How will reading instruction change when aligned to the Common Core?
Gewertz at Curriculum Matters penned a post describing a meeting of chief
academic officers from 14 urban school districts who came together to discuss
how to help teachers implement the Common Core. According
to Gewertz, the CAOs spent “hours exploring one facet of the common
standards: its requirement that students—and teachers—engage in ‘close reading’
is exactly this “close reading” that Common Core supporters hope will usher in
a new era of reading instruction—one where teachers select grade-appropriate
texts for all students; where they have students read and reread those
texts—perhaps more times than even makes sense or feels comfortable—to support
deep comprehension and analysis; and where they push students to engage in the
text itself—in the author’s words, not in how those words make us
Common Core challenges us to help students (and teachers)
understand that reading is not about them.
reality is that the Common Core challenges us to help students (and teachers)
understand that reading is not about them. Of course, what students read will
often touch them, sometimes even change them. But that will happen only if,
while they’re reading, they deeply understand and absorb the words and images
in front of them first.
is a lesson that David Coleman, one of the architects of the CCSS ELA
standards, has traveled around the nation trying to help illustrate. His
ideas are, of course, not without their critics. There are plenty of people who
believe that Coleman, who has no classroom-level instructional experience, has
no right to tell people how to run their classrooms.
criticism is not unsurprising. Coleman does, after all, outspokenly call out
what are common—and beloved—practices in literature classrooms across the
country. In one speech, for example, he challenges our overemphasis on personal
narrative and personal opinion in writing classrooms by saying:
“…forgive me for saying this bluntly, the only
problem with those two forms of writing is as you grow up in this world, you
realize that people don’t give a shit about what you feel or what you think.”
point, of course, is more nuanced than that: it’s that people are unlikely to
listen to your opinions unless they’re grounded in something outside of
yourself—evidence from reading, from research, etc.
he’s right, by the way. That is, in fact, precisely why some of his staunchest
critics dismiss his words out of hand—they don’t feel like those
words are grounded in the kind of evidence they want to see (classroom
how does Coleman propose making this shift in the classroom? When it comes to
reading, Coleman has several very specific suggestions:
1. Eliminate pre-reading activities.
Coleman is refreshingly
unapologetic in his assertion that pre-reading activities are a waste of
instructional time. He believes, for instance, that giving students background
information about the text does little more than encourage students to parrot
back the teacher’s words when answering questions, rather than actually
absorbing and critically analyzing what the author said. And he thinks spending
time predicting what the text is going to be about or comparing it to other
works is a needless distraction. Instead, he encourages teachers to allow
students to dive immediately in to the text itself.
2. Guide lessons with text-dependent questions that require students to use the author’s words to support their responses.
This is perhaps the most significant
difference between what the Common Core demands and the practice that is in
place in classrooms across the country. Too many teachers shift students’
attention away from the text too quickly by asking them what they think of what
they’re reading, or how it makes them feel. Or by asking them to make personal
connections to the story. The Common Core asks that teachers develop
questions—and demand answers—that use evidence from the text to support
responses, to defend opinions, etc. Of course, by engaging in the text in this
way, students will inevitably develop opinions and have reactions to the text.
They should. But those feelings and reactions should not be the primary focus
of instruction. In fact, it doesn’t need to be. A student who deeply
understands King’s words in Letter from a Birmingham Jail, for instance, will not be able to help having an
emotional response to it. We don’t need to focus instruction on spoon feeding
those feelings to them.
focusing instruction on reading strategies.
There are few people who argue that teaching
students how to identify the main idea or to understand the difference between
cause and effect has no place in an ELA classroom. That said, the importance of
teaching such reading skills and strategies has somehow outstripped the
importance of actually reading. As David Coleman says, “we lavish so much
attention on these strategies in place of reading. I urge us instead to just
4. Devote more time to each
text by reading and re-reading for understanding.
Small children instinctively understand the
importance of repetition. That’s why they play the same games ad infinitum.
It’s why small children want to read their favorite books over and over. And
yet, in school, we have a tendency to turn our noses up at it. Teachers loathe
teaching lessons multiple times, or fear students will be bored if they’re
exposed to the same content or reading again and again. We feel pressure to
make things new and exciting, when what students might actually need to push
their thinking and to do critical literary analysis is repetition. To that end,
Coleman suggests spending three days on the Gettysburg Address—a three
paragraph speech. And he thinks Letter
from a Birmingham Jail should take
course, there’s only value in lingering on texts for so long if they’re worthy
of the time—and that is why the Common Core asks students to read texts that
are sufficiently complex and grade-appropriate. Yes, such texts may often push
students—perhaps even to their frustration level. That is why it’s essential
for teachers to craft the kinds of text-dependent questions that will help them
break down the text, that will draw their attention to some of the most
critical elements, and that will push them to understand (and later analyze)
the author’s words.
the end, “close reading” means making lessons simplified, though not
simplistic. Streamlined, though not rushed or short. Focused, but not narrow.
And, more than anything, the Common Core challenge to spend class time engaging
in “close reading” of texts asks teachers to focus reading on actually reading.