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Reading Is At the Core

New Standards Call for More Work on Literacy

As a teacher, especially as a resident in the community in which I teach, people will occasionally ask me about the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). They want to know what these are and why they are important, what it means for their kids education, and how things will be different as a result.

In response I try to make two points:

∎ First, the CCSS is not a curriculum; there is no established content that is required to be taught.

∎ Second, the CCSS are meant to raise the stakes; the standards that have been set and adopted by the vast majority of states, including New Hampshire and Vermont, are designed to make students “college and career ready.” The goal is that they leave high school with the necessary tools to compete in a global marketplace.

This doesn’t sound very different from what our schools have always attempted to do; however, the skill set necessary as we move forward in the century is much more demanding than it was the last time we had major education reform, after the publication of A Nation at Risk, the 1983 report that described a deeply troubled public education system.

At the heart of the CCSS, and of the Smarter Balance testing plan designed to assess our students’ skill levels, are reading and writing. Even on the math tests, students have to write paragraphs of explanation in response to word problems they must be able to grasp. On the reading tests, there are multiple paragraph reading selections that are followed by comprehension and analysis questions.

On the performance assessment, students have to read multiple, diverse documents, then use those pieces of evidence to support an argument they construct to assert a conclusion or solution to the stated question or problem. (See for yourself here: http://sbac.portal.airast.org/practice-test/).

If nothing else, the Common Core prioritizes reading as the foundational skill to all other critical thinking. But make no mistake, reading is hard; that is why many of the students I have encountered in my 30 years of teaching don’t like to do it. It’s not that they can’t. Sure, there are some for whom learning disabilities make it difficult, but those are relatively few, especially compared with the many who just won’t read. Reading is like walking; it is learned young.

Academic reading, however, whether of a classic novel (or any novel, for that matter), an article in a scientific or political journal or a section of a history text, requires multiple additional skills and intellectual endurance.

Vocabulary development and reading comprehension are obvious necessities, but not the only requirements to make meaning out of text. Prior knowledge is critical as well. If a student is given a complex or sophisticated reading assignment, the ability to latch on to something in the text to begin to peel back meaning is critical. It is a lot like Velcro; the new idea can be stuck to what’s known.

But when students have little prior knowledge, because they aren’t practiced readers, they become caught in a vicious circle. Students won’t read because it’s too hard. When they don’t read, they don’t develop the skills necessary to be proficient academic readers, and they continue to stagnate.

Imagine a young man who has become grossly overweight and out of shape. He knows how to walk, but because of the accumulated effects of his behavior, he is now finding it difficult to do so. He goes to a trainer because he would like to regain his mobility; he doesn’t want to run a marathon, but he wants to be able to get around easily, enjoy recreational activities and reverse the detrimental effects of his prior behavior on his health. His trainer would not say to him, “Come five days a week and work out, but don’t worry about doing any exercise or walking on your own time.”

Yet, in frustration over getting students to read, teachers may be inclined to do just this, setting up expectations that students will have to read only in class and not outside of class. All this does is perpetuate the cycle: Students don’t want to read because it’s hard; it’s hard because they lack sufficient practice to develop the necessary skills to make reading manageable; and teachers enable the cycle by continuing to let them read less than they should.

This is one of the challenges presented by the Common Core State Standards and the Smarter Balance Assessment, because they are meant to enlarge and test students’ abilities to read complex, lengthy texts. Before these tests are administered nationally in the spring of 2015, it would make sense to assess the commitment to reading in our high school classes, and not just English classes. How rigorous is the content? How much in-class and out-of-class reading practice is being assigned to strengthen students’ skills? How are students being held accountable for reading? How are teachers demonstrating improvement in students’ comprehension of complex texts? How are administrators cultivating an environment that engenders the value of reading and reading well? How is curriculum being coordinated to mesh reading expectations across disciplines so as to preserve a focus on literature in English classes, yet fulfill the expectations for students’ familiarity with informational texts?

As discussions in high schools about curriculum continue, we should be vigilant about breaking the cycle. A reading assignment that can be read out loud with explanations in 15 minutes does not prepare students to meet the demands of the upcoming tests, nor does it make students “college and career ready.” Policies limiting summer reading assignments to a maximum of five hours do not foster a commitment to the sustained practice necessary to becoming proficient readers. Creating English courses that require little or no out-of-class reading is the same as telling the out-of-shape athlete that he has to exercise only while working with the trainer.

Just as we need to integrate healthy choices and fitness into our daily routines if we want to be in sound physical shape, we need to integrate extended and varied reading exercises into our daily routines if we want to be successful and thoughtful readers.

Deborah Springhorn is an English teacher at Lebanon High School and the current holder of the Christa McAuliffe Sabbatical, which provides a year of study to a New Hampshire public school teacher.