We recently sat down with Jan Burkins and Kari Yates to talk about their new book, Shifting the Balance. Read to find out what inspired them to write this new book and to get a deeper dive into this important resource.
Getting to Know Shifting the Balance
What led you both to write this book?
There has been some very vocal criticism of balanced literacy and, in the interest of children, we wanted to make sure we were fairly and honestly considering the research behind the criticism. We also had district leaders and teachers asking us for help as they dealt with pressure to make changes to their balanced literacy practices.
What does the term “balanced literacy” mean in practice?
There are many definitions of the term and it takes on many forms in classrooms. 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.
Does the body of experimental research known as the “science of reading” provide a clear answer to the question “how do I teach reading to a classroom of children?”
In writing the book, we found, as have others, that the experimental research on reading isn’t completely consistent or irrefutable. And the 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.
You write that both sides of the debate on how to teach reading have raised equity concerns about the other side’s approach and you say that neither side’s concerns should be dismissed. What are those concerns?
There are legitimate concerns about equity and inclusion coming from both sides. Balanced literacy educators are concerned that, in a science of reading model, children of color are the ones who get more isolated practice on phonics elements with little or no time spent in real books. Science of reading advocates feel that children of color are more likely to be in remedial programs because no one is actually teaching them how the code works or building their background knowledge sufficiently. Children from lower income families are less likely to get the essential experiences that can fill the gaps in either approach.
Getting to Know The Six Shifts
You’ve structured the book around six “simple shifts.” Does that mean they are small shifts, or is this a big change in the way balanced literacy teachers should teach?
They are simple shifts in thinking, which may result in small or larger shifts to practice. The simple shifts terminology also is in reference to the fact that teachers don’t have to throw everything out and start over, which leads to a perpetual pendulum swing. They just need to make some adjustments. How involved or minor these changes will be will depend on each teacher’s current practice.
Shift 1: Rethinking How Reading Comprehension Begins
You write that listening comprehension is a precondition to reading comprehension. Does that mean that learning to read is like learning to speak?
No, there are key differences. As we say in the book, “Although human brains have always been able to learn spoken language naturally, they were not (and still are not) naturally wired for many of the demands that the invention of written language placed upon them (Wolf 2007; Seidenberg 2017).” What we are emphasizing is that language comprehension is a critical--and often overlooked--foundation for reading comprehension. Building background knowledge and vocabulary can and should be part of our instructional approach. Through rich conversation and read aloud, we provide opportunities for deep comprehension work, well before students are able to read complex texts themselves.
Shift 2: Recommitting to Phonemic Awareness Instruction
What’s the difference between phonics and phonemic awareness?
The most basic distinction between phonics and phonemic awareness is the inclusion (or exclusion) of letters. Phonemic awareness involves spoken sounds, without letters attached. Once you add letters to the sounds, the phonemic awareness work begins to overlap with phonics work. So identifying the first sound in the word cat as /k/ is phonemic awareness work. Identifying the first letter in cat as C is phonics work (although it requires the phonemic awareness work of isolating the initial phoneme).
Shift 3: Reimagining the Way We Teach Phonics
There’s a perception among some balanced literacy teachers that phonics-based instruction can turn kids off of reading. What are your thoughts about students choosing texts for themselves?
Both balanced literacy teachers and science of reading educators want the same thing: proficient readers who enjoy reading and read to enhance their lives. “Drill and kill” phonics is definitely a concern, but phonics instruction does not have to be tedious or boring, and learning the code is like solving a puzzle, which can be very fun and empowering for students. We are not suggesting eliminating choice for children, but in some circumstances, and especially in the very beginning, we may need to narrow choice, or become more involved ourselves, to make sure students get texts that match with the skills they have for applying the code they are working so hard to master.
Shift 4: Reinventing How We Use Cueing Systems
In your chapter on cueing, are you saying that meaning should take a backseat to print?
