Published Online: July 10, 2012

Four Myths About the ELA Common-Core Standards

Dina: Let me admit this up front: I can be a professional developer's nightmare. I am a skeptical, informed, judgmental know-it-all, and can typically be found sitting in the back with my elbows perched on my knees, listening with unnerving intensity, and asking questions incessantly.

Professional development consultant Cheryl Dobbertin has graciously, even eagerly, put up with me over the past few years, and in May, she visited my school for a session on the English/language arts Common Core State Standards. I've written (skeptically—surprise!) about the common core before, and came fully armed to Cheryl's session: I trusted her to take my skepticism head on.

She did. And we realized together that there are some critical aspects of implementing the ELA standards that have been obscured by polarizing debates.

Cheryl: No matter what Dina says, don't believe that all professional developers and coaches find engaged, thoughtful, questioning teachers to be a nightmare! In fact, they are a constant source of energy for me.

Recently I've had lots of opportunities to help teachers think about the changes that the common core is bringing their way. I notice that there hasn't been a lot of time or attention devoted to teasing out the subtleties of the standards or accompanying instructional shifts.

Dina and I have identified four myths. These statements often appear to be accepted as fact (and are sometimes delivered to teachers that way) but are not actually aligned with the spirit and intention of the ELA common-core standards. Dina tackles 1 and 4, and I tackle 2 and 3.

Myth #1: Text complexity is a fixed number.

Dina: Let's be honest: The ELA teacher in me shivers with intuitive horror at the idea of pinning a complexity number on my beloved, earth-moving texts: novels, plays, poems. Like others, I worry about the overzealous use of arbitrary quantitative measures (such as Lexile and Flesch-Kincaid) to mark texts' difficulty.

Imagine my delight, then, to find this statement buried deep in Appendix A:

"In the meantime, the Standards recommend that multiple quantitative measures be used whenever possible and that their results be confirmed or overruled by a qualitative analysis of the text in question."

And there it is: All things being equal, qualitative measures of text complexity trump quantity. Qualitative measurement is where we find the breathing room to make considered, nuanced choices about what is "complex" for our students—collectively and individually. Cheryl shared an instrument of qualitative measurement with us, in fact, and it made my heart sing.

It's important to have this arrow in your quiver. In an educational landscape laced with high-stakes testing, budget cuts, and stress, it's going to be very, very tempting for all of us to fall back on "the numbers" rather than taking the time to make sure that we have nuanced and accurate arguments about what is "complex" for our students.

Recently, faced with eight reading assessments to create within two hours, I was tempted to go straight to the numbers, relying solely upon them. But I didn't—because I don’t trust them entirely, nor do the standards expect me to.

I hope you'll join me in making well-informed decisions about text complexity despite pressures from administrators or parents. If anyone questions you, point to page 8 of Appendix A of the common core.

Myth #2: All prereading activities are inappropriate.

Cheryl: Common-core training materials (like this exemplar, for instance) include some not-so-subtle suggestions that "prereading" activities and discussions are a bad idea. Over the years, many of us have developed a host of methods to invite students to challenging texts and stimulate the "need to read." Frankly, the idea that we would say "just start reading" to a roomful of students made me a little crazy.

In my professional circle, we began referring to the "just start reading" strategy as a "cold read," and we struggled with whether cold reading was always an effective instructional approach.

But then I tried to understand the meaning behind this message about prereading activities. Ultimately, it was about making sure students built comprehension by actually reading a text rather than listening attentively to what others are saying about that text.

Consider a middle school teacher who says, "We are going to start reading Frederick Douglass' memoir, Narrative of the Life of a Slave. This book begins with Douglass telling about his early years, including that he doesn't know how old he really is. He was born in Maryland ... "

That's really different from a teacher who says, "We've read memoirs before. What are some of the rhetorical devices we might find in a memoir? Ok, now let's read the first two pages of this memoir together. When you see one of these devices, put a checkmark beside it. Then we will stop to discuss what is going on in this text. Be ready to discuss at least one spot you've marked."

