6 Destructive Myths About Effective Literacy Instruction: A Review of “Shifting the Balance”

rebalancing literacy read aloud
Learn these 6 ways to rebalance literacy.

Should we teach Science of Reading or Balanced Literacy? If you were to ask any teacher that starting last year, you would hear a variety of answers for a variety of reasons. The truth is, there is no one right answer. At the end of the day, the most important thing for your students to do is learn, and there are some hard and fast rules from both Science of Reading and Balanced Literacy that are holding your students back.

Shifting the Balance is a book that every primary educator should read because it can help teachers develop a better understanding of the science of reading and balance it with balanced literacy. Balanced literacy is not the enemy. At the same time, neither is Science of Reading. They aren’t mutually exclusive.

Jan Burkins and Kari Yates have done an excellent job breaking down their six key shifts, chapter by chapter, and offering educators practical advice for improving their instruction. In this blog post, we’ll review these six shifts and discuss how they can be applied in the  classroom.

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The 1st Myth: Students have to decode first.

In this first chapter, “Rethinking How Reading Comprehension Begins”, Burkins and Yates encourage teachers to make the shift to prioritizing spoken language before everything else.

“To comprehend a text, enough words on a page have to activate language we already have in our heads. Reading comprehension begins long before children begin to decode. It begins as they learn to understand and use spoken language.”(Burkins and Yates)

practicing literacy
Morning meeting is a great time to practice oral literacy.

Basically, you have to understand vocabulary just as much as being able to decode it.

According to Jan and Kari, some of the best ways to help students learn to understand do not include just scope and sequence.
Don’t be afraid to introduce your students to the big scary words. You don’t have to water literacy down for your kids. A big part of literacy is teaching strong vocabulary and encouraging them to use it.

students with SEL vocabulary
Students learn this SEL vocabulary and it becomes a part of our classroom culture.

Remember exposure to rich vocabulary in literacy is an investment in insuring that students not only string sounds together, but actually read the words on the page.

So how do we do this?

  1. Scope and sequence is super helpful as one of your tools.
  2. Give your students access to complex ideas through read-alouds, conversation, and content-area instruction.
  3. Don’t be afraid of big words and big phonics concepts, even if you’re not “there” in your schedule.

The 2nd Myth: Phonics is just so boring.

In Chapter 2, “Recommitting to Phonemic Awareness Instruction,” the authors make us aware that teachers should commit to intentional systematic phonemic awareness instruction. This is where that Science of Reading phonics comes in.

Not sure about you, but sometimes we find the work of phonics to be so tedious. The kids’ eyes glaze over and the routine becomes monotonous. It’s just such a drudge. BUT, it has to be done, right?

I love what Burkins and Yates say:

“Because you can do them on the run with few or no materials, phonemic awareness tasks are easy to weave across the school day and can even be playful and engaging.”(Burkins and Yates)

Playful and engaging?? Seems like a beautiful fantasy, but it CAN happen, starting with your morning meeting.

Using Word of the Day in your daily morning meeting is the easiest way to engage your students in phonics instruction!

It is great to see how excited kids get when they begin to see the chunks of sounds in words. When you do this daily, it truly helps students to look at words differently. The hidden benefit is when our students are more excited, they’re more engaged. When they’re more engaged, you see less disruptive behaviors. So vocabulary and phonics are critical, not only to learning, but to classroom harmony as well!

reading letters
Students need to be taught phonics daily.

A fun game to play on the carpet during morning meeting is, “Guess My Secret Word.”  You say the segmented phonemes of a word and children blend them to figure out the secret word. 

“Thinking about where a phoneme is made in the mouth, or placement of articulation, can help children distinguish and remember the sound. It can be helpful to give children mirrors to hold, so they can watch the way their face, mouth, lips, and tongue  contribute to making phonemes.”(Burkins and Yates)

Burkins and Yates share some other great ideas for your classroom in the book such as blending, segmentation, isolation and discrimination and substitution. One BIG takeaway from chapter 2 was…

“When working to help children learn to hear and manipulate the sounds in language, it’s important that we call them just that-sounds- or even phonemes.”(Burkins and Yates)

Sounds and letters are different things.

