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PODCAST: The Six Shifts, Episode 7: Reconsidering Texts for Beginner Readers

Posted by admin on May 28, 2021 12:00:00 AM


In this episode

Welcome to the seventh and final episode 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 this episode, Jan, Kari, and Dan dig into the sixth shift: Reconsidering Texts for Beginner Readers.

Listen to episode 7

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 our podcast series, we've arrived at the sixth and final shift from the book, Shifting the Balance. Seems a good time to step back and reflect on the idea of shifts. What do you actually mean by a shift?
Jan: Well Dan, when things aren't working, or they're not working quite as well as you wish they were, you might just ask yourself, "What is it that needs to shift in this moment? Where can I shift in order to get a change?" Any educator who is honest with themselves can See that there is room for improvement in our literacy outcomes with students. And so when Kari and I decided to tackle this project, that's really the question we had in mind, "What needs to shift in our early literacy practices?"
Kari: And we wanted to understand, why is there so much pushback on some of the things we have held so dear. Chapter six's topic is certainly an example of one that strikes at the heart and soul of balance literacy practices. And this chapter, I think, invites a really important shift, or you could call it adjustment, calibration, alignment, about something that more and more literacy educators are talking about and that is the kind of texts that we choose to use with our most beginning readers.
Dan: Now in the first podcast I asked you about the order of the chapters, and why you started with reading comprehension. Now, I'm interested in asking why do you end the book with text selection? Both of you care, a great deal. And you've written a lot about the importance of selecting the right text. Why does this come at the end of the book? Is that Is there an intention behind that?
Jan: Great question. We did, in fact, purposely position this topic as very last for a couple of reasons. First, it draws on understandings built across the whole book, that really, chapter six makes sense with the support of chapters one through five. You have to come to chapter six, with an understanding of how the reading brain really works, and how orthographic knowledge accumulates.
Kari: Yeah. And another reason that we positioned this chapter last is exactly what you said, Dan, it's that we do believe text selection is really kind of at the heart and soul of successful literacy instruction. And we think of texts as the primary tool kit in a teacher's bag of tricks. And so text selection. For the beginning, readers, though, it turns out is both more delicate, and even more critical, we think in a number of ways. And so we tackle those here in chapter six.
Dan: And what are some of the misunderstandings that have developed despite our teachers’ best intentions of choosing text carefully and thoughtfully. What are some of the misunderstandings that get in the way of instruction for beginning readers that's the most effective instruction we could have?
Jan: We'll just start with the first misunderstanding in the chapter, Dan, that's the decodable texts are loaded with problems. And everyone regardless of whether they align with quote-unquote, the science of reading or quote-unquote, balanced literacy. We can all see the truth in this statement, there are some really terrible, there's some horrible decodable texts out there. Unfortunately, there are also some terrible pattern texts out there. There are just in general, some really poorly designed, poorly written beginning reading texts. So, the question really is, how do we find excellent beginning reading texts for readers? And the decodable versus predictable question is really a matter of degrees, because every text has some degree of decodability, and some degree of predictability. So, we'll definitely understand the concern about decodable texts, but we're certainly not ready to decide that none of them are worth our attention.
Kari: And I think they're again, because this chapter builds on the previous chapters by the time you arrive at chapter six, we hope that you have lots of reason to sort of open your heart in new ways to the power of decodable text. And I think we also want to highlight misunderstanding four and that is that as long as kids are just spending time with books every day, they're going to become better readers. And although we know that high volume reading is so important for all readers and we are strong advocates of both choice and independent reading, again, especially for the most beginning readers, it's not just about how much time beginning readers spend reading that matters, it's also about what they are reading. And kind of think about it as, if in the beginning, when kids are just learning the sort of rules of the road for reading, we need to do whatever we can to make sure that those early experiences align with and kind of even shore up what they're learning rather than confuse students further or confuse those early phonics principles that they're working. We want texts that will help them to verify what they're learning in their phonics lessons to sort of internalize and be able to successfully use that orthographic filing system that they're working so hard to build in ways that will ultimately contribute to fluency and comprehension down the line. So, it's sort of more care with early texts will ultimately pay off in terms of the kinds of texts kids are able to read later and maybe even sooner, as a result of the early care that we take.
Dan: What are two actions you would expect teachers to take out after reading chapter six?
Jan: Well, it's likely that in many cases, we've over relied on predictable pattern texts to get kids quickly up in reading, or at least that's our intention. And yet, in doing so, we may actually have made things slower and more difficult for kids. And this chapter draws heavily on understandings built in the previous chapters, as we have mentioned a couple of times, but it challenges us to reconsider the kinds of texts we put in front of of beginning readers. And we refer to aligned texts, and you'll have to kind of read the chapter. It's more than we can go into here, but texts that really align with where the kids are as readers.
Kari: And again, the chapter doesn't only challenge current practices or explain the science. It does that in the first half but in the second half, it really follows up with concrete actions, instructional routines, and just thoughtful adjustments we can make as we shift our practice and make sure that we opened up literacy more easily for children in those early years of school.
Jan: And we do have, at the, there are a number of downloadables there but one in particular is a series of questions or tensions to consider as you're evaluating beginning reading texts. And it's a nice compliment as you study the book. So...
Kari: Yeah.
Dan: As I listened to you thinking of the idea that out of struggle the pleasure of realization is all that much intensified. The struggle is important. The struggle you went through and the struggle teachers and students will go through but on the other side, isn't there a real sense of satisfaction you get as you work through that change of practice, and their change of thinking and come out the other side? Is that somewhat what you experienced, Kari, in your journey from the hard-nosed to the high?
Kari: So, Dan, absolutely. And I really believe what you're saying personally. In fact, I have in my pile of things that hang on the wall in my house that are currently being reordered because we're getting ready for a move, out of difficulties come miracles. I really believe that. But the other thing that's really on my mind, as you're saying that, is whatever we've done in our classrooms, we've done with the best of intentions to help kids. And however we've gotten early readers started, we want them to be readers. And so, lots of what we've done, we've done in the name of trying to make it easier to get started. But it actually turns out the same is true for readers that they have to be able to struggle. So, looking at that picture and being able to maybe figure it out, serves a child in the moment, but it's actually that struggle with the print a little bit of doing that cognitive work, that starts to build that orthographic understanding and that orthographic knowledge. And so that is actually an aha that we've really come to is that we've got to be willing to be with kids and help them dig in and do that work.
Jan: Think just in terms of our working through this project. Certainly, the struggle of a project under a condensed timeline, during a pandemic in a writing partnership that was new, certainly coming out on the other side of that proud of the proud of the product, having done what was hard and in some moments and kind of through the fire, I guess they say it's always... What is it? I don't like to write but I like to have written. After the fact certainly, it does feel gratifying and satisfying. But some of the walking through the fire. There were some moments. But it does make, I think, the ending sweeter.
Dan: Thank you for writing the book, for doing the website and for sitting with us here for these interviews, they have been really interesting and eye opening. I think, they're a good preview into the book.
Kari: Dan, it's been our pleasure to be able to walk through this book with you and the listeners. And we're truly excited about continuing this conversation.
Jan: Yes. Thank you so much Dan.