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Teaching Opinion

Response: A Good Reading Lesson Doesn’t ‘Put Standards Before Students’

By Larry Ferlazzo — April 04, 2015 13 min read
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The new “question-of-the-week” is:

What Are Good Examples of Reading Lessons Aligned to Common Core Standards?

Reading is obviously a big part of school, and it’s a big part of the Common Core Standards. This column will explore what, if any, changes the Standards call for and how we can use them in a positive way to enhance learning for our students.

Today’s guest responses come from educators Cheryl B. Dobbertin, Ilse O’Brien, Katherine S. McKnight and Regie Routman. In addition, you can listen to a ten-minute conversation I had with Cheryl on my BAM! Radio Show.

You might also be interested in previous posts related to Teaching Reading and Writing.

Response From Cheryl B. Dobbertin

Cheryl Becker Dobbertin is the author of Common Core Unit by Unit, 5 Critical Moves for Implementing the Reading Standards Across the Content Areas (Heinemann, 2013). She is also the Teacher Potential Project Program Director at Expeditionary Learning (EL), working with a team to understand the impact of EL’s Common Core-aligned curriculum on teacher efficacy and student achievement. Cheryl has been a secondary English teacher, assistant principal, and literacy coach:

The educational marketplace is flooded with resources claiming to be “Common Core-aligned.” The best defense against a jazzy gold sticker shouting “Common Core edition” is to ensure that you understand the principles that should underlie any given lesson’s alignment to the Common Core. The website “Achieve The Core” provides helpful guidance in its Instructional Practice Guides. These guides recommend that Common Core-aligned reading lessons be grounded in high quality text, that they feature text-specific oral and written questions and tasks, and that they are scaffolded so that all students can engage in the work.

Digging more deeply into the Standards and the instructional shifts that accompany the Common Core helps further clarify that good reading lessons are:

  • Embedded in a context that provides a purpose for reading deeply and writing carefully.
  • Focused on the goal of helping developing readers tackle worthy texts that provide lots of opportunities for new word learning and knowledge building.
  • Specifically designed to address a certain text or set of texts and a focused set of standards. Good lessons don’t try to teach everything at once.
  • Structured in a way that gives learners the opportunity to “productively struggle” with a challenging text on their own or in collaboration with peers without too much teacher modeling upfront.

And good reading lessons are not:

  • Test prep or decontextualized. Provide your readers with lessons worth learning.
  • Focused so much on the process of reading closely (for example, annotating the text) that the meaning of any given text is lost. The goal is comprehension, not marking the page.
  • The best lessons will be written specifically about any given complex text.
  • Formulaic, but designed so that teachers are making decisions, minute-by-minute, about what their readers need and are using a variety of activities to engage their different learners. One of the best compliments I have ever received is, “Your lessons are different every day!” Right.

Keep those criteria in mind as you search for materials and lessons that help you align your teaching to the Common Core. Whether you are designing your own lessons or selecting and using or adapting lessons from sources, you might want to evaluate them using the EQUiP Rubric from Achieve, which can be used to determine the alignment of lessons and units to the Common Core. The EQUiP rubric was applied to the free ELA curriculum available online on EngageNY, developed by Expeditionary Learning (grades 3-8), Core Knowledge (grades K-2), and PCG (grades 9-12). These materials were found to be exemplary models of alignment. Other quality Common Core-aligned lessons are available at Achieve The Core, ASCD’s “Educore” microsite, and the Common Core videos available on the Teaching Channel.

Response From Ilse O’Brien

Ilse O’Brien teaches ELA and American History with 5th graders in Natick, Massachusetts. An avid reader, this is her 15th year as a teacher. Follow her on twitter @ilseobrien:

The most effective reading instruction boils down to two ingredients: an engaging text and a conversation. If you have a captivating story, and you help students begin a thoughtful conversation, you will help them make meaning.

