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Teachers Reflect Standards in Basals

By Catherine Gewertz — May 08, 2012 9 min read
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Dozens of teachers and literacy specialists from across the country hunkered down here at round tables, with laptops, pens, and paper, intent on rewriting the collections that wield tremendous influence over the way millions of U.S. children learn literacy skills: the big-name basal readers.

Trekking to a workshop from as far away as San Diego and Anchorage, the educators lugged the teacher’s editions of nine of the most popular basals. As they worked, those heavy volumes were scattered across the tables of a hotel meeting room: titles such as Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s “Trophies,” Pearson’s “Reading Street,” and Macmillan/McGraw Hill’s “Treasures.”

Hailing from 18 school districts in 11 states, the group of about 70 came together last month in response to the Common Core State Standards in English/language arts, which demand that students hone their skills at understanding and analyzing a variety of texts. To do that, teachers must help them delve more deeply into what they read.

Sponsoring the workshop were two organizations with big stakes in the implementation of the new standards: the Washington-based Council of the Great City Schools, which represents large urban districts, and Student Achievement Partners, a New York City-based nonprofit whose founders led the writing of the English/language arts standards. The two groups recognized that in order to reflect the standards’ expectations, teachers must begin asking different kinds of questions than most of those suggested in the teacher’s editions of the popular basal readers.

Since most districts lack money for new textbooks, or their states are not scheduled to adopt new ones, the groups decided to bring educators together to write new questions for current materials. The Basal Alignment Project aims to build a free, online repository that will include a bank of teacher-written questions and tasks that are more “text dependent” than those suggested by the publishers; that is, they require students to dig into their readings to respond.

More workshops are planned, including one in Baton Rouge, La., this week. Student Achievement Partners has already created and posted on its website a guide to crafting text-dependent questions. But as the Baltimore workshop began, most participants—an assortment of literacy coaches, curriculum officials, and English-learner specialists—were just beginning to explore the idea.

Meaning vs. Feeling

Focusing on the Text

To replace questions that can be answered without reading the text itself, teachers from across the country gathered at a workshop to craft “text dependent” questions for the most popular basal readers. Among those were questions from one 3rd grade passage.

For a narrative poem about a boy named Charlie, whose electronic toys are useless in a power outage, questions posed included:


“What has happened during a bad storm you have experienced?”

“How do you feel when you can’t do your favorite things?”


“What kinds of activities does Charlie like to spend his time doing?”

“How did Charlie react when the power went out? What are some words and phrases the author uses to describe Charlie’s reaction?”

“Use details from the poem to describe how Charlie and Isabel Jane spent the rest of the day.”

“In the last stanza, Charlie had another thought. What was this thought, and why couldn’t he explain it?”

SOURCE: Student Achievement Partners

David Liben, a former New York City teacher and principal who is now a senior literacy specialist with Student Achievement Partners, and helped write the common standards, said the “goal isn’t to denigrate the basals. They’re just written for different standards.” But he criticized them for paying too much attention to low-level vocabulary and suggesting questions that students could answer without reading the text passages.

He reminded the participants that the common standards “virtually eliminate text-to-self connections,” meaning they focus on getting students to figure out what the text means, rather than how they feel about it. That, he said, better prepares them for college and jobs.

“In college and careers, no one cares how you feel,” Mr. Liben said. “Imagine being asked to write a memo on why your company’s stock price has plummeted: ‘Analyze why and tell me how you feel about it,’ ” he said.

That said, students’ own experiences can play a valuable role in understanding the text after the second or third reading, Mr. Liben said. The point, he said, is to keep students focused on the text itself when they first encounter it so they can “develop the muscles” of figuring out its meaning.

Building academic and higher-level vocabulary is also crucial if students are to master more complex texts, Mr. Liben said, and too often, the basals concentrate on simpler words. One passage in “Reading Street,” for instance, emphasizes the meaning of “kind,” overlooking “judgment” and “vision.” But learning to probe such words is important, especially for English-learners, Mr. Liben said.

“We have to do both,” he said. “You can’t deprive them of words like ‘judgment’ and ‘vision.’ ” Examining only simple words for struggling students “is the achievement gap expanding in front of you.”

For examples of the problems workshop leaders had identified, the group turned to a 3rd grade selection in “Reading Street,” a narrative poem called “When Charlie McButton Lost Power.” It’s about a boy who panics when he can’t use his precious electronic gadgets during a power outage, but unexpectedly finds that he can have plenty of imaginative, nonelectronic fun with his little sister.

Examining the suggested questions in the margins of the teacher’s editions, the educators found many that asked students to reflect on their feelings or experiences with no need to consult the reading passage for an answer.

One question asked: “What has happened during a bad storm you have experienced?” Another said: “How do you feel when you can’t do your favorite things?”

Participants immediately spotted opportunities to revise them.

“You certainly don’t have to read the text to answer those questions,” said Suzanne Takeda, a language arts specialist with the Los Angeles Unified School District. “But if you change the focus from ‘your’ experience to Charlie’s experience, they wouldn’t be text-to-self questions. They would be more text-dependent.”

