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PODCAST: The Six Shifts, Episode 4: Reimagining the Way We Teach Phonics

Posted by admin on Apr 16, 2021 12:30:00 AM



In this episode

Welcome to episode 4 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. 

If you're just tuning in, check out episodes one, two, and three. In our fourth episode, Jan, Kari, and Dan begin digging in to the third shift: Reimagining the Way We Teach Phonics.

Listen to episode 4


About the book

ShiftingtheBalance_RGB_smallIn 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

Jan HeadshotDr. 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 yatesKari 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

Nate Butler: 00:05 Welcome to Episode Four 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, published by Stenhouse. 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. Our previous episode focused on phonemic awareness. In today's episode, Jan and Kari discuss the third shift, Reimagining the Way We Teach Phonics.
Dan Tobin: 00:43 Welcome back to Kari and Jan, the authors of Shifting the Balance. We're up to shift number three on phonics. Before we get into that, Jan and Kari, remind us why you wrote the book, Shifting the Balance, in the first place.
Kari Yates: 00:58 Thanks for having us, Dan. We wrote the book because we were wondering, is it possible that a few simple but powerful shifts could really help us unlock literacy for more children? Especially for those whom the current system does not work or does not work well enough.
Jan Burkins: 01:16 And what we found, Dan, in digging into the research literature was that the answer was a resounding yes. There was more that we could do. We can make some relatively simple adjustments that can add up to some transformative change for beginning readers, without giving up a focus on meaning and joy in the classroom, which are among the biggest concerns of balanced literacy educators.
Dan Tobin: 01:43 Phonics has tended to be a particular flash point in the debate over how to teach early reading to kids. Is the problem that phonics isn't being taught, or is there a disconnect in the way it's being taught?
Kari Yates: 01:59 It's a good question, and it seems like although we've got phonics instruction happening in our classrooms, I think you'd be hard pressed to find K2 classrooms that don't have phonics instruction happening in them. It seems we might still be settling for a leave too much to chance approach in terms of intentionality and systematic cumulative phonics instruction.
Jan Burkins: 02:22 And those things are important. Just as lots of kids need help better organizing their bedrooms, intentional phonics instruction can help children build a more efficient organizational system for orthographic learning. Or the things that they learn about meaningful letter strings and the letters that can and can't go together. And if we're thoughtful about how we teach them, then they're better able to find them when they need them. So this is a huge game changer for beginning readers.
Dan Tobin: 02:55 That seems to be a recurring theme in this book is the idea of being more intentional and systematic in the way you teach early reading instruction. Did you find that that came up in all six shifts?
Jan Burkins: 03:10 I think so. Certainly intentionality is a recurring theme. What do you think, Kari?
Kari Yates: 03:18 Yeah. I think definitely there's likely a thread of intentionality in all of them. I think particularly when it comes to phonemic awareness and phonics, the intentionality factor seems really critical. Well, but I guess in chapter one as well. So, definitely a theme.
Dan Tobin: 03:43 And the book helps teachers become more intentional because of the clarity of the way you lay it out. As in the other chapters you lead with misunderstandings and misconceptions, what are a few of those around phonics instruction?
Kari Yates: 04:01 There are so many misunderstandings about phonics instruction that we wanted to do them all, but I know you told us there was a limit to how long the podcast could be. But one we decided to highlight is misunderstanding three, in this chapter. And that's that phonics really isn't worth teaching extensively because English is so unpredictable and spellings are so unreliable. That can sometimes leave educators feeling like, "What's the point?" because of this doggone language of ours. But on the surface, English can seem really quirky and learning to read and write English is definitely not the straightforward endeavor. English is referred to as having a deep orthography. But in fact, it turns out that about 50% of the words in the English language have completely regular or predictable spellings. And another 36% are regular except for one sound exception in them. So put those together and that's like 86% of the language is really predictable when it comes to sound spellings.
Kari Yates: 05:16 And so, yes, there's complexity, but there's also this definite system and lots of regularity. And so with truly systematic and cumulative phonics instruction, we can really create this efficient orthographic filing system right from the start, which sets up this cascade of positive benefits down the road.
Jan Burkins: 05:43 And another belief that many of us in Balanced Literacy hold is that learning phonics is boring, which is misunderstanding five in this chapter. These concerns are not ungrounded, they're not. I mean, the days of Dick and Jane, there certainly is plenty of very boring phonics material out there. We appreciate and share the concern that instruction not get grueling and regimented. That doesn't mean that all phonics instruction has to be boring. We see lots of robust, engaging, joy filled work in classrooms where children actually find figuring out the alphabetic code, a fun puzzle to solve. And the brain releases dopamine when it solves a puzzle. It's naturally rewarded for figuring something out. So there are lots of ways to make phonics instruction really, really joyful.
Kari Yates: 06:49 And success breeds success, which brings joy to the classroom as well.
Jan Burkins: 06:51 Absolutely.
Dan Tobin: 06:54 What other kinds of shifts are you looking for teachers to make as a result of reading chapter three on phonics instructions?
Kari Yates: 07:02 Yeah. So in chapter three, again, we use the first half of the chapter to make sure that we sort of untangle those misunderstandings. So first we want teachers to clearly understand what the human brain craves when learning a complex task, such as decoding the orthography of English.
Kari Yates: 07:20 And then in the second half of the chapter, we want to empower teachers with tools and routines that will allow them to reimagine their phonics instruction. We want to help teachers become more intentional and systematic in their planning, in their instruction, and maybe most importantly, in the formative assessment of phonics skills that they use to inform their teaching. And in ways that we know balanced literacy teachers are accustomed to wanting to be responsive teachers, following what children know and need next, there's really room for that in systematic and cumulative phonics in ways that we maybe haven't fully leveraged yet.
Jan Burkins: 08:08 Absolutely. And we want teachers to be able to do all of this in ways that make the learning experience joyful. Solving problems is intrinsically fun for children and discovering that they can be problem solvers and that print holds meaning, as they figure this out, matching phonology to print, this is empowering for young readers. We give them the key to understanding. So we hope that this chapter really shakes loose some things that might be binding or restricting teachers as they think about phonics instruction.
Dan Tobin: 08:50 Great. Thank you.
Kari Yates: 08:52 Thank you, Dan.
Jan Burkins: 08:52 Thanks, Dan. This has been a lot fun. We appreciate you and the folks at Stenhouse.
Kari Yates: 08:58 For sure.
Nate Butler: 09:03 Shifting the Balance: Six Ways to Bring the Science of Reading into the Balanced Literacy Classroom, by Jan Burkins and Kari Yates is available from Stenhouse Publishers. Follow Jan Burkins online at Dr. Jan Burkins and Follow Kari Yates at Kari_Yates. Be sure to check out We hope you enjoyed listening to the Six Shifts with Jan Burkins and Kari Yates. Future episodes will look more closely at each shift.
Nate Butler: 09:36 We'd love to hear your feedback. Get in touch with us at And please share this with your colleagues who you think would enjoy it too. Thanks for listening.
Nate Butler: 09:46 (silence)