So we need to teach them that way.

Instead of saying…

“Listen to the letters in pin”


“Listen to the sounds in pin.”

The 3rd Myth: My kids have to learn phonics in a certain order.

In chapter 3, “Reimagining the Way We Teach Phonics” our authors’ shift is explicitly and systematically teaching our students the secrets of how to crack the written code. This chapter was very powerful for me!

One important purpose of phonics instruction is to develop the brain’s orthographic processing system, bringing letters, sounds, meaning, and context together.”(Burkins and Yates)

Many teachers are under the impression that they have to teach all the letter names and then all the sounds that each letter makes before they can begin to teach children how to build words.  Not only does that take a long time to do, you are probably finding out that there is no connection to words or reading when you teach all the letters in isolation.

Teach sounds in an order that lets you build words quickly that your students can read easily.

M,S,T,P and A will let children read more than 20 words with a short A sound.

We were so excited to read where these authors pointed out something that we discovered a few years ago.

“Cumulative instruction means paying attention to present and past learning. Yet, too often instruction and assessment are focused only on the “skill of the week,” but not on past skills.”(Burkins and Yates)

Our students need to be exposed to or review these sound patterns, word chunks, word families, blends, etc. all through the year, not just for a week. That is exactly what we do inside Daily Concept Builders with our thematic vocabulary we discuss in morning meetings and use in writing.  We encourage our students to look for those patterns of sounds even in the multisyllabic words. It is amazing how they can begin to be word scientists and see these patterns and apply their knowledge as they sound out words.

“The brain is a natural puzzle solver and releases endorphins when we solve a problem(Tik et al. 2018). It loves to find patterns and figure things out, and it is wired to reward our efforts.”

Our students get so excited to look at new words in everyday literacy that interest them and analyze the parts of them . This simple strategy is fun and keeps them engaged as they solve the puzzle. That engagement empowers them to not only focus their literacy learning, but believe it or not, their behavior as well.


The 4th Myth: You can’t teach sounds in high-frequency words.

Chapter 4, “Revisiting High-Frequency Word Instruction” Burkins and Yates encourage teachers to make the shift of creating opportunities for our children to “pull apart” the phonemes in high-frequency words and match each one to the grapheme(s) that represent them.

All high-frequency words can be sight words, but not all sight words are high-frequency words.

Sight words referred to as “brain words by Gentry and Ouellette, are simply all words, not just high-frequency words, that we have come to know through sight, sound, and meaning and have stored away in the visual word form area of the brain for quick retrieval “(2019)

Wow! If you‘re like me, that just broke your brain. Something else that these authors discovered in their research is that

“it is common practice to describe high-frequency words as un-decodable. But this isn’t completely true because all words have some degree of decodability, even the irregular ones.”(Adams1990;Seidenburg 2017;Castles,Rastle,and Nation2019)

They all have some letters and/or letter strings that are familiar and predictable. For example, mapping of the word was can make it easier for students to learn want and wash. Learning the sound-to-symbol mapping for should can make it easier to learn would and could.  To really learn any new word you have to get in and do phonemic analysis, comparing the word’s sound structure to its spelling.

Taking the spoken word and the written word apart and then matching up the phonemes to graphemes is how the spelling of a word gets locked into long-term memory.

Automatic word recognition frees up attention for comprehension.

We have our students do this every day during morning meeting and then carry it into guided reading. It is amazing to see how students begin to recognize the sound patterns, and the best part is when they start applying it to new words with the same pattern.

For example, we had introduced the word attitude and started analyzing  the parts of it, so then one of my ELL students, who was my morning meeting leader, wanted to make a list of -at words. Other students began saying them as she wrote them on the board. I was so proud of her!  One strategy that the authors mentioned that I thought was worth trying was having students close their eyes when you first teach them how to sound out the word, since they need to listen to the sounds first. Try it and see what happens.

Ell student writing words
Students love being word scientists and breaking words apart.

The Fifth Myth: 3 cueing is meaning first, then structure, then visual.

