An update on the Common Core reading wars

Long before the Common Core State Standards were on anyone’s radar, the “reading wars” raged furiously. They began as a fight about the best way to teach children how to read in the early grades, and the camps were divided between advocates of “whole language” and “phonics.” Today, the battles continue, though the issues have grown increasingly complicated and their implications extend well beyond the early grades and the phonics/whole-language divide.

Recent debates over reading instruction in the Common Core era have included skirmishes among three helpful—and ultimately complementary—approaches: “close reading,” “knowledge first,” and “skills and strategies.” All three of these are miles better than a fourth (but increasingly popular) approach: “just right texts.”

Let’s examine them.

Close Reading

One flashpoint in the reading debate emerged in 2011, after a lead author of the Common Core ELA standards, David Coleman, challenged teachers with a new vision for reading instruction. It entailed ratcheting up the complexity of texts that students read—something the Common Core explicitly demands—and encouraging students to plunge directly into the text itself, rather than spending time pre-teaching background content and vocabulary (an approach about which the standards themselves are silent). This version of close reading focuses on three things: (1) selecting appropriately complex texts that are worthy of close reading and analysis, (2) sequencing texts thoughtfully, with an eye toward building student content knowledge and vocabulary, and (3) guiding students through the text carefully with thoughtfully developed, text-dependent questions that encourage readers to return to the author’s words (rather than their own experiences and opinions) for analysis and answers. And it largely eschews pre-reading activities—such as those that give students information about the author, about when the piece was written, and about relevant historical facts that might help the reader better understand the story or essay they’re about to read.

Coleman’s approach set off a firestorm among educators. Some teachers were angered, not by his pedagogical vision per se but by the fact that the author of the standards seemed to be telling them how to teach, even when the standards themselves are agnostic about pedagogy. Others rejected the view that pre-reading is a waste of time, contending instead that pre-reading activities are essential to helping disadvantaged students access the kinds of complex texts that the Common Core demands.

When this debate first emerged, now nearly two years ago, the discussion was heated, but purposeful and productive. Teachers and ELA experts weighed in, cited research, acknowledged where Coleman was right, and pushed back where they thought he’d gone too far. Tim Shanahan—a widely respected researcher and ELA expert—had a particularly interesting series of posts dealing directly with the issue of pre-reading and offering a vision for pre-reading that even Coleman acknowledged made sense.

That debate was revived last month when Student Achievement Partners, an organization cofounded by Coleman, re-released an exemplar unit on teaching the Gettysburg Address (a big deal, considering that we’re observing its 150th anniversary). These lessons again put front and center the approach to close reading that starts the text cold rather than warmed by prior knowledge. Specifically, the introduction explains,

The idea here is to plunge students into an independent encounter with this short text. Refrain from giving background context or substantial instructional guidance at the outset…This close reading approach forces students to rely exclusively on the text instead of privileging background knowledge, and levels the playing field for all students as they seek to comprehend Lincoln’s address.

Of course, the rest of the lesson makes clear that this vision of close reading is anything but content-free. On the contrary, this approach encourages students to dive first into the text, but then to incorporate knowledge and vocabulary systematically into the analysis as the unit unfolds.

More than that, Coleman himself has sought to bridge the divide, acknowledging that pre-reading could be useful, if targeted and brief. But, still, the focus should be on the close, careful reading of text.

Knowledge First

Perhaps the most significant pushback against the Gettysburg Address lesson—both when it first emerged in 2011 and again last month—is the impossibility (and, in many eyes, the undesirability) of separating background knowledge from reading. As Tim Shanahan wrote in a post on this blog a few days ago, “you can’t stop readers from using what they know, nor would you want to.”

Even more critically, the vision for close reading outlined by Coleman in 2011 and restated by SAP in November seems to be at odds with the approach to reading instruction propounded by E. D. Hirsch Jr. and his colleagues at the Core Knowledge Foundation. Their arguments are nuanced and well worth reading, but they can be summarized as, “Teaching content is teaching reading.”