There is an important place for both meaning and print in solving words. But we are suggesting that in many cases, print has been minimized in ways that are unhelpful to children. So, yes, when it comes to decoding, print should come first. This is because the strongest readers use meaning to make the leap to the actual word after a decoding attempt and/or to cross-check, rather than to decode. But, when it comes to the actual purposes for reading, of course meaning comes first. Reading is all about understanding text. And the whole point of decoding the words is to access meaning.
Many teachers have been taught to avoid the prompt “sound it out,” but you suggest that’s a misunderstanding of the research.
There’s nothing wrong with the prompt “sound it out.” Children understand it as a cue to use the visual information (print), which is important. It is true, however, that simply saying “Sound it out” is insufficient for teaching children to read. So, as we reclaim this prompt to visual information, children will also need explicit instruction, modeling, and practice to learn what the “sound it out” call to action really means. A learned reluctance to say “Sound it out” can leave us trying to teach for balance without adequate use of one of the three potential sources of information. Minimizing use of visual information actually makes learning to read harder.
But isn’t English too inconsistent for “sound it out” to be a useful prompt?
No. Even words with unusual spellings have some parts that follow familiar patterns. “Sound it out” can still provide students with useful information to decode the word, in combination with other strategies.
Shift 5: Revising High-Frequency Word Instruction
Don’t sight words just have to be memorized?
This is an important area for us to rethink as balanced literacy educators. Research is solid here. We don’t learn words as “pictures” or “objects’ we learn them as letter strings with meaningful order. One important scientific finding about high-frequency words is that they are not simply learned by sight. And although it may appear on the surface as though proficient readers are recognizing words immediately as whole units, brain research very convincingly refutes this common assumption. In truth, research shows that it is actually the locked-in memories of sounds and their corresponding letter orders that make expert readers look as if they have memorized the words. In Brain Words, Richard Gentry and Gene Ouellette (Stenhouse 2019) explain, “Skilled reading is so efficient that you aren’t even aware that you are using these stored spellings because it happens in such a seemingly automatic way.”
You write that the real value of decoding a word isn’t figuring out that word but how it adds to children’s learned store of letter sequences, preparing them to read future words fluently. Should teachers be looking at texts from that perspective?
Yes. When choosing texts for shared or guided reading, it is important to be thoughtful about the kinds of words students will encounter and how this will both give students opportunities to practice specific sound-spelling patterns AND give them a chance to practice thinking about the meaning of a text.
Shift 6: Reconsidering Texts for Beginning Readers
How might a teacher use the three tensions you describe in choosing texts for beginning readers: decodability versus predictability, novelty versus redundancy, orthographic value versus sense-making value?
We didn’t intend for teachers to use the three tensions formally with every single text, but instead to help build a mental model for the work of text evaluation, which can be complex. Because text selection forms the foundation of the reading experience, and because the quality of beginning reading texts is so varied, spending time in reflection or conversation about their attributes will translate into more effective instruction for children. The tool and chapter together should communicate that teachers don’t have to throw out all their predictable texts; they just need to consider them differently.
Where does responsive teaching come into the equation? Isn’t the goal less about what the research says and more about assessing each child’s needs and responding effectively?
It’s not an either/or. Success in the classroom will always come down to understanding the strengths and needs of individual students and drawing responsively from a toolkit of proven instructional approaches. Teaching how letters and sounds work does not preclude teaching responsively. In fact, to teach students well, teachers must know their children well and differentiate instruction based on their specific needs. The science of reading approach can significantly expand the tools we employ as responsive teachers.
How do I respond to concerns from parents who have read some of the articles that say balanced literacy is based on a disproven theory of how children learn to read?
Honor their concerns. Tell them that there are some things about balanced literacy that are in question, but that there are also important aspects of it that serve children. It’s helpful for parents to understand that we, as educators, need to continually stretch ourselves and lean into evolving research and thinking in the field.
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.