Common Core v. the false promise of leveled literacy programs

Reading
Photo by Pesky Library.

While the lion’s share of the Common Core ELA implementation debate has focused on the precise proportion of time teachers should spend teaching fiction v. nonfiction in reading classes (see here and here), there is a far more critical discussion that has largely flown under the radar: the conversation about what the CCSS text-complexity guidance means for curriculum, instruction, and standards implementation.

Leveled literacy programs—like Lucy Calkins’s famed Reading and Writing Workshop—focus on assessing students’ reading levels and giving them “just right” books (those whose difficulty matches their independent or instructional reading level). Classrooms using leveled literacy programs typically have libraries with book bins labeled with a letter that corresponds with a reading level, and students choose from the “appropriate” bin for independent reading or instruction.

Such programs are wildly popular—as evidence by the growing number of classrooms with leveled libraries and the growing number of teachers who use “guided reading” programs or who follow the “workshop” model.

Unfortunately for students, the popularity of these programs is not driven by convincing research proving their effectiveness. In fact, as noted literacy expert Tim Shanahan discussed in a series of must-read posts on his blog nearly two years ago,

I have sought studies that would support the original contention that we could facilitate student learning by placing kids in the right levels of text. Of course, guided reading and leveled books are so widely used it would make sense that there would be lots of evidence as to their efficacy.
Except that there is not.

He goes on to explain: “I keep looking and I keep finding studies that suggest that kids can learn from text written at very different levels.” In short, he argues, “we have put way too much confidence in an unproven theory. “

And so, while Lucy Calkins and her colleagues at Heinemann are working overtime to convince teachers that the CCSS is compatible with “just right” books, the reality is that leveled literacy programs and related assessments fail to measure up to what the CCSS demands in at least three important ways.

First, most leveled literacy programs sort books based on sentence-level measures of complexity (none of which take into account the content of the book or the background knowledge of the reader). Books are primarily leveled by looking at sentence length and word rarity—rarity as determined by the word’s frequency of occurrence in a big, representative corpus of texts.

Unfortunately, such “complexity” measures ignore the two most important elements of what makes a text easy or hard: the context and the content being discussed. In fact, it’s hard to imagine how you can pin a text to a particular reading level without an understanding of the reader and his or her knowledge of the subject being discussed.

This is something eminent cognitive psychologist and researcher Dan Willingham has convincingly argued many times. In 2009, for instance, he explains:

The mainspring of comprehension is prior knowledge—the stuff readers already know that enables them to create understanding as they read…
…For example, suppose you read this: “The Obama administration will announce a new policy Wednesday making it much more difficult for the government to claim that it is protecting state secrets when it hides details of sensitive national security strategies such as rendition and warrantless eavesdropping, according to two senior Justice Department officials.”
In this instance, the writer assumed that the reader knew the definitions of “rendition,” “warrantless wiretaps,” what a state secret might be, and the significance of the announcement coming from the executive branch of the government, at the least.
If you know those things, comprehension is effortless. What strategy is going to lead you to correct guesses?

Of course, there is none. If the reader doesn’t have enough background knowledge to parse this sentence, comprehension will break down, no matter how simple the sentence is structured.

And therein lies the problem. By treating reading comprehension as mastery of a series of discrete, transferrable skills that can be demonstrated regardless of the content or context of the text being read, these programs divorce comprehension from the content knowledge and cultural literacy that students actually need to read and analyze complex texts.

Second, most leveled literacy programs are built on the belief that “just right” texts are those that students can read with roughly 95 percent word accuracy. Yet research suggests that 95 percent accuracy is too easy to effectively drive student learning. In fact, some suggests that having students struggle through more difficult texts (those they read with roughly 85 percent accuracy, for example) is a far better predictor of student learning. In other words, in addition to failing to understand the critical link between content and comprehension, too many leveled literacy programs simply ask far too little of our students.

Finally, the reason that many leveled literacy programs protect students from struggle is that they are structured around the idea that students learning should progress with minimal teaching. But, as Shanahan argues convincingly,

…that switches the criterion. Instead of trying to get kids to optimum levels, that is the levels that would allow them to learn most, they have striven to get kids to levels where they will likely learn best with minimal teacher support.

That is exactly backwards. Our goal should not be to minimize the teacher’s role in driving student comprehension. Instead, our goal should be to maximize student learning by giving students the support they need to understand and analyze the kinds of complex texts that are worthy of discussion and close reading.

These are wrongs that the Common Core seeks to right. The standards put the focus squarely on text complexity because we understand the importance of allowing the kind of controlled struggle that helps drive student learning. And they specifically ask to be paired with a “content-rich curriculum” exactly because the CCSS drafters understood the critical link between prior knowledge and reading comprehension. In other words, the Common Core challenge the notion that teaching reading skills and strategies independent of content can systematically prepare students for the kinds of rigorous reading that will be required of them in college and beyond. And they (and the related guidance in the Publishers Criteria) deliberately ask teachers to expose all students to grade-appropriate texts—the kind of texts that are worth reading and that will help build the cultural literacy and content knowledge students need to be able to read increasingly complex texts.

Sadly, while the debate over whether the Common Core mandates the reading of bus schedules rages on, the outcome of the debate over the importance of selecting appropriately complex text and grounding ELA instruction in content-rich curriculum seems more likely to determine effectiveness of Common Core in the classroom.

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