Special Report

Common Standards Drive New Approaches to Reading

By Catherine Gewertz — November 13, 2012 6 min read
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The Common Core State Standards aren’t exactly new; it’s been two years since most states adopted them. But it took those two years for the standards to trickle down from abstraction to daily practice, from a sheaf of papers in a state capital into a lesson plan on a teacher’s desk. Now they’re reshaping reading instruction in significant ways.

Whether the standards are shining a bright new light on reading or casting an ominous shadow over it remains a point of debate. But without a doubt, the shifts in literacy instruction envisioned by the common core are among the biggest in recent decades. And they’re far-reaching: All but four states have adopted the literacy guidelines.

The standards paint an ambitious picture of what it means to be literate in the 21st century, said P. David Pearson, a professor of language, literacy, society, and culture at the University of California, Berkeley.

“I think these standards have the potential to lead the parade in a different direction: toward taking as evidence of your reading ability not your score on a specific skill test—or how many letter sounds you can identify or ideas you can recall from a passage—but the ability to use the information you gain from reading, the fruits of your labor, to apply to some new situation or problem or project,” he said. “That’s a huge change.”

Just take a look at some of the ways classroom instruction is changing because of the common standards.

• Reading instruction is no longer the sole province of the language arts teacher. The standards call for teachers of science, social studies, and other subjects to teach literacy skills unique to their disciplines, such as analyzing primary- and secondary-source documents in history, and making sense of diagrams, charts, and technical terminology in science. A 4th grade teacher in Shell Rock, Iowa, for instance, had his students write science books for 2nd graders in a bid to fuse content understanding with domain-specific literacy skills.

• Reading and writing are closely connected, and writing instruction is explicit. Teaching writing has often fallen by the wayside as teachers focus on reading, but the common core demands its return. And not just any kind of writing—writing studded with citations of details and evidence from students’ reading material. Even the youngest pupils are learning to do it: First graders in Vermont are listening to a Dr. Seuss tale, over and over, searching for clues that back up the central thesis of the story.

• The scale tips toward informational text. Teachers are under new pressure to work essays, speeches, articles, biographies, and other nonfiction texts into their students’ readings. In Baltimore, middle school students are reading newspaper articles about avatars and school uniforms, along with a cluster of novels, to explore the theme of individuality.

• There’s a major press for curriculum materials that embody the common core. Acutely aware of states’ and districts’ needs, the major educational publishers rushed to issue supplements to their reading programs and followed with new-from-the-ground-up programs that purport to be “common standards aligned.” An examination, however, shows that a shared definition of “alignment” can prove elusive.

• Educators are training a keen eye on ways to support students who struggle with literacy skills. The common standards make unprecedented demands on students, such as mastering the difficult academic vocabulary of each discipline, and teachers worry that many students could be left behind. In Albuquerque, N.M., educators are building supports for their many English-learners, setting up one school as a demonstration site where teachers get immersed in the standards and learn strategies for helping students who are still learning the language. Other Albuquerque teachers are working with a national expert to write specially tailored model lessons for 1st and 8th graders.

• Even as the new standards dominate the reading landscape, however, other literacy issues are also coming to the fore in the common-core era. Reading proficiently by the end of 3rd grade has proved a popular rallying point for states, some of which have recently enacted policies that toughen various requirements—for teachers as well as for students—in pursuit of that goal.

• New literacy research is also exerting its influence. Findings that have been issued since the National Reading Panel’s landmark report in 2000 had a key role in shaping the common standards, including a more nuanced approach to comprehension across the disciplines and media. But in an effort to focus on the end result, critics say, the standards often leave out—or get ahead of—the research on strategies teachers can use to help students achieve these new literacy skills.

False Choice?

The swirls of activity around reading, however, have raised as many or more questions than they purport to answer.

Some teachers worry that the common standards’ emphasis on reading informational text, and on writing that’s grounded in evidence from that text, could leave little place for reading literature and for the kinds of personal, creative writing that can unleash students’ passions.

Advocates of the informational-text approach argue that it is a powerful equalizer in building content knowledge for disadvantaged children, and that it’s crucial in building the skills most needed in good jobs and in college. Still others argue that nonfiction can engage some students in ways that fiction can’t and that devoting more time to it needn’t displace creative writing and literature.

Some reading experts are frustrated with what they see as an unnecessarily polarized debate about the standards. It’s a false choice, they argue, to say that students can’t write about things they’re interested in and still learn to base their ideas solidly on what they’ve read about those topics.

It’s also a false choice, those experts say, to argue that creative writing has to atrophy if expository writing expands. Or that reading great works of literature has to dwindle if students read more original historical documents. Blending all those literacy experiences into students’ lives, they argue, is important for building flexible, strong minds.

How will that blend be achieved without sacrificing bulwarks of the discipline? An increasingly common element in answers: more reading.

“We have to dramatically increase the volume of reading kids are doing in English class and beyond,” said Penny Kittle, an English/language arts teacher at Kennett High School in North Conway, N.H.

Where will the time come from for that additional reading?

“Time will always be something we have to wrestle with,” said Dwight Davis, who is weaving more nonfiction texts, and more challenging books overall, into the poetry and novels he assigns his 5th grade students at the Wheatley Education Campus in the District of Columbia. “Do we have enough time to get it all in?”

Time isn’t the only resource in scarce supply as educators put the standards into practice. There is the issue of money, as well. How will districts and states pay for the professional development teachers need to adapt their instruction to the new expectations? And will all teachers get the support they require to provide the right kinds of help to the students with the shakiest skills?

Will schools have the funding to buy instructional materials that encompass a wider variety of text types? And even if the training, materials, and pedagogy come together well, will they indeed produce the college and career readiness that the standards promise?

In the new common-core era, question marks appear to be a key feature of the landscape.

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A version of this article appeared in the November 15, 2012 edition of Education Week as Common Standards Drive New Reading Approaches


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