In this first shift, we start by exploring four misunderstandings about how reading comprehension develops.
In this episode
Welcome to episode 2 of The Six Shifts, with Jan Burkins and Kari Yates, co-authors of Shifting The Balance: Six Ways to Bring the Science of Reading into the Balanced Literacy Classroom. In this series, Jan and Kari, with Stenhouse’s Dan Tobin, address misconceptions and misunderstandings that have discouraged educators from incorporating the science of reading into the balanced literacy classroom.
In our previous episode, Jan and Kari shared the story behind Shifting the Balance and their experience rethinking their teaching. In our second episode, Jan, Kari and Dan begin digging in to the first shift: Rethinking How Reading Comprehension Begins.
Listen to episode 2
About the book
In Shifting the Balance: 6 Ways to Bring the Science of Reading into the Balanced Literacy Classroom, authors Jan Burkins and Kari Yates address this tension as a critical opportunity to look closely at the research, reevaluate current practices, and embrace new possibilities for an even stronger enactment of balanced literacy.
From phonological processing to brain research to orthographic mapping to self-teaching hypothesis, Shifting the Balance cuts through the rhetoric (and the sciencey science) to offer readers a practical guide to decision-making about beginning reading instruction. The authors honor the balanced literacy perspective while highlighting common practices to reconsider and revise—all through a lens of what’s best for the students sitting in front of us.
Meet 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.
Read the transcript
Dan: Welcome back. Before we dive into chapter one of Shifting the Balance, let's start by taking a second and talking about the book as a whole and how you decided to focus on one of those central tensions in literacy instruction.
Kari: Dan, choosing this project meant really choosing to challenge ourselves to embrace rather than resist the current tension in the field. Doing that, we knew, though, meant we had to be willing to ask ourselves some really hard questions along the way. For instance, one question we realized early on that we were going to need to ask ourselves was whether some of our current seemingly really logical practices were driven more by intuition about how reading appears to work from the outside, then they are driven by the science of how reading actually works inside the brain.
Jan: And then this wondering, or this insight about reading from the outside in versus reading from the inside out, which originally comes from the work of Marilyn Adams, really helped us see some possibilities for revising our practices. Because while I can look like kids are doing one thing when they read, what is actually going on in their brains, just in microseconds, often turns out to be quite different. So one thread throughout the book is turning our thinking from outside in assumptions to some inside out realities.
Dan: As we turned to chapter one on reading comprehension, I was somewhat surprised to see that the focus of the first chapter was on reading comprehension. I guess I thought you might start with the foundational skills first and work up to reading comprehension. So what was behind that decision?
Kari: Dan, that's a great question. And actually, we were really intentional about starting the book with meaning making, because we're balanced literacy educators. And we wanted to make it really clear to readers that you can teach the print system systematically, and still hold close to meaning. And we saw this opportunity to sort of begin the book with the end in mind.
Jan: Yes, and finding meaning in text is really the whole point of print in the first place, that the alphabetic system was invented to convey meaning, the central role of meaning and learning to read is actually a point of agreement on both sides, if you will, of this conversation, even if one or the other may have trouble seeing it at a given time.
Dan: One of the big ideas in the chapter is that we tend to underestimate the role language comprehension plays in reading comprehension. What were some of the misunderstandings you discovered as you wrote this chapter?
Kari: Each of the chapters throughout the book is organized with the first half having misunderstandings sort of unpacked and clarified. And there were a couple of misunderstandings about comprehension that really captured our attention. And the first was misunderstanding one of this chapter, which is that reading comprehension begins with print, when in fact it simply doesn't.
Kari: Reading comprehension begins at or even before birth, as the human brain is hearing and learning to comprehend spoken language in the world around us. Because print is nothing more than spoken language written down, we think of it as sort of freeze dried language. Understanding print takes a lot more than being able to just decipher those little marks on the page. It's dependent upon a child's ability to understand spoken language. So in chapter one, we explain some of the critical ways the brain is wired for oral language comprehension, and how that becomes the foundation for success with reading comprehension later on.
Jan: And then another misunderstanding that really just felt like a huge insight for us was misunderstanding four in chapter one, which is this idea that successful comprehension in beginning reading text means that reading comprehension is on track. We tend to assess reading comprehension in the early grades with texts that match students decoding capabilities, while their language comprehension is typically far beyond that. It just doesn't take much language to comprehend early decodable, or early predictable texts.
Jan: So we get a false positive for reading comprehension that reveals itself when kids hit late second grade, or early third grade, and we find ourselves saying, "Wait a minute, this child was on track, what has happened to their reading comprehension?"
Dan: As we wrap up this podcast on chapter one, what can readers expect from it as a whole? What are some of the key takeaways?
Kari: In this first shift, we start by exploring four misunderstandings about how reading comprehension develops. And then we kind of challenge teachers to reconsider the all too common practice of under attending to listening comprehension and oral language development.
Jan: And we back it all up with lots of research, Dan, and we spend a good chunk of the chapter giving readers really practical guidance on how they can shift their practices. And because there was more content that we wanted to share that could be squeezed into the book, each chapter has some free goodies housed on our website, thesixshifts.com that readers may want to check out as they're working through the book.