Julie VanLier has been a teacher in southwest Michigan for 22 years, 18 of which she spent in a kindergarten classroom. And until 2019, she was a self-described “queen of balanced literacy”—a variation of the whole language reading instruction methodology focused on cueing strategies and exposure to literature, with some phonics added in. “When I got my first teaching job,” she says, “I taught first grade and I don’t even know what I did. I want to go back now and say, ‘I’m sorry.’ Back then, we were taught that teachers knew best, and we didn’t really have anything to hold us accountable.”
Her move to kindergarten several years later was, she says, “pretty much whatever you wanted to do; we didn’t have a curriculum.” For 10 years she was in a very affluent school with high parental involvement. And throughout, she embraced the hallmarks of balanced literacy from sight-word songs, class-made books, a cozy reading nook in the classroom, leveled books, etc. She was told not to worry if her kids couldn’t read yet; they would get it in first grade, or in second.
Everything changed when VanLier accepted a position at a school with one of the highest poverty rates in her district. “When my kids came in September, a lot of them couldn’t recognize their own names,” she recalls. “I think I cried for the first year.” She doubled down on balanced literacy, reading professional development books, and trying all sorts of new tactics, but nothing worked. “We’d sit down at our data meeting at the end of the year, and we’d complain, ‘It’s because they’re poor. It’s because the parents aren’t involved. It’s because they’re sleepy.’ We always had some excuse—and it was never the teacher’s fault, it was never the curriculum’s fault.”
By July 2019, VanLier was at her wit’s end trying to find solutions for her students and dove headlong into a professional development journey. She discovered a book titled Failing Students or Failing Schools? “As I was reading this, I was like, ‘I didn’t know that.’ I was seeing stuff for the first time,” she says. “It was so different from what I learned in college and my graduate program, and in professional development.” She found other illuminating information in a second volume titled Reading Reflex. Then, a Google search on some of the books’ fine points led VanLier to a Michigan-based “Evidence-Based Literacy Instruction” training program for teachers, founded by Nora Chahbazi. (See “Exploring Evidence-Based Literacy Instruction.”)
“I went to the training and I was totally lost,” she says. “I thought, ‘Why did I spend all this money?’ But in the back of my mind—because test scores had become such a big thing in our state—I kept thinking, ‘Yeah, but these teachers get such good results.’ ”
School started in September, and instead of being excited about rolling out her new reading instruction approach, VanLier was in a panic. “I put it off, thinking this isn’t going to work.” But it kept nagging at her, so finally, “I was sweating bullets when I tried the first lesson,” she says. “It was quick, the kids were getting it, and they were into it.” She built on that base and kept moving forward, “but I didn’t tell anyone,” she says. The kids were mastering everything she threw at them, and her students’ midyear test scores reflected that growth. Her principal informed her that her test scores were significantly higher than her teaching partner’s in the other kindergarten class, and he wanted to know what she was doing. “I’ve always been a rule follower, and I knew what I was supposed to be doing,” she says. “I asked him, ‘Do you want the truth, or do you want me to lie and tell you what you want to hear?’ And I told him about the program, and he was okay with it, but didn’t want to know too many details.”
During Covid, at the request of several of her fellow teachers, she taught them the EBLI approach—a move that infuriated her district’s curriculum director and nearly cost VanLier her job. But test scores and student outcomes reassure her she’s on the right path. In fact, she points out that her kids’ best test scores have been achieved post-Covid.
“By learning what I learned, it’s like a whole new lease on life,” she says of shifting away from balanced literacy. “I had to change my entire mindset about teaching. And I think that’s why I’m so successful now. I was willing to say I didn’t know what I should have known; I accepted that responsibility. And then I went out to find it.”
As a new school year approaches, VanLier says, “I’m still doing my own thing.” She’s still confidently using EBLI. “But the more I learn, the bolder I get,” she adds. “I pretty much feel like, ‘You leave me alone, I’ll leave you alone.’ I know I’m a sore thumb for the district, but you’d have to have a reason to kick me out. I’m getting good scores—and that’s with high poverty, huge class size, and minimal help. More than half of the students are scoring at first grade level when they leave.” She knows she could never go back to the old approach. “It’s gratifying to see what the kids can do when you teach them the right way,” she says. “Truly, it is our fault. It’s not the kids. It’s not the parents. It’s not the poverty. It’s us. I was fortunate that things aligned at the right time and in the right place.”