Ultimately it begins with reading widely yourself - and noticing what you think as you read. Whether you teach third or ninth grade, your lessons can be found in the pages of picture books, novels, poems, and articles. Discovered a novel-in-verse with great figurative language? Use it to model strategies to determine the meaning of phrases. Found two or three picture books that are all about nonconformity? Use them to compare the authors’ approaches to similar topics and themes. Stumbled upon an article about nutrition or crowdsourcing or forensic scientists? Discuss how the author used reasons to support particular points.

The shift to align our instruction with the Common Core standards seems challenging because it means we have to look at what we expect from students through a different lens. But it doesn’t mean throwing out all the tools we know and rely on. Reflect and refine? Yes. Reinvent and rewrite? No.

In their powerfully genuine book “Notice & Note: Strategies for Close Reading,” Kylene Beers and Robert Probst outline six simple strategies for readers to question, analyze, and respond to literature. Their strategies are clear, memorable, and effective. And they each start with an engaging text and thoughtful conversation.

Skip the worksheets with comprehension questions that promise to be “aligned with the Common Core!” and don’t get bogged down by Lexile levels or vocabulary. As Donalyn Miller emphasizes in “Reading in the Wild,” the last thing we do naturally after reading is start a worksheet or project.

Instead, take an excerpt from a great text and start a memorable conversation with your students.

Response From Katherine S. McKnight

Katherine S. McKnight is an educator, award-winning author, and consultant specializing in adolescent literacy. She is the author of Common Core Literacy for ELA, History/Social Studies, and the Humanities: Strategies to Deepen Content Knowledge and Common Core Literacy for Math, Science, and Technical Subjects: Strategies to Deepen Content Knowledge. Follow her on Facebook or Twitter:

The Common Core State Standards enumerate ten anchor standards for college- and career-readiness in reading. Each anchor standard is articulated, with minor variations depending on whether the student is reading literature or informative text, for each grade level K-12. There are lots of little, specific goals, so there are lots of “good reading lessons”!

Let’s focus on a set of lesson prompts that are easily adaptable to different circumstances. I sometimes call them the Fix Up strategies, because they help students of all levels know what to do when they encounter a text that is just a little too difficult. They’re aligned to reading anchor standards 1-6.

  • Preview - Look over the text before reading. Are there any clues about how the text is organized (headings, sub-headings, stanzas, pictures, sections of dialogue, etc.?)

  • Predict - Guess what will happen in this text. Were there any clues in the section that preceded this text? If this is the start of a new text, did your teachers or peers say anything about it? If it’s on a website, what did the description in the search engine tell you to expect?

  • Set a purpose - Decide why you are reading this. Do you want to be able to discuss this? Do you need answers to specific questions? Do you want to know what happens next?

  • Visualize - Create a mental picture. Do the author’s words help you imagine how the ideas connect? If you were making a movie of this text, what would it look like?

  • Connect - Relate personally to what you read. What does this text have to do with you? If it’s literature, do you have anything in common with any of the characters? If it’s informative text, how is it describing your world? Why is the author telling you this?

  • Monitor - Check your comprehension as you read. Can you say what you just read in your own words?

  • Use prior knowledge - Think about what you already know about the topic. Have you heard anything about this before? In class? On TV? From friends or family?

  • Make inference - Develop logical guesses based on the text and your own experiences. What do you think the text might be saying?

Some of the most effective reading lessons involve teachers modeling the application of these Fix Up strategies for students, and students demonstrating these strategies for each other. Students can write the answers, discuss them with peers, or mark texts with sticky notes as they work their way through difficult sections.

You can create a poster with these steps, so that they’re always available for quick student reference and spontaneous mini-lesson. Some teachers prefer to have students keep a list of the Fix Up strategies handy in the front of their reading folder throughout the school year. That’s particularly useful when students run into trouble when reading homework assignments.

