The Stenhouse Blog

PODCAST: The Six Shifts, Episode 5: Revising High-Frequency Word Instruction

Posted by admin on Apr 30, 2021 11:40:20 AM



In this episode

Welcome to episode 5 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 fourth episode, Jan, Kari, and Dan begin digging in to the fourth shift: Revising High-Frequency Word Instruction.

Listen to episode 5


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

Dan: Welcome back to the podcast. As we continue our path through each of the six shifts outlined in Shifting the Balance, let's step back a minute and remind our listeners of the larger context for the book.
Jan: Well, Dan, we really wanted to take on some of these competing tensions in the field, balanced literacy has become sort of a loaded term lately. And nevertheless, we hold tight to this promise of the term balance because of how it's so beautifully defines the complex and informed equilibrium classroom teachers must constantly pursue, right? In a field brimming with competing tensions.
Kari: And we also believe that competing tensions they are what keep us sort of honest and evolving as human beings and in our professional practice. They push us on our understandings and practices. And so, leaning into the research versus practice tension is really at the heart of shifting the balance.
Dan: So, let's turn to chapter four on high frequency words. I was surprised by this chapter. I thought there was a broad consensus that memorizing sight words is just something that children have to do. But in this chapter, you upset that long held belief. Talk about what you learned about sight word instruction as you were developing a book?
Jan: Well, you're right, Dan. There is a near consensus on this idea that kids have to just memorize words. And in this chapter, really does have some heft, I mean, we all learned in reading 101 in our undergraduate teaching classes, that sight words, more accurately high frequency words, they just have to be memorized because they're irregular, and you can't cancel them out. And our instructional practices have consequently, been heavy with things like flashcards and rote memorization, which are anything but engaging, and certainly not joy-filled, typically. And they're really not that aligned with the heart of balanced literacy either. So, they've been kind of this place of disconnect.
Kari: And I think most importantly for me is we worked through this topic. I just learned that helping children move words into long-term storage in the brain, or they can instantly and automatically be retrieved, is surprisingly dependent upon phonemic awareness. This was the sort of just kind of blew my mind to realize how connected phonemic awareness is to word learning, and how it contributes to this process called orthographic mapping, which is a big idea of chapter four.
Dan: And what were some of the misunderstandings you encountered and wrote about in this chapter as you looked at kids’ ability to build stores of words that they recognize instantly and automatically?
Jan: Well, then what we're really talking about is high frequency words, because any word you can read on sight is a sight word. But these are words that show up the most in print. And most interestingly, many of these words are actually regularly spelled and fully decodable. But we still have children learning them with flashcards and in rote memorization strategies.
Kari: And so that misunderstanding is that high frequency words can't be decoded, when in fact, they can. And the related misunderstanding number three is the children just need to memorize irregularly spelled high frequency words as whole units. And, as we already kind of alluded to this, just have to memorize them approach, can't rely on decoding them. It turns out that all of those ideas are really a bit off. And that kids can and really should be supported. In thinking deeply about the spellings of even the most irregular, high frequency words. David Kilpatrick refers to this as thinking about meaningful letter strings. And the brain actually needs to be able to make sense of Spelling's to make meaning of the letter sequence before those words can be moved to storage. And so, to do that readers engage in this process called orthographic mapping, again, that we're excited to have included as a really important element of chapter four.
Dan: Would you say, then, that the role of chapter four is really to help educators rethink the memorization approach? Is that a fair assessment currently?
Jan: Absolutely. And it's fun, I mean, chapter four is we think going to be the least controversial chapter in the book because balance literacy educators are already concerned about how they're teaching high frequency words. And so, we're going to help them untangle this, just have to memorize them approach to teaching high frequency words, by getting a better understanding of how the brain really comes to no words automatically.
Kari: In every kindergarten, first grade teacher knows the frustration of working so hard to get kids to know words, and they don't know them. Right? I already taught them. We feel we've already taught that and then they just don't know them. And I think there's a real relief in chapter four in coming to know that, hey, we could go about this in a really different way that would work for the human brain and-
Jan: make it a lot easier.
Kari: ... success for children. Yeah.
Jan: Yeah. Easier for kids and easier for teachers.
Kari: For sure.
Jan: More fun, I think.
Dan: Well, thank you for that preview of the chapter.
Jan: Sure.
Kari: Thank you, Dan