Both of these teachers think they are setting students up to read. But the first teacher's preview of the plot doesn't create a need to read, and actually makes it easy for students not to read. That teacher is also missing an opportunity to set up the expectation that students should read closely, to analyze the text.

On the other hand, the second teacher activates students' background knowledge and provides students with a beginning framework to help them read closely and analyze the structure of the text. Neither of these teachers is choosing to do a "cold read," but only one of them is setting students up to do a "close read." Over time, the second teacher's approach is much more likely to develop students with the capacity to "just start reading."

The bottom line: "Cold reading" is an instructional approach, not a standard. Experiment with cold reading for the sake of building independence in your students, but there's no need to toss out all your prereading activities that guide students in reading and analyzing complex texts.

Myth #3 Answering text-dependent questions is what teaches students to be analytical readers.

Cheryl: There's lots of buzz right now about "text-dependent questioning" to help students meet ELA standards. Obviously, we want students to be able to demonstrate their comprehension by responding to questions that drive them back to the text for answers. But let's not forget the steps that teach students how to answer text-dependent questions.

In many classrooms, teachers assign reading ("Read chapter 3 … ") and assess reading ("and answer these questions"). The focus on text-dependent questions in the instructional shifts documents that accompany the core seems to affirm that approach. But these documents omit modeling and processing, which should come in between assigning and assessing.

We can invite students to the reading through purpose and show students how to read for that purpose through a think-aloud or other modeling strategy. Students read. They complete activities that demand they think about the text (graphic organizer, think-pair-share, or about a million other activities). And then, they demonstrate their understanding by answering text-dependent questions.

It's the middle—the modeling and processing—where students actually get a clue as to how to be better readers. The questions tell us that they got there (or not).

Myth #4: The common core abandons fiction.

Dina: This is the myth most frequently circulating about the core. Here's just one of the remarks I've heard: "Why do we have to shove nonfiction down their throats all of sudden?"

The heart of the complaint is understandable. It was voiced loud and clear by the National Council of Teachers of English in their comments on drafts of the common core and continues to be addressed elsewhere. However, the whole of the complaint as voiced above is not accurate.

To begin with, long before the common-core standards came on the scene, reading specialists like Harvey and Goudvis were already arguing that we have wandered too far from analytic, nonfiction reading and writing. And true, the core's emphasis on rhetoric and logic was once standard in our schools.

Secondly, the common core does value creative and fictional reading and writing, no matter what provocateur and core author David Coleman says. It's right there, a stand-alone, fully written standard, all the way through grade 12. The standards even recommend a full 50/50 split between fiction and nonfiction in the elementary grades, giving way to an 80/20 proportion in the secondary grades.

Bear in mind, as well, that the common core is clear that its recommendations span the reading expectations for all core subjects. As a result, it is not advocating for us ELA teachers to dump poetry and novels except for, say, two months out of the 10 in our school year. Rather, we’re encouraged to partner with our colleagues in a substantive way, and work together to help kids approach nonfiction texts with critical and active minds.

Admittedly, the common core does make some mystifying genre distinctions. All creative reading and writing is lumped under the "narrative" umbrella, implying it is always a description of logical, sequential events, usually personal. This is not only inaccurate (T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land," anyone?), but arguably preferences a pragmatic, linear view of writing. Teachers will need to approach this particular facet of the core with the same critical thinking that the core itself advocates.

Dina and Cheryl: We believe it's important for educators to embrace the common-core standards, but to do so in a way that honors students' needs and the wisdom of great teachers.

The standards are pushing us to examine our practices, and examine them we must. We must push ourselves in the same way we are being expected to push our students. We educators must thoughtfully read the complex common-core documents in their entirety, write rigorous lesson plans, and listen critically to those who are trying to help us learn and change.

Just as important is speaking up to question and clarify our own understanding of the standards and what they mean for our practice. We must keep "mythbusting" our own practices and what we are hearing so that the common-core standards can live up to their full potential. After all, the intention behind these rigorous standards—to prepare all students for careers and college—is at the heart of our work.

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