From Balanced Literacy to Science of Reading: My Path to Evidence-Based Reading Instruction

Over the last 18 months, I have embarked on an exciting journey of learning more about the Science of Reading. This journey has been exciting, with a lot of self-reflection and redefining what I believe about “good readers” and best practices in reading instruction. In this blog post, I want to share my journey and the resources that provide invaluable insights, research-backed evidence, and practical classroom strategies. 

Teaching Background: 

“Memorising the book is part of the reading journey.”
“Look at the picture.”
“What word would make sense?”
Does this sound familiar? These are things that I have said repeatedly, and honestly, now, I cringe every time I think about it! For years, my prompting guide from Fountas and Pinnell was next to me when conducting Guided Reading. I relied on my running records and moved my students up to the next level based on a combination of their accuracy in reading and scoring comprehension questions. Another cringeworthy moment is that we only used texts with zero references to Australian culture, as we used American published texts. So not only could my students not decode the words in the text, but I would have to explain that a rubbish bin can also be called a garbage bin, or mom is spelt mum, or in USA schools, students eat lunch in a cafeteria. 

However, it is important to note that I was doing my best with the information I had available to me. In my undergraduate degree, I was taught Balance Literacy. On my placements, I observed Balance Literacy in action, and my previous school invested time and money into professional development and resources that fully aligned with Balance Literacy. I was crushing it as a Balance Literacy teacher! Now that I KNOW better, I DO better. I have made big shifts in my classroom instruction based on evidence-based research. As I said, this is a journey, and I constantly seek more information!

The Journey So Far… 

It all started when I first attended a short course at La Trobe University in Melbourne called The Science of Language and Reading – An Introduction. I thought it would be a great way to upskill while on maternity leave. But wow – the course instead sent me on a deep dive into learning everything I could about the Science of Reading! Pretty much everything I thought I knew about how students learn to read was tipped upside down and spun around. After this introductory course, I decided to continue my studies at La Trobe University, and I am now completing a Graduate Diploma of Education through the Science of Language and Reading (SOLAR) Lab at the School of Education. 

Some resources have been introduced to me through my course, and others I have found via connecting with like-minded educators on social media. The last resource on my list is a Facebook page that I have found tremendously helpful. I hope you find all my recommendations useful. 

1. Sold a Story: How Teaching Kids to Read Went So Wrong 

I felt every emotion under the sun listening to this podcast series from Emily Hanford, including guilt, anger, denial, disappointment, and sadness. Hanford sheds light on exactly how we have come so entrenched in Balance Literacy approaches and the people who have influenced and profited from the movement. And why, as teachers, were we not exposed to the decades of research that has evidence of how students learn to read? As someone who relied heavily on Fountas and Pinnell resources, from Guided Reading texts to the prompting guide to the Benchmark Assessments, I felt a lot of sadness when I thought of students who didn’t learn to read in my classroom and how I thought it must have just been them. They were just not ready to read. I failed those students; they are one of the biggest reasons I am committed to knowing better and doing better. Sold a Story is a compelling podcast, and I highly recommend it as your starting point.

2. Reading is Rocket Science: What Expert Teachers of Reading Should Know and Be Able to Do by Louisa C. Moats

This article is easy to read. However, it presents a compelling and comprehensive overview of the key principles and practices that underpin effective reading instruction. In the article, Moats emphasises the critical role of phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension in the reading process. 

3. Reading for Life by Lyn Stone 

Reading for Life is my go-to guidebook! I first read it over a weekend, and now I consult it whenever I need guidance! Lyn Stone is a linguist and author with a private practice in Victoria where she supports students, parents and teachers through tutoring, courses and mentoring. Reading for Life bridges the gap between research and practice. It was extremely helpful to my classroom practice when I wanted to change my classroom and school. I was overwhelmed with all the research I was reading at university and felt like I didn’t know where to start when it came to changing. This book was the game changer for my students in my Prep 2023 class! Every educator should have a copy in their professional library! 

4. The Knowledge Gap by Natalie Wexler

There is so much emphasis on foundational skills that the Science of Reading is often known only as phonics. This is not the case. You only have to look at models such as Scarborough’s Reading Rope or The Cognitive Foundations Framework to realise there is so much more to becoming a proficient reader than phonics! The Knowledge Gap highlights the role of background knowledge and the importance of providing students with a knowledge-rich curriculum. I have always felt very strongly about the role of background knowledge in reading comprehension and discussed/debated this with my colleagues. Remember when I said we used texts with many references to American culture? My students did poorly on comprehending levelled texts when they didn’t bring the assumed background knowledge. An excellent study illustrates this perfectly – Donna R. Recht and Lauren Leslie’s baseball study exemplifies how background knowledge significantly influences reading comprehension, going beyond the narrow focus on phonics in the Science of Reading. By acknowledging and addressing the role of background knowledge, we can foster more inclusive and effective reading instruction, empowering students to become proficient readers and critical thinkers.

5. Wild Things by Sally Rippin 

Wild Things is a personal story from the author Sally Rippin. You might know Sally Rippin from books like Billy B. Brown and Hey Jack! In Wild Things, Sally shares her personal account of dealing with an education system that could not support her son in reading because of the misconceptions that Balance Literacy promoted. It is a real eye-opener of a book, especially from a former Balance Literacy teacher’s perspective. This motivating book goes beyond the research and history and shows you the impact of reading struggles on students and their families. 

6. Melissa and Lori Love Literacy Podcast

I have about a 45-minute commute to and from work, so I listen to a lot of podcasts and audiobooks! One of my favourites is the Melissa and Lori Love Literacy Podcast. They interview experts in the field, as well as teachers who have made the shift to Structured Literacy. I always walk away from listening to this podcast with new insights and strategies, routines, or structures I can introduce into my classroom immediately. Melissa and Lori are really great interviewers, and I enjoy listening to their casual yet informative chats. 

7. The Snow Report by Pamela Snow 

When someone asks where to start learning about the Science of Reading, I point them to The Snow Report! Pamela Snow highlights the importance of evidence-based practices for all students. I am also very fortunate to study at La Trobe University, where Pamela Snow established the Science of Language and Reading (SOLAR) Lab in the School of Education alongside Associate Professor Tanya Serry. Educators and parents can benefit from this invaluable resource, gaining a deeper understanding of the Science of Reading and its implications for fostering a more proficient and inclusive educational landscape. My favourite post is ‘Balanced Literacy Bingo’, where Snow shares responses to common arguments against the Science of Reading. It is a must-read! 

8. Reading Science in Schools Facebook Page

If you’re interested in staying updated on the latest developments and insights in the science of reading and hearing from teachers about what is happening in their structured literacy classrooms. In that case, I highly recommend following the “Reading Science in Schools” Facebook page. It is an Australian Facebook page full of like-minded teachers sharing classroom ideas, lesson plans and insights into their classroom practices. The page also regularly shares articles, research findings and webinars from experts in the field. By joining this active community, you’ll have the opportunity to engage in discussions, exchange ideas, and collaborate with other teachers on the journey.  

My adventure in the world of reading education is still going strong! Each day brings its share of hiccups, fresh discoveries, and chances to tweak and improve my teaching methods. And you know what? I wouldn’t have it any other way! When we keep on learning and growing, we’re not just doing ourselves a favour, but also making things better for our students, their families, and our schools!

Please note that some affiliate links have been included, which means I may earn a small commission from any purchases made through these links. Rest assured, all opinions expressed are entirely my own.

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