Opinion
Curriculum Opinion

Can Readers Really Stay Within the Standards Lines?

By Maja Wilson & Thomas Newkirk — December 13, 2011 5 min read
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Forty-six states and the District of Columbia have already signed on to the common-core standards, acting before the ink on them was even dry. But most of those states have done so without reading the small print, spelled out in the recently released guidelines for publishers and curriculum developers.

Funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the document moves beyond the standards’ generalities to lay out the view of reading at the heart of the common core and to specify practices that need to be in place to foster it. It is a consequential and revealing document that really shows us what we’re being asked to buy.

At one level, we find some of what is in this document appealing and timely. We like the focus on deep sustained reading—and rereading. We like the idea of giving a central place to challenging texts that are not cluttered by distracting headnotes, sidenotes, and endnotes that give so many reading selections a People magazine look.

But we are distressed by the view of reading that will be enforced by standards-aligned textbooks, curriculum, and assessments. That view—that students should focus on the “text itself"—is an echo of slogans from the early and mid-1900s. The text, the guidelines say, should be understood on “its own terms,” and readers must fixate on “what lies within the four corners of the text.”

As we see it, these guidelines urge the use of difficult texts, but preclude the use of strategies that can help students situate texts in their own lives."

There is a distrust of reader response in this view; while the personal connections and judgments of the reader may enter in later, they should do so only after students demonstrate “a clear understanding of what they read.” Publishers are enjoined to pose “text-dependent questions [that] can only be answered by careful scrutiny of the text ... and do not require information or evidence from outside the text or texts.” In case there is any question about how much focus on the text is enough, “80 to 90 percent of the Reading Standards in each grade require text-dependent analysis; accordingly, aligned curriculum materials should have a similar percentage of text-dependent questions.”

This model of reading seems to have two stages—first, a close reading in which the reader withholds judgment or comparison with other texts, focusing solely on what is happening within the four corners of a piece. Only then may readers pay attention to prior knowledge and personal association or engage in interpretation and critique.

To understand our concern with this model, consider the ultimate stated goal of this close reading: “Student knowledge drawn from the text is demonstrated when the student uses evidence from the text to support a claim about the text.” While the virtues of a close reading are many, there is no guidance given in this document for how students will create the questions, hypotheses, or interpretations necessary to generate an interesting claim about a text. In fact, many of the activities useful for generating these claims are expressly limited: Students will not look outside the text, not make text-to-text connections until later, and only be asked for their “reader responses” once the claims of the text are firmly in their minds.

This readerly repression is unnatural, and probably impossible. Since you are obviously still reading this Commentary, you be the judge. Have you stayed within “the text itself”? Have you cordoned off preconceptions, biases, prior reading, and associations until you finish and comprehend this text? Have you bracketed your own views about standards, reading, and what goes on in classrooms so that you can get our message? Or do words like “standards” and “reading” invoke your own teaching, learning, and reading histories? Could you suppress this invocation even if you wanted to? (If this list of questions annoys you, please wait until you fully comprehend our piece before being annoyed.)

Your own reading associations—the memory of a 7th grade English class in which the reading of every book was followed by creating a collage, or of the 10th grade teacher who showed you how to read Shakespeare—actually help you to locate yourself within the four corners of a text. To figure out what claim you’d like to make about our claim, you’d have to pay attention to these associations from the beginning.

To illustrate how our approach would differ from that proposed by these guidelines, imagine two ways of teaching Nicholas Carr’s 2008 essay from The Atlantic, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”—precisely the kind of demanding text the common-core standards advocate sharing with students.

Before assigning the essay, we would have students log their media use for a day (texts, emails, video games, TV, reading, surfing the Internet) and share this 24-hour profile with classmates. We might ask students to free-write and perhaps debate the question: “What advantages or disadvantages do you see in this pattern of media use?” This “gateway” activity would prepare students to think about Carr’s argument. As they read, they’d be mentally comparing their own position with Carr’s. Surely, we want them to understand Carr’s argument, but we’d help them do that by making use of their experiences and opinions.

In the classroom envisioned by the standards guidelines, these personal connections and opinions might be allowed later, after students have encountered and come to know Carr’s text “on its own terms.” Some preteaching would be allowed in the common-core classroom—as long as it didn’t distract from the text. So students might be presented with a list of vocabulary words in the article or maybe be given information about the genre being read. But as they read, their attention would be focused almost exclusively on Carr’s argument.

As we see it, these guidelines urge the use of difficult texts, but preclude the use of strategies that can help students situate texts in their own lives. All the instruction in the world won’t help a reader who has already decided that a text is distant and irrelevant. But helping students understand the text itself means helping students find themselves in it. We worry that if textbooks, curriculum, and assessments align themselves to the view of reading in the common-core guidelines, students will become alienated from the very complex texts with which they will be required to grapple.

So, yes, we have to stress attention to the text and language. And, yes, building a diorama or making a collage is not always the best way to do that. And, for sure, bring on challenging texts. But going back to this sterile and humanly impossible view of reading is not the answer.

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A version of this article appeared in the December 15, 2011 edition of Education Week as Can Readers Really Stay Within the Standards Lines?

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