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Teaching Shifts Come Slowly

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Eight years after states adopted the Common Core State Standards, teachers have shifted practices dramatically on teaching vocabulary and assigning nonfiction, but have struggled with other shifts in those standards—most notably the tenet of having students of all reading abilities grapple with grade-level texts.

Those insights come from a nationally representative survey of some 1,200 teachers published by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

In a finding greeted warmly by literacy advocates, many teachers now teach new words in the context of reading and conversation.

"The news on vocabulary is heartening, moving away from list-based and program-based approaches," said Carol Jago, a former president of the National Council of Teachers of English and now a consultant, who was not involved in the survey. "I think all of that was eating up too much classroom time."

But the proportion of teachers who reported using "grade level" texts rather than texts based on students' reading levels fell among secondary teachers compared with Fordham's survey in 2012. The standards prioritized the approach to make sure that even weaker readers had the chance to practice with increasingly complex sentence structure and meaning.

Timothy Shanahan, an emeritus professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, gave a blunt analysis of the results: "It means holding kids back and not learning texts that are hard enough."

One explanation for the finding may be that teachers haven't been given enough training on how to "scaffold" more complex readings for students who are furthest behind. On the reading front, more than 90 percent of respondents said they are asking students to cite evidence from texts when they teach "close reading," which basically means assisting students as they grapple with a text's craft, structure, and meaning.

Still, writing tends to be based on personal experience or creating a narrative, rather than nonfiction texts—a flash point in the common-core wars.

Vol. 38, Issue 01, Page 5

Published in Print: August 22, 2018, as Teaching Shifts Come Slowly
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