Another question asked students to predict what Charlie will do when the power comes back on. That one encourages students to reflect on Charlie and what they’ve learned about him in order to predict what will happen next, which is more consistent with the common standards’ expectations, said Martina Henke, a language arts coordinator from Anchorage.

Rewritten, text-dependent questions for the poem included queries like: “In the stanza where Charlie says, ‘Could anything be duller ...,’ what is he talking about? Why is the word ‘anything’ in italics?”

Using guidelines created by Student Achievement Partners, educators worked on writing new questions that reflected the standards and on thinking differently about how they would prepare for class discussions. The guidelines encouraged them to read each selection and write a synopsis, clearly stating its main themes, then reread it and create text-dependent questions. They could spend time identifying and categorizing vocabulary to home in on and devising culminating tasks for the reading passage, making a list of which standards would be covered in the lesson.

They used a set of 17 questions to guide their development of queries and tasks for each reading passage. Among them: Does each student have to read the text to answer each question? Are the questions coherently sequenced, building toward a gradual understanding of the text meaning? Does the culminating task call on the knowledge and understanding acquired through study of the passage?

Some participants welcomed the messages as a needed balance to current practice.

“Remember when we were all doing experiential stuff to bring kids in? Well, the pendulum swung way too much that way,” said Sue Doherty Fetsch, a consultant from Anchorage. “Experiential stuff isn’t all bad. You just can’t do it to the level we’ve been doing it.”

Ms. Takeda, from Los Angeles, said the process of reviewing practice and revising questions is “wonderful,” but for it to work well it should unfold among groups of teachers, talking and brainstorming together. But that is a challenge for a big district in the current fiscal environment, she said.

“It’s so important for teachers to do this in groups, together, like we are now, not just have it handed to them,” she said. "[But] it’s very tough with so little resources.”

Other educators raised issues with key themes of the workshop, such as having students approach texts with little or no background preparation.

“We have kids from a lot of cultural backgrounds,” one participant said. “We really do want to level the playing field for them. Some kids don’t have enough language, and multiple readings just won’t do it for them.”

Mr. Liben responded that it’s important to provide targeted supports to students who need it, taking care not to substitute summaries and personal reflections for comprehending what the text says.

A flurry of questions were aimed at when to use prereading strategies and offer students context for their reading, and when to hold those back. What is the role of explicit instruction?, asked one teacher. When should a teacher model what she wants students to do, and when should she let them grapple for a while?

There are no easy answers to those questions, Mr. Liben said, and Student Achievement Partners’ approach errs on the side of letting children try to figure out more for themselves and having the teacher step in later, as needed.

How the new ideas will take shape back home was an open question. “The biggest challenge will be getting elementary teachers to stop using their basals as Bibles,” LaTisha Bryant, a literacy specialist from Memphis, Tenn., said during a break.

Teachers will also worry that if they shift strategies, they won’t be preparing students for the state tests, she said. Tennessee’s assessments are being revised to include more constructed-response items, but they still include a lot that are “rote memorization,” she said.

Publisher Revisions

Pearson, like other publishers, has been working to make its reading programs reflect the standards. Nancy Winship, a vice president who oversees the company’s pre-K-12 literacy programs, said Pearson “supports initiatives that are going to help teachers and students be prepared for the common core.

“It’s critical that teachers internalize this and understand what text-dependent questions are at this level, so I applaud them for what they are doing,” she said.

But Ms. Winship added that the 2008 and 2011 versions of “Reading Street” that were being examined in the workshop hadn’t been updated to reflect the publishers’ criteria that Student Achievement Partners issued in August and revised as recently as this month. Those criteria detail the emphasis on text-dependent questions.

“We would have been happy to provide them with” the newest version of the program, which was released last week, she said.

That new version revises vocabulary instruction to target discussion at words and phrases from the text, she said. It also suggests three readings of each passage, with the first aiming for understanding and clarification, the second zeroing in for more meaning, and the third geared to differentiated support in small-group instruction, she said.

Questions were revised as well, with text-dependency in mind, Ms. Winship said. For example, in earlier editions, a question for the Charlie McButton poem asked how students think Charlie will respond to his mother’s suggestions about having fun during a blackout. The revised question now reads: “How does Charlie react to his mom’s suggestions? Cite examples from the text to support your answer.”

Robin Hall, the Council of the Great City Schools’ language arts director, said the workshops’ goal is to finish lists of new questions for at least a few reading passages in each of the most popular basals for grades 3-5 by August, so they are available for teachers by next school year. Project leaders hope to complete questions for all passages from those basals by spring 2013.

The two groups seek to help teachers attain “a shared understanding” of the intent of the standards, said Ricki Price-Baugh, the council’s director of academic standards and a former assistant superintendent in the Houston schools.

Coverage of “deeper learning” that will prepare students with the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in a rapidly changing world is supported in part by a grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, at www.hewlett.org.
A version of this article appeared in the May 09, 2012 edition of Education Week as Teachers Reflect Standards in Basals


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