In my consulting work, I have pulled up alongside far too many beginning readers who--having been taught to read in explicit phonics programs--have inadvertently learned to neglect the meaning of what they are reading. They tend to deliberate laboriously in decoding a word--yes, an important process for beginning readers--when the context and the syntax could have confirmed their efforts and taken them from their phonetic approximation to the actual word. This is what the balanced literacy folks (and I count myself among them), refer to as “word callers.” This pattern of inattention to meaning--which leads to opportunity costs in teaching children that reading is about constructing meaning--is a legitimate problem with explicit phonics instruction.
On the other hand, I have pulled up alongside far too many beginning readers who--having been taught to read in a balanced literacy framework--have inadvertently learned to over rely on context as they problem-solve words. They often scour the picture for clues to words they could easily decode relying almost exclusively on context and moving on without looking closely at the print. This is what the phonics folks (and I count myself among them), refer to as “guessing.” This pattern of inattention to the print--which leads to opportunity costs in learning orthography--is a legitimate problem with balanced literacy.
It often seems that, on either side of this debate, there is only noise and anger. There are, however, very reasonable and thoughtful folks exploring the nuances of each perspective and trying to actually listen closely to the voices of others.
This can be difficult for many of us, however, myself included.
Usually, this difficulty arises from the stories we tell ourselves...stories that aren't completely true. Before we make sweeping generalizations about an entire group of people--people who represent a range of ideas within a larger, general perspective--perhaps we can interrogate our beliefs about these people. To support this effort, I share The Work from Byron Katie, which is a five-step process for considering the ways our thinking tends to be biased towards self-preservation and protection of our egos.
If something someone says or does causes you distress, identify the underlying story/belief you are telling yourself, such as
Balanced literacy folks do not believe in teaching students explicit or systematic phonics.
Science of reading folks do not care if children learn to comprehend.
Balanced literacy folks believe that learning to read is as easy as learning to talk.
Science of reading folks don’t care if children read from dreary books and learn to hate reading.
Ask yourself if this belief is actually true.
Your ego may jump up here and try to assert how accurate these extreme, negative statements are. Don’t overlook the ego’s need to be right, even at the expense of ourselves, our children, our relationships, etc. Perhaps you immediately recognize that these statements aren’t absolutely true. If so, skip step three. If you are still convinced that the statements above are absolutely true, then you will want to check out step three.
Go deeper. Ask yourself if the statement is absolutely true? Are there any exceptions? Could there be places where this belief doesn’t hold up? Do you know anyone who appreciates the contributions of the "science of reading" and also has demonstrated a clear commitment to student engagement and great texts? Do you know anyone who ascribes to "balanced literacy" who is intentional about phonics instruction?
Of course, if you are honest with yourself (and you must be), you will recognize that there are circumstances where these statements are not true.
Think about how the negative belief affects you. Who are you when you believe this? How do you act? What do you say? How do you feel?
Consider who you would be without this belief. Would you be more open to possibilities? Would you be better able to listen? Would you be able to focus on and expand what is working? Would you be better able to find opportunities for connection? Would you judge others less? Would you judge yourself less?
Flip the statements and see if you can persuade your ego that these new statements are at least somewhat true, if not absolutely true.
Balanced literacy folks believe in teaching students explicit or systematic phonics.
Science of reading folks care if children learn to comprehend.
Balanced literacy folks don’t believe that learning to read is as easy as learning to talk.
Science of reading folks care if children learn to hate reading.
Notice the shift in your breathing and in your body tension as you actually step into the truth of these flipped statements. If you can believe in at least the possibility of these statements, despite the fact that you may have encountered some folks who seem to embody the opposites, then you are on your way.
And then, if you want to move to ninja-level honesty, you can flip the statements in another way and consider the truth in them. For example,
Science of reading folks do not believe in teaching students explicit or systematic phonics.
(Children in classrooms with explicit phonics programs can learn the elements of the print system without learning how to apply them independently, in context. In fact, this problem is pretty widespread.)
Balanced literacy folks do not care if children learn to comprehend.
(Children in balanced literacy classrooms can also develop issues with comprehension.
In fact, this problem is pretty widespread.)
What does this extreme switch do to your perspective? Can we make space for the nuances within the perspectives with which we align? These latter points are an extreme, but they illustrates the ways that we construct realities that support our belief systems.
Looking at the issues in the perspectives with which you align is important, honest work that is well within the scope of our individual power. You will accomplish more in addressing these issues than in engaging in angry debates where both sides are so triggered that no one can hear anyone else or look honestly at themselves.
Until we consider the truth of the first set of flipped statements (i.e., Balanced literacy folks believe in teaching students explicit or systematic phonics; Science of reading folks care if children learn to comprehend.) we will find it difficult to actually hear each other and work together on behalf of children.
The takeaways here are these:
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.