A lot of people whose opinions I respect don’t care much for Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Some of my friends view the standards as an abuse of power or coercive. Some think them no better or even worse than their existing state standards. Others bemoan the lack of specificity.
Say what you will about CCSS, but there are three big ideas embedded within the English Language Arts standards that deserve to be at the very heart of literacy instruction in U.S. classrooms, with or with or without standards themselves:
1. Students should read as much nonfiction as fiction.
2. Schools should ensure all children—and especially disadvantaged children—build coherent background knowledge that is essential to mature reading comprehension.
3. Success in reading comprehension depends less on “personal response” and more on close reading of text.
In an astonishing commentary in Education Week, Joanne Yatvin, past president of the National Council of Teachers of English (!) reads the Common Core ELA Standards and pronounces herself “truly alarmed” and “aghast at the vision of the dreariness and harshness of the classrooms they aim to create.” Why? Precisely because of the three ideas enumerated above.
I’m alarmed and aghast that anyone can fail to connect building background knowledge with language growth, or long-term success in reading comprehension. Not for nothing are the standards titled “Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects, K-5.”
Yatvin’s bill of particulars boils down to a complaint that all that subject matter content is too hard, too soon and too boring for children. The standards “overestimate the intellectual, physiological, and emotional development of young children,” she writes. Her smoking gun is within the publisher’s criteria that accompanies the standards:
In kindergarten-grade 2, the most notable shifts in the standards when compared to state standards include a focus on reading informational text and building a coherent knowledge within and across grades; a more in-depth approach to vocabulary development; and a requirement that students encounter sufficiently complex text through reading, writing, listening, and speaking. By underscoring what matters most in the standards, the criteria illustrate what shifts must take place in the next generation of curricula, including paring away elements that distract from or are at odds with the Common Core State Standards.
“This is a pretty strong dose of academia for children just beginning their schooling, with not even a ‘spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down,” she writes, forgetting that the teachers are free to dispense as many spoonfuls of C6H12O6 as they see fit to enable the prescription to enter the digestive tract.
News flash: It’s precisely the lack of coherent background knowledge—the kind of taken-for-granted knowledge of the world, and the gains in vocabulary that accompany it—that is holding back reading comprehension and language growth among our most disadvantaged children. This is something that CCSS nails, emphatically and correctly. If you’re not building background knowledge, you’re not teaching reading.
“For young children, the focus on academic vocabulary seems strange,” continues Yatvin, apparently believing teachers are expected to read directly from the Common Core Standards during story time on the rug. “At this time in their development, would it not be more sensible for children to learn words connected to their everyday lives and their interests rather than to things and experiences as yet unknown?” she ask.
Well, no. It would not be more sensible. Most of the words we acquire we learn not through memorization or direct instruction, but in context. So while it certainly it makes sense to connect words to kids “everyday lives and experiences” it’s something very close to educational malpractice not to make a concerted effort to expand a child’s knowledge base beyond their immediate experiences. If there is anything that ensures a low-level of academic achievement it is the idea that kids can only learn from their direct experiences. Matthew Effect, anyone? It is incredibly condescending even to suggest that if a child cannot personally relate to a story or topic, they can’t possibly be interested or successful.
Yet Yatvin also doesn’t much care for the “significant increase in nonfiction materials at all grade levels” and CCSS’s call for “a mix of 50 percent literary and 50 percent informational text, including reading in [English/language arts], science, social studies, and the arts.”
“The fact that fiction now dominates the elementary curriculum is not the result of educators’ decisions about what is best for children, but a reflection of children’s developmental stages, their interests, and their limited experience in the fields of science, geography, history, and technology. It is one thing for a child to read The Little Engine That Could for the pleasure of the story and quite another for her to comprehend the inner workings of a locomotive.”
Wait. Children have limited knowledge in science, geography, history and technology, so we shouldn’t muddy their minds with such marginalia? The story is ripe with opportunities to build background knowledge, not about (strawman alert!) “the inner workings of a locomotive,” but colors, mountains, trains and transportation, to name but a few. There are no shortage of age appropriate, richly illustrated nonfiction picture books that would go a long way toward building prior knowledge on these and