Supporting Teachers in Shifting Instruction

Dr. Jan Burkins and Kari Yates See Opportunities to Improve Student Literacy

Two-thirds of American schoolchildren read below grade level, a persistent problem that has plagued our nation’s classrooms for over three decades.

“We’ve grown too comfortable with so many children having difficulty reading,” says Dr. Jan Burkins, co-author of Shifting the Balance: 6 Ways to Bring the Science of Reading into the Balanced Literacy Classroom.

Burkins thinks the true elephant in the classroom is not that teachers are afraid to talk about the problem of low literacy — “I think people are trying their best,” she says — it’s the information lag from research to practice that informs what is the most effective way to teach reading.

Burkins, and her co-author Kari Yates, spoke with Learning A-Z about taking a delicate approach to systemic change and the importance of giving teachers grace as they make shifts in their instructional practices.

The Good News About the Elephant in the Classroom

Yates said the lagging translation from research to practice is actually good news. Armed with new information on effective literacy strategies, we can “lean into” low literacy rates and make a difference.

Burkins and Yates’ book, Shifting the Balance, outlines six manageable shifts educators can make to seamlessly blend Science of Reading literacy practices into their instruction.

“It’s painful. It’s hard to face the fact that there are some things we really haven’t gotten right in our classrooms,” Yates said. Burkins and Yates, both former teachers, acknowledged they feel the pain of knowing they “engaged in and advocated for practices that were making learning to read harder for kids.”

Still, they remain optimists. Is this crisis solvable? we asked. “Yes, I do feel it’s solvable. At least improvable,” Burkins said.

“Know Better, Do Better” to Improve Literacy for All Students

Literacy rates continue to lag behind year after year. In order to make progress, we have to make shifts in instructional practices. We know what we need to do differently to improve literacy rates, Yates said. But that doesn’t mean we should “steamroll” a new curriculum.

“Teachers have been acting on their best knowledge to date,” Burkins said. “To learn that things need to be done differently might add an emotional layer to this. The message isn’t to shame teachers. It’s ‘know better, do better.’”

Many teachers feel their practice is under attack, Yates said. If we don’t acknowledge the support teachers need to change, we will be met with resistance. “The only way for change to happen is for teachers to feel safe in it,” Burkins said. “To make substantive change requires that we not be in a fight or flight posture.”

The Key to Systemic Change — Teacher Support

Burkins and Yates say the key to effective systemic change is grace.

“We expect so much of educators and many times without adequately investing in their ongoing care and development,” Yates said. “It’s easy to say teaching practices need to change, teachers need to change. It’s more complex and intricate than that. It’s about systems and how systems invest in children by investing in teachers.”

“It’s about systems and how systems invest in children by investing in teachers.” - Kari Yates

Both urged that the “head and heart” work of supporting teachers during substantial shifts in practice needs to be a top priority for schools.

“To be an educator is to invest your whole self. It is to give of your whole self — heart, mind, and body — day in and day out. There’s a real emotional component to all this work. What can be done? Investing in wellness for all people within school systems is, to me, top of the list,” Yates said.

Effective Literacy Instruction for Students, Embedded Professional Development Support for Teachers

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