“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, 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 stakes are high if we don’t address the Elephant in the Classroom today. Research shows that all students benefit from explicit and systematic foundational skills instruction to set them up for advanced literacy success.
Built on the Science of Reading, Foundations A-Z empowers teachers to develop the confidence needed, regardless of experience, to effectively teach all foundational skills and instill the joy of learning.
>> I don't know if it's an elephant in the classroom in the sense that people are seeing that there's a problem and ignoring it. I think people are trying their best to support kids, but I just think that there has been an information lag or gap that the translation from research to practice, for a number of reasons, has been problematic.
>> And from out perspective, that's also the good news is because there is a gap between research and practice, and so there's something to really lean into in terms of those literacy rates. There are things we know that we can do differently in classrooms to really make a different for kids.
>> It does feel solvable. It does feel certainly improvable. >> And it is painful. It's hard to face the fact that there are some things we really haven't gotten right in our classrooms, and Jan and I are part of that. When we say, "we," we mean we. We, ourselves, have engaged in and advocated for some practices that we now realize weren't ... They were actually making learning to read harder rather than easier for kids. The goos news is that gap because if we then can support teachers and find ways to shift our professional practices, then we can make a difference for kids. When our practices are more reflective about what we now know about how the brain learns to read, and some of it is not what we now know because we just learned it. Some of it is like, "Oh. That information has been around for a while, but we haven't enacted it in ways that have made the right difference for kids.
Our classrooms are more diverse than ever and diverse in all sorts of wonderful ways but also diverse in terms of the learning needs of students, and teachers are trying to reach students who are literally all over the map, and as Jan was saying, we haven't gotten everything wrong. We have so many practices we should hold on to. I was just thinking at that moment about differentiation and all of the intense investment primary teachers in this country have made in providing differentiated instruction over the last decade or decades, and that should be recognized because that takes a lot of work. This commitment to small-group instruction is no small thing. Now, we think one opportunity we have is to think about some ways to do that differently, starting with even the kinds of text that we're using with the most beginning readers at the small-group ... within small-group instruction that we're going to think about how to differentiate differently, but there's still that opportunity, I think, to celebrate what we've already been doing, which is, we've already been trying to build structures in our primary classrooms that recognize have got a lot of needs, and we're going to have to reach different children in different ways because the reality is, we've been thinking a lot lately about vocabulary. Kids come to school all over the map in terms of vocabulary and background knowledge, and we've go to do our best to meet kids where they are, but kids who come with lower vocabulary, boy, they need us to invest in their vocabulary development in some really powerful ways.
>> I was thinking about what challenges teachers are facing in terms of supporting children in becoming proficient readers, and one of them, I think, is a little bit of assumption that they're all going to have to be curriculum experts, that it's on them to take lots of varied resources, figure out how they fit together, figure out what in them is really grounded in the strongest science and what is not and all in a 30-minute planning time. I think that there are a lot of resources out there, and we've yet to encounter a school where there's not an abundance of resources, but something about the cohesion of the resources and teachers truly having some support in understanding the science that would inform their decision-making, but they need some help with that. That's a lot to ask teachers to be complete curriculum experts in all the subjects that they're teaching.
>> If you are a district-level leader or a school principal, you have a lot of control over how the time is spent and how the money is spent, and both of those kids will be better off when we use both of those resources to really think about, how do we provide teachers the additional in-service professional development, opportunities that they need, whether that's through coaching or ongoing professional development, and how do we make sure they have the time to kind of lean in to what Jan was just saying a minute ago about pulling together a good, cohesion plan for instruction day after day? That requires time, and it requires quality access to your peers, so working in professional learning communities or groups to support each other and really figuring out, what does the day look like? What does instruction look like day to day and over time? Those are two important, I think, and that might seem like a simplistic answer, but we know there are models all over the world where teachers have a lot more time to plan for what will unfold in the classroom than American educators typically do, but if we want quality instruction, we've got to position teachers to be able to prepare for it.
>> There's research to indicate that literacy rates will improve if we do a better job of doing those things that maybe have been gaps in our instruction, as we mentioned, like teaching sight words differently or high-frequency words differently, teaching phonemic awareness more systematically. We've been teaching phonics all along, just not with the same intention that we need and not necessarily in a cumulative way. So there are indications, research indications, that we can affect student outcomes by changing these practices. I think the trick is ... Or we really have been thinking a lot about, how do we sustain what's working without diverting our attention completely and also make the shifts that we need to make? And so, for example, there really is a trend towards more attention to systematic awareness and instruction, very conscious attention to phonics, more consideration of the scope and sequence behind our phonics instruction and, of course, a move to more decodable text that are aligned to that scope and sequence, but if we're not really nurturing that whole language comprehension piece, which doesn't get ... It's not getting the real estate or attention, in a few years, it's entirely possible that we'll be dealing with a different kind of mirror problem. So it's tricky. We're in a tricky field. We're in a challenging field.
>> Yeah, but I think that really speaks to the importance of: We do need ... As we reflect on the research, and for Jan and I, when we did our deep, deep dive into this body of research, there were times when we're like, "Oh. Those, we've got some serious work to do," and you're like, "some things that really need to change," but we equally had moments where we're like, "Hey, this is actually very affirming of practices that we already have in place," and I think that the work that we hold ... we can support educators in doing is, let's look at the research, and then let's really think about which practices we should celebrate and hold on to, like Interactive Read‑Alouds addresses one of the things Jan is talking about right there. We really need to continue to support children's development of oral language and help them build background knowledge, and that Interactive Read‑Aloud as a bread-and-butter practice of the early literacy classroom is some to really hold on to. But there are also practices that may be ... We used to do them, but we don't do them anymore, but we need to bring back or spiff up or freshen up because we now see like, "Oh, that's so critical." Phonemic awareness, we've done some phonemic awareness. It's not completely new, but, oh, we've got to get more systematic. We've got to get down to the phoneme level. We've got to get segmenting and blending going even early in kindergarten, and then there are some practices that we've got to recognize. We did them with the best of intentions, but they are not helpful to children, and we've got to do the hard work of letting them go and replacing them with more effective practices.