In short, Hirsch & Co. believe—and cite ample cognitive-psychology research to demonstrate—that it’s impossible to separate knowledge from comprehension, and therefore, once past the “decoding” stage of reading instruction, the best way to improve comprehension is by teaching a coherent, content-rich curriculum. (Hirsch is so committed to this idea that he developed precisely that kind of curriculum, the Core Knowledge sequence, which now guides teaching and learning in hundreds of elementary schools across the country.)

Hirsch has long lamented the disconnect between elementary-school reading programs and the content that students need to become proficient readers.

He’s not wrong: the most popular elementary reading programs are largely content-free. Basals, for instance, which are used as reading textbooks in many elementary classrooms, generally include short, decontextualized fiction and nonfiction texts for students to read. There is no coherent sequence of content; no emphasis on building knowledge to drive comprehension. (It’s no doubt because of the resulting knowledge deficit that many teachers rely on pre-reading to “backfill” students’ knowledge before they dive into a text.)

Is there, then, a great divide between advocates of “close reading” and those who insist on “knowledge first”? I think not. Indeed, the Common Core standards themselves—endorsed in full, of course, by both Coleman and SAP—are unambiguous in their demand that content be taught as part of literacy. On page 6, the standards explicitly call for educators to pair them with a “content-rich curriculum.” And on page 33, the standards devote an entire page to guidance describing “how to build knowledge systematically in English Language Arts in K–5.” Specifically, educators are told,

At a curricular or instructional level, texts—within and across grade levels—need to be selected around topics or themes that systematically develop the knowledge base of students.

It is reasonable to assume, then, that the vision for “close reading” in grades 6–12 does not assume that students have no knowledge; rather, it assumes that the knowledge they bring comes not from pre-reading, per se, but from mastery of the K–5 content-rich curriculum that the standards themselves call for.

Skills and Strategies

But, of course, not everyone agrees with Hirsch and Coleman about the preeminence of knowledge. Some educators view that as a rejection of important reading skills and strategies. Indeed, in a blog post published in October, the respected author and educator Grant Wiggins took blunt issue with Hirsch’s “knowledge-first” rhetoric. “Over the years,” Wiggins explained, “I have grown increasingly tired of Hirsch’s one-note samba about reading.”

It’s evident that Wiggins is referring to Hirsch’s frequent rejection of “soul-deadening exercises like ‘finding the main idea’ and ‘questioning the author.’” Yet Wiggins rightly underscores research that points to the efficacy of brief, focused, and suitably timed instruction in a handful of important reading skills, including both identifying the main idea and teasing out authors’ purposes. He cites, for instance, cognitive scientist Dan Willingham, who has written,

The evidence suggests that teaching a combination of reading comprehension techniques is the most effective. When students use them appropriately, they assist in recall, question answering, question generation, and summarization of texts. When used in combination, these techniques can improve results in standardized comprehension tests.

Wiggins goes further, noting that “students are consistently terrible at identifying main idea and author purpose.” His own analysis of the data revealed that

on average, students only get such questions correct 50% of the time, in my review of released standardized tests. The results reveal over and over again that students cannot identify the key assumptions and conclusions – the main ideas that shape the text. They have great difficulty distinguishing key facts in the text from the (inferred) idea; they are too literal in their reading. 

Note, though, that Wiggins also acknowledges the importance of knowledge to reading comprehension. But unlike Hirsch, Wiggins doesn’t believe that the problem is a failure to teach content. Instead, he believes that teachers don’t effectively teach the strategies and skills that students need to transfer their knowledge—that is, to use stored knowledge and apply it to later learning, to analysis, and so on.

