in your heart—to give all children access to all the tools and experiences they need to live literate lives and to become agents of change.
If you are a school leader, chances are, you are sifting through the politics and the pressure, the research and the needs of all the children in your building to arrive at some kernel of instructional truth. Finding answers is time-consuming at best, a moving target at worst. For example, as the response to Emily Hanford’s “Hard Words” article (2018) rippled across the country, a relentlessly reflective principal who we deeply respect asked us point blank, “What are you going to do to help us figure this out?”
Not long after, we had an inquiry from a frustrated literacy coach who had been told by district leadership she could no longer use the MSV model in workshops with teachers. Interactions like these, together with our own cognitive dissonance, sealed our commitment to building a bridge between the science of reading and balanced literacy.
Our work is driven by a fierce commitment to you—the real champions of education—who work closely with children every day. We’ve written this book to support you in making sound decisions anchored in the best of science, the truth of responsiveness, and a relentless focus on providing all children learning experiences saturated with meaning.
Bravely Embracing Research and Balance
In response to the growing division and rising intensity around early literacy instruction, we’ve mustered our courage and chosen to embrace the national conversation as an opportunity to sort through the noise, in search of the signal of sound practice.
With our shared interest in early literacy piqued by those who suggest that balanced literacy practices don’t represent scientific findings about reading instruction, we have taken a systematic and deep look at experimental research. This work required us to honestly consider evidence and arguments that challenged some of our most closely held beliefs. It meant pushing ourselves to read beyond the sensationalized and often misleading media headlines. It meant reading through reams of research summaries and meta-analyses, as well as books and articles and blogs, written by teachers, professors of education, the federal government, educational psychologists, and neuroscientists. And most importantly, it meant intentionally initiating conversations with those who take issue with some of the ideas we hold most dear. We have tried to do this work with our minds open enough—and our limbic systems calm enough—to learn as much as possible along the way.
Through it all we found, as have others, that the experimental research on reading isn’t completely consistent or irrefutable. Furthermore, research is even less clear or consistent when it comes to the nitty-gritty nuances of classroom instruction, such as the exact order for introducing letters and sounds. However, the experimental science that establishes how the brain learns to read is far too comprehensive and too robust to disregard.
Immersing ourselves in this controversial topic was often vulnerable work. Sometimes we found ourselves triggered or defensive, fiercely scribbling responses in the margins of our texts and wanting to argue, “That’s a misrepresentation! That’s a partial truth. They don’t understand!” Other times we found ourselves excitedly jotting notes that showed the strong connectedness of ideas that could bring the two sides together rather than push us apart.
Along the way we have asked ourselves:
- Is it possible that balanced literacy classrooms are sometimes a bit out of balance when it comes to understanding and promoting research-aligned instruction?
- Could it be that we are missing (or misunderstanding) compelling opportunities to bridge research to instructional practice in the reading classroom?
- Do we have some seemingly logical practices that are driven more by our intuition about how reading appears to work from the outside than they are driven by the science of how reading actually works inside the brain?
- Is it possible that a few simple but powerful shifts could help us unlock literacy for more children than ever before, especially those for whom the current systems do not work, or do not work well enough?
We have found that the answer to all four of these questions is yes.
One thing that has become crystal clear to us is that the very term balanced literacy triggers a negative response from some people whose voices we need to hear and learn from. In the minds of some, balanced literacy is simply “whole language” repackaged with a different name. Others view it as a haphazard approach designed to appease critics by simply doing “a bit of everything.” Still others criticize balanced literacy for tokenism, giving only a small, symbolic nod to experimental science and calling that enough (Brady 2020). Although we don’t ascribe to these descriptions as a rule, we do agree that a common definition of balanced literacy is difficult to pin down and that balanced literacy plays out differently from school to school and classroom to classroom.
Yet, despite some imperfections of balanced literacy in theory and some inconsistencies in practice, we hold tight to the promise of the term balance and how it so beautifully defines the complex and informed equilibrium classroom teachers must constantly pursue in a field brimming with competing tensions.
Having chosen this journey, our ideas have evolved. We are balanced literacy advocates who have studied the perspective of “the other side” and have returned home, no longer frustrated, upset, or feeling like picking a fight. Instead we’ve come back with fresh eyes and ears, with insights and information. We’ve come back home better understanding gaps and overlaps. Most importantly, we’ve come back inspired with a new sense of possibility and purpose because we now know there are shifts we can embrace to help more children learn to read and with less struggle.
The good news? The shifts we need to make are not big shifts! They may take courage, but they are manageable, yet powerful changes that you can make without sacrificing the heart of balanced literacy.
About the Authors
Dr. Jan Burkins was an elementary classroom teacher for seven years and a literacy coach for seven years. She has worked as a part-time assistant professor, a district literacy leader, and is currently a fulltime writer and consultant.
Kari Yates is an author, speaker, consultant and staff developer with a passion for helping busy literacy educators thrive. Her experiences include classroom teacher, special education, Reading Recovery teacher, elementary principal and district literacy coordinator.
Brady, Susan. (2020). “A 2020 Perspective on Research Findings on Alphabetics
(Phoneme Awareness and Phonics): Implications for Instruction." The Reading League Journal 1 (3): 20–28.
———. January 2020. “Strategies Used in Education for Resisting the Evidence and Implications of the Science of Reading.” The Reading League Journal 1 (1): 33–40.
Hanford, Emily. September 10, 2018. “Hard Words: Why Aren’t Our Kids Being Taught to Read?” American Public Media Reports (Online Article): https://www.apmreports.org/episode/2018/09/10/hard-words-why-american-kids-arent-being-taught-to-read
Minor, Cornelius. 2018. We Got This: Equity, Access, and the Quest to Be Who Our Students Need Us to Be. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Morgan, Paul L., George Farkas, Marianne M. Hillemeir, and Steve Maczuga. 2017. “Replicated Evidence of Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Disability Identification in U.S. Schools.” Educational Researchers 46 (6): 305-322. doi: 10.3102/0013189X17726282.