Response From Regie Routman

Regie Routman is a longtime teacher and the author of many books and resources for educators. Her latest book is Read, Write, Lead: Breakthrough Strategies for Schoolwide Literacy Success (ASCD, 2014). See www.regieroutman.org for information on her books, articles, PD offerings, and to contact her:

If I may, I would like to expand the question to “What are good reading lessons that are aligned to excellent and research-based practices and that align with the Common Core Standards?” I worry when we put standards before students, which has become common practice, that we may lose what good instruction is all about and wind up teaching isolated reading lessons to meet a singular Common Core Standard.

I advise keeping the big picture of reading in mind and focusing on what I call “whole-part-whole” teaching; that is, even when focus is on part of a text we begin by explaining or making visible the whole of the text so the part makes sense to students. Students get to see the “big picture”, which is very different from “part-to-whole” teaching, which commonly occurs when we feel pressured to teach to a standard, specific outcome, or to prepare for high stakes testing. Part-to-whole teaching tends to focus narrowly on one or more skills in isolation and holds back the learning for our most struggling students, in particular. The end result is the student often fails to see how the lesson fits into a larger, relevant, and more meaningful context and so motivation and engagement remain low.

An important example of embedding skills in a whole, meaningful context while aligning teaching with the CCSS would be teaching close reading, formerly referred to as analytical reading. Listed first among the college and career readiness anchor standards for reading is the following: “Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.” An expectation of close reading and thinking critically is new for many students--and teachers, as well--as many students, especially those in low-performing schools have had a diet of phonics, low literacy expectations, and activities that do not increase their ability to think, read, and write at high levels.

In teaching close reading well, a teacher demonstrates how s/he reads closely by thinking aloud and making her/his critical reading process explicit--including analyzing text, making inferences, summarizing. First and foremost, the text must be a worthwhile one. Treating close reading as an isolated standard, a teacher with limited knowledge might take a single paragraph or page and expect students to read closely, which could wind up as a waste of time.

The thoughtful teacher will choose a whole text or enough of a meaningful text so that the reader can infer meaning and get the gist of what the author is expressing. Before beginning the demonstration, the teacher would want to let students know the purpose of the demonstration, why it matters, and what students will be expected to know and do. It’s important to let students know we don’t read all texts closely and how, why, and when we decide it’s necessary to read closely. For example, we might read the lead paragraphs of a news article closely while skimming some of the interior sections of the same article. Or, we might choose to closely reread a section of a book to understand it more fully, savor the author’s craft, or for the pleasure of appreciating the nuances and unique style of a particular author.

The close reading demonstration and thinking aloud process by the knowledgeable teacher in language arts and/or the content areas might include:

  • previewing the book, text, or text section and, perhaps, making some predictions and/or showing the inner thinking and questioning that may go on before we begin reading.
  • calling up known information to help the text make sense
  • carrying on an inner conversation with the author while reading that may include questions, confirmations, wonderings, and so on
  • slowing down to make sense of text, rereading to figure out meaning
  • re-reading a portion of text aloud to help understand it better
  • figuring out vocabulary from surrounding context
  • citing evidence from the text to back up inferences and conclusions
  • noticing and commenting on an author’s point of view and how it impacts meaning and interpretation of the text
  • making our confusions visible and showing how we try to work them out
  • making notes to self including questions, possibly underlining portions of the text if it is a consumable one.

Secondly, the thoughtful teacher might ask students, “What did you notice I did when I read closely?” and “Why did I do that?” (We cannot assume students “got” our demonstration and are ready to work on their own.) Chart students’ responses, and use their responses as an assessment of what they took away from the demonstration and what more needs to be modeled or shown again.

Also, before expecting students to read closely on their own--or with a partner or within a small group--the teacher might also lead a shared reading with students. Here the purpose is for students to try out with expert support and without fear of failure what the teacher has just demonstrated. The student understands that what matters is his thinking, not arriving at the “right answer.” All of this frontloading makes it more likely most students will be successful in the “doing it” and/or require only minimal guidance in the practice phase, where we want students to be spending most of their time. Without sustained practice, students will not become self-monitoring, self-directed, and self-teaching.

Thanks to Cheryl, Ilse, Katherine and Regie for their contributions!

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