In short, Wiggins acknowledges that students need content, but he believes that content alone isn’t going to get the job done, that teachers need to deftly weave instruction in content and skills in order to push their comprehension and learning. “It’s well past time to focus on learning, not teaching,” Wiggins explains, “because regardless of one’s ideology the one undeniable fact that Hirsch and I can probably agree on is that students leave school with far less than they were taught, whether it is knowledge of the Algonquins (a piece of content in Hirsch’s core curriculum) or main idea.”

Does that mean that, despite all the heat of this apparent firestorm, there’s ultimately nothing incompatible between the “skills-and-strategies” approach described by Wiggins and either the “knowledge-first” or “close-reading” approaches emphasized above? I think so. In my view, all three could be thoughtfully and purposefully woven together to maximize students’ knowledge, build their vocabulary, and deepen their ability to read, understand, and analyze sufficiently complex texts—in other words, to become sophisticated, effective readers of things worth reading.

Just Right Books

Unfortunately, when we watch leaders like Coleman, Hirsch, and Wiggins quarrel over what are essentially (and, I would say, optimally) complementary approaches to reading instruction, we risk losing sight of a truly dismal vision of reading instruction that prioritizes neither content nor complexity. That is the “just-right-books” approach.

That approach is embodied by a suite of programs and resources published and sold by Heinnemann, Inc. They include the Fountas and Pinnell (F&P) Leveled Literacy Intervention program, Lucy Calkins’s Teachers College Reading and Writing Workshop, and the related books and professional development series produced and distributed by Heinnemann.

Not only is this approach widely used by U.S. educators (for ages it was required by the New York City Department of Education and is still widely used today in Gotham schools), but it is perhaps the most egregious example of a content-free, text-neutral, skills-focused version of reading instruction. Students in such classrooms don’t even have the benefit of reading shared or thoughtfully sequenced texts, let alone a thoughtful, coherent knowledge base.

The TC Reading Workshop is built on the idea that reading comprehension will improve if we use targeted assessments, like F&P, to figure out each pupil’s “instructional” reading level, then outfit them with texts that are “just right”—i.e. pitched at their present reading levels. (This approach devotes much time to gauging those levels in search of the “zone of proximal development”—the level that challenges the student just enough without frustrating her.) Instruction then focuses not on the text per se but rather on teaching comprehension skills and strategies that will help students understand the book they’ve chosen and (presumably) help propel them into increasingly complex texts.

Despite the popularity of this approach, the evidence against its potential and efficacy is large. Tim Shanahan has, for instance, written extensively on how difficult it is to “level” a text with the precision that the TCWRW demands. Others, including cognitive scientist Dan Willingham, Robert Pondiscio, and Hirsch himself, have provided extensive evidence as to the impossibility of narrowly defining a student’s reading level, since reading comprehension depends not only on word choice and sentence complexity but also on the knowledge and vocabulary that the student already possesses and now brings to his reading. A student who loves sports but knows less about science might be a “level q” if reading about baseball, for example, but just a “level b” when reading about the rain forest. And research from a pilot study has shown that schools that follow the Core Knowledge program dramatically outperformed those that deployed the Reading and Writing workshop.

Therefore, when Hirsch complains about an excessive—perhaps, in some places, myopic—focus on reading skills and strategies, it’s reasonable to assume that he hopes to draw a bright line between a content-rich curriculum, like his own Core Knowledge sequence, and programs like the Reading Workshop, which value skills and strategies above all else.

The Path Forward

In the end, the decision over which instructional strategies best drive reading comprehension—in particular, which close the vexing word gaps in the early years and then lay the foundation for the kinds of reading and analysis that students will need to do in later years of schooling—is complicated. True, content is not the only thing that matters. Wiggins and Willingham are right that instruction in reading skills and strategies has its place as well. And if we do a more effective job of balancing coherent content with targeted skills instruction, then the vision for close reading in secondary schools defined by Coleman and Student Achievement Partners would no doubt be well within our grasp, too.

A version of this post appeared on the Common Core Watch blog on December 10, 2013.

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