I recently had lunch with my dear mentor and she told me a story about working in a classroom and sitting with a first grade student who was just beginning to read. She asked him to share his independent reading book with her only to discover that it was much too hard for him to read on his own. They went together to the classroom library, which was beautifully organized by topic and areas of interest to the students. As it turned out, however, there was literally nothing in the classroom library that the reader could actually decode independently.
As you are assembling and organizing your classroom library consider the quality, the accessibility, and reading level of what is available to students. As Kim Yaris and I describe in Reading Wellness, at any given time students will be reading more than one text. For beginning readers, that should include variety in terms of difficulty. A single reader may have one or more picture books, which he or she may read by looking at the pictures and telling the story. Hopefully, he or she will also have some high-quality, controlled-vocabulary texts--decodable and/or patterned--to engage in the practice of decoding and constructing meaning.
When “The Science of Reading” community says that there are decades of research on early literacy instruction, I see the truth in this statement. Almost twenty years ago I wrote a dissertation entitled “A Meta-analysis of Phonological Awareness.” At that point in the history of literacy instruction, there were already mounds of research on the topic, enough to warrant a statistical summary of the data, which is something of a litmus test for the robustness of an area of inquiry.
The research was well received by the small audience that read it. It was one of three finalist for the International Reading Association’s (currently International Literacy Association) coveted Dissertation of the Year Award, and it won the Dissertation of the Year Award for the school of education at the University of Kansas where I was graduating.
One unsurprising result of the study was that you could teach students to be phonologically aware and that this instruction improved students’ reading acquisition. In fact, one could say that you really don’t need to teach students phonological awareness unless you want them to learn how to read. Teaching phonological awareness is that important. Not teaching phonological awareness would be like suggesting that one couldn’t learn to swim without getting into some water.
The second result, the one that excited my advisors, was that, while instruction in phonological awareness was critical to early literacy, one could get too much instruction in the area. After a student was sufficiently phonologically aware, continued instruction in hearing sounds within words didn’t just lend no further improvement, it produced an inhibitory effect. In other words, phonological awareness development is essential, but too much of it can actually impede progress.
A meta-analysis is a statistical summary of all the statistical research on a topic. In designing a meta-analysis, one must decide whether to include unpublished dissertations. Unlike later meta-analyses of phonological awareness, I chose to include dissertations in my data, which meant that unpublished results were included. I did this to compensate for the publishing world’s bias towards positive results. Perhaps this is why I discovered some potential problems with phonological awareness instruction. In the later (and even current) phonological frenzy, I cringed to see whole classes of third-graders engaged explicit and isolated phonological awareness practice.
I never published these results in a journal, partly because I had toddler twin sons, partly because I knew I wanted to remain a practitioner rather than an academician, partly because I was sick of the topic, and partly because I received a phone call from Linnea Ehri (who's work I was studying) who was also working on a meta-analysis of the phonological awareness research. But these findings have informed my lifetime of work in literacy and have been part of what has driven me to hold tight to systematic instruction in phonological awareness with a balanced perspective of not overdoing it.
On one side of the current (and historical) debate, it is easy for phonological awareness instruction to be spotty and random, if at all, which I have continued to see as problematic even when mine wasn’t a popular perspective among some in the “balanced literacy” community. On the other side of the debate, it is easy for phonological awareness instruction to be overdone, which I have also continued to see as problematic even when perspective was unpopular among “the science of reading” community (even before it was called that).
If you are convinced that something is THE key to literacy, whether contextualizing work with sounds and the print system that lays over them or explicitly teaching students the bits and pieces of our orthographic system, be careful not to push this certainty to extremes such that your reasonable conviction (and both convictions are reasonable) becomes the Achilles heel of your instruction.
Most of us are painfully aware of the fissure in literacy education that is being exacerbated by polarizing and unproductive language around “The Science of Reading” and “Balanced Literacy.” I have been watching in the wings thinking about how to support collegial conversations and honest reflections.
Kim Yaris and I met on Twitter in 2012 when the literacy world was similarly, if not as fiercely, divided over the development of the Common Core State Standards. As we dug into the research around the CCSS and considered the political landscape of the field and the way it impacted the issues, we found lots of voices preaching to their own choirs and wondered how we could bring together an audience that might consider the truth on either side of the issue.
We eventually set about to look deeply and honestly at what was being overlooked from each perspective. During this period, if you read our blog on one day, you might leave thinking that we were staunch advocates of the CCSS (and you would have been correct). If you read the blog on another day, you might come away thinking that we were fierce critics and were at determined odds with the CCSS and their “architects” (and you would also have been correct).
As many of us are hesitant to admit in this current debate, the “truth” is not at all absolute. I am convinced, however, that we don’t have to position ourselves as polar opposites, unless we just want to fight. And I don’t think that is the case.
After many emails, direct messages, and personal requests to share my thinking on this topic and dig into the controversy, I am launching this blog to begin an inquiry into what divides us and where we can come together. Beware. Even if you typically agree with my thinking-- individually or as part of Burkins & Yaris--and regardless of where you stand on the perceived continuum between “The Science of Reading” and “Balanced Literacy,” it is likely that you won’t always like what I have to say.
I will start here, throwing a monkey wrench into the science of science: Generally speaking, research needs to be viewed with a healthy dose of skepticism. Even the accumulation of research that seems to support a consistent claim--and we offer this thought for either perspective on this issue--is problematic when all the studies share a similar flaw or bias.
So I leave you thinking about the ways we, humans, tend to find what we want to believe in research while we overlook what we don’t really want to see. On this note, we share this very R-rated video of John Oliver talking about the importance of and the limitations of science. If you are easily offended (or even somewhat easily offended), we recommend that you limit yourself to this summary:
In sum, it is easy to misrepresent studies in ways that support what we already believe and there is an element of sensationalism that comes from snagging catchy tidbits from studies without scrutinizing the design and the potential biases.
Dr. Jan Burkins is a full-time writer, consultant, and professional development provider.