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March 2, 2023

6 Ways to Shift the Balance with the Science of Reading

In the last episode of Teaching Channel Talks, Dr. Wendy Amato and literacy educators and authors Jan Burkins and Kari Yates had a conversation about their new book, Shifting the Balance: 6 Ways to Bring the Science of Reading into the Balanced Literacy Classroom. If you haven’t had the opportunity to tune in, you can catch up on the discussion below we break down the six shifts we can make to integrate effective reading strategies from each perspective.


Wendy: Kari, you’ve worked as a school administrator both at the school level and district level, and the title of your book is Shifting the Balance. To me, that suggests that you’ve been in some spaces where people are slow to shift. Can you talk about that? 

Kari: Resistance is real. Hesitation is real. School change is hard and I think as educators, we invest so much of ourselves into what we do that when it feels like our practices are being attacked, it can really feel like kind of an attack on our very identity. 

But I also think that the idea of resistance and hesitation has a positive side to it and this kind of relates to the idea of active listening. If you’re advocating for change in a school and you’re getting a lot of pushback, that is information for you as a school leader that somehow the needs of the educators have not been met. They don’t have enough information. They don’t have enough resources. 

We’ve got to really invest in educators and we’re believers that the best way to invest is through professional development and making sure that teachers have really accessible, helpful professional development opportunities in order to engage in the reflection of their current practices and the opportunities for a shift that will make literacy, reading, and writing more accessible to the children they’re serving. I think the challenge as a leader is to not just push back against resistance but to try to lean into it and see what there is to learn from it because that’s going to help you on your journey. 

Wendy: Jan you have provided consulting for language arts at the state level. How does that inform your interest in helping people shift versus some dramatic change? 

Jan: Well, I was a K12 language arts consultant for a regional educational service agency in Georgia, and all of it really is so connected and points to this idea that when shifting practices, you have to start somewhere. Like we say all the time, “Momentum has to start somewhere if we can just get something going.” 

So for example, our fourth shift in the book is about sight word instruction and really sight word instruction is one of the most straightforward things to make a shift around, and one of the ways to powerfully see the impact of these shifts in the classroom. Rather than thinking everything in our classroom has to change, let’s try this shift and see if it encourages us to keep going. We would say there are few classrooms where we would think everything has to change, right? There’s always something that is working. 

Wendy: And you’ve crafted six specific ways to bring the science of reading into the balanced literacy classroom. That’s the title of the book. Where should we go in discussing this? 

Kari: I have to be honest, when Jan persuaded me to dig into this work, I dug in so that I could better defend my current practices. That was really my original goal. But as we dug into this research, we started to see that there are some practices that we really have to take a strong second look at and some of them are practices that are very near and dear to us. 

I’m a trained reading recovery teacher, so a lot of this work really triggered this sort of crisis within myself because I really had to rethink almost the sole foundation of myself as a literacy teacher. But as we dug into the research, it became clear to us, that there are sort of these six buckets or six areas, that we need to reconsider ourselves and that we eventually encouraged other educators to reconsider in early literacy. 

Wendy: Was reading comprehension at the top of the list right out of the gate? 

Jan: Yes, we started right out of the gate by thinking about reading comprehension because it’s one of the very valid concerns of educators. The educators we work with were zooming in on skills to the neglect of comprehension. So Chapter One establishes this foundation of language comprehension in particular and really connects that to reading comprehension because the reality is that there is no reading comprehension mechanism in the brain. The reading comprehension mechanism actually piggybacks on or hijacks the language comprehension part of the brain. So spoken language is really the heart of reading comprehension. 

For those who are really wanting to leverage a tool to improve language comprehension and reading comprehension, we lean into the work of Grover Whitehurst and his dialogic reading research and talk about extending conversations. There are just three little things you can do in a conversation to dramatically increase the vocabulary of children. So for parents or guardians who are reading aloud, or just having general conversations with children, this will make that improvement and there is a little one-pager that tells them how to do that. 

Kari: Yeah, I mean, it’s so important to us that educators who engage in work with us or read our book come away feeling like there are lots of practices to celebrate, some to refine, and some to let go of. And I think in terms of language development, the practice to celebrate and hold onto is interactive read-aloud with rich conversation and really robust texts. 

Jan: And since language comprehension is the heart of reading. Once we kind of moved past that and into Chapter Two, we intentionally build on that as we start to take that language apart with phonemic awareness.  

Kari: Yes, shift two is getting more intentional about phonemic awareness. I don’t think phonemic awareness is a new concept in most early literacy classrooms, but the opportunity here is to get more intentional and recognize that for children of any age who are still struggling to learn to read, insufficient phonemic awareness is the most common cause of word reading difficulty. 