In chapter 5, “Reinventing the Ways We Use MSV(3 Cueing Systems)” Burkins and Yates , shift to prioritizing print as a strategy of first resort for word solving, using meaning and structure to cross-check.

The authors point out that “a meaning-first approach to individual word-solving teaches children an unsustainable process for figuring out words. This is because contextual support for individual words actually decreases as the complexity and concept density in texts increases.

Teaching children to rely first and foremost on context for figuring out words is teaching them a process that will eventually fall apart on them.

Instead, try starting with Visual then Meaning and Structure. By reorganizing our prompting priorities to elevate the use of visual information, we situate meaning and structure to better support making the leap to the correct word, cross-checking for accuracy, and sense-making.

Proficient readers attend to every bit of visual information, looking sequentially from left to right. They do not skip letters.

students reading together
Students love reading together.

Early and frequent decoding experiences facilitate orthographic mapping.

We started trying this new way of looking at the cueing system when we began breaking down our thematic vocabulary during morning meeting.

For example, we took the word student and broke it into chunks


Have your kids sound out the words daily and you will be amazed at how well they will be able to do this in their reading. After one of your students sound out a tricky word when they are reading, you will tell them to read it again and then ask them to read the sentence and ask if the word makes sense in the text. Make sure they sound out all the letters first by running their fingers under all the letters as they slowly say the sounds.

When your students follow this process, you will not only see their literacy increase, but also their engagement. And guess what decreases…behavior issues!

So, if you’re looking for a way to empower your students toward positive behavior and learning choices through content literacy, get inside our Cultivated Classroom program. If you want to know more, shoot us an email at info@dynamiclearningresources.com

“All you have to say is I want to empower my students.”

The 6th Myth: Decodables and patterned texts are the best way to help students learn to read.

In the final chapter, “Reconsidering Texts for Beginning Readers, Burkins and Yates wrap things up with thoughtfully selecting or creating texts with decoding opportunities that students need to practice. They show us examples of where decodable and patterned texts can hinder “real” reading and comprehension for students.

One big concern is that decodable texts might teach children that reading is not a meaning-making endeavor. Some decodables create unnatural language structures or tongue-twister effects for our young kiddos.

Patterned texts are highly predictable. They exaggerate repeated words and phrases in ways that also come off sounding very little like everyday speech. Some can even come off reading like lists, providing little chance for deep thinking.

“Put simply, finding texts we feel good about for the most beginning readers-texts with the right balance of interest, decodability, and opportunities for thought is challenging work.”

Texts that have natural sounding language are essential to teaching our young readers all the elements of strong literacy.

—>Look at what high-frequency words your readers need to know and how the pictures connect to the words.

—>When possible, find texts or create them to show diversity that honors and validates all children.

We have done our best to do just that in our emergent reader vocabulary texts. All of our emergent readers have real images that show diversity, along with single-sentence pages and content-area vocabulary. Maximizing orthographic learning opportunities from the start requires texts that will give children reasons to slow down and look closely at print, even if it makes them sound less skilled for a little while.(Doctor and Coltheart 1980; Harm and Seidenberg 2004).

One of the great solutions that Jan and Kari make is to provide students with texts for sense-making and decoding.

Provide them with “read-all-the-word books.” These are books that the kids have read during small-group instruction with the teacher. A big advantage is that these texts are a match for the reader. They are great for students to read during independent reading.

The second type of books are “read-in-other-ways”. These are texts that provide deeper meaning like your trade literature.

—>Students can study and read the pictures.

—>They can talk with friends about the text.

—>They notice the print and attempt to decode some words.

“Children engage with familiar and new texts, practicing and extending oral language. They enjoy a wide range of books and grow to love reading.”

Shifting the Balance” is a powerful tool for educators looking for all the tools toward effective literacy instruction in their classrooms. The book provides six key principles rooted in the science of reading and provides practical strategies for teachers to apply them in their classrooms. This book is for every educator who teaches kindergarten through second grade, who is committed to improving their instruction and ensuring that all students have the foundational skills to become lifelong readers.


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