We need to make sure that we’re using tools that support phonemic awareness, which is work that is completely unnatural to the brain and work that the brain never had to do before human beings invented written language. One of the tools we introduced and really lean on for introducing students to the work of segmenting and blending sounds is just leaning into Elkonin boxes or sound boxes. We want to make this very invisible, abstract work of finding those little bitty sounds within words more tangible and concrete, and using these boxes helps children to think about each sound in a word, and makes it more concrete and multi-sensory for students. They’ve got to be able to find those little sounds and words and eventually understand that those little sounds in words are what is being represented by those graphemes in writing, which leads right into shift three, phonics. 

Jan: For the sake of time, we won’t be able to elaborate on the other four shifts the way we did with one and two, but once we can hear those individual sounds logically, representing them with graphemes then we can focus on shift three and becoming more intentional about phonics instruction.  

Wendy: Now talk to me a little bit about high-frequency words, or sight words, that’s #4 on the list. 

Kari: So, shift four really gets to the heart of some really exciting science, which is this idea of orthographic mapping, or graphic mapping, which is this process of figuring out how those little sounds in words align to those graphemes or representations. Shift four is about high-frequency words and how we turn them into sight words. And it turns out that this is a practice that a lot of us have gotten wrong. I know I got wrong because we think of word learning as this visual activity. We try to get kids to memorize words, and we say, “Oh, you can’t really decode that word. You just have to memorize it.” 

Well, it turns out that all word learning depends on the brain. Being able to do this job of orthographic mapping, is kind of the secret sauce. And there are some simple ways that we can shift that instruction so that we are pulling on all of these processing systems in the brain in quick and simple ways. We can’t do orthographic mapping for the students, but by using tools like Elkonin boxes, we can really help them to see the alignment between sounds and spellings, which is an important part of moving them to long-term memory for quick retrieval. 

Jan: We zoom in on high-frequency words, but really this is the way the brain learns to read any word. Any word that I can read automatically is technically a sight word, whether it’s high-frequency or low-frequency. So, once we know how to help children learn words, we’ve really unlocked a big part of reading. And if their language comprehension is in place, then we’re off to the races. 

Wendy: I suspect that the fifth shift, queueing systems, is one that teachers are using more but not labeling as a queuing system. Let’s talk about that. What is a queuing system and is there a possibility that teachers are more actively paying attention to them than they realize? 

Jan: Queuing has to do with what information is a child using in the moment of figuring out a word. In Chapter Five, after we’ve really solidified how children learn words, the new issue is that we’ve been historically teaching children to figure out words using things that don’t align with the science that leads up to Chapter Four. 

Kari: There are lots of different ways to figure out words, right? 

Jan: Right. But really the only way that helps children learn words and turn those into sight words is if they do the orthographic mapping that Kari was just talking about—which requires looking at those relationships between the sounds and the spellings, or paying attention to those in that alphabetic principle. 

Shift five is triggering for a lot of people, and that’s why we purposefully put it later on in the book. We wanted teachers to really understand the science that builds up to it, and we really wanted to have established who we are and some safety for readers before they got to that chapter. 

Wendy: I suspect that Chapter Six gets pretty specific in its recommendations. Let’s talk about text selection, how much autonomy do teachers have in selecting text? How do they prioritize? Where can they go to make good decisions for their learners? 

Kari: Chapter Six is about selecting instructional texts for even the most beginning readers. One of the things we explore there is the advantages and disadvantages of predictable, simple,texts with repeated language patterns versus decodable texts that are closely aligned to the phonics skills children are learning. 

So it’s a nudge toward making more space for decodable texts to feed that whole experience. The other important text selection is for read-alouds and shared reading, we need to really lean into those and it brings us full circle to support language development, and knowledge building, and an understanding of rich language structures. Chapter Six is primarily about those instructional texts for beginning readers with a reminder that you don’t put all your eggs in the basket of those texts. You still need to have this rich plan of what other sorts of text you’re going to make accessible as a teacher through read-aloud and shared reading. 

We have to continually remind ourselves and the educators we work with that this is hard work. We offer these six commitments in the beginning of our book and we’ve got them as a download if people want them, but they apply to any kind of school change work. We know it’s hard work, but important work on behalf of kids. 

Wendy: I’d like to say thank you to both of you for letting me help you say that publicly to the world. This conversation is just what educators need. We hope our fellow educators, enjoy the book, challenge their own practices, and let’s see where we can move forward in supporting learners across the country. 


This conversation has been edited for length and clarity, but you can still listen to the full episode of Teaching Channel Talks here. For links to resources from the podcast, check out the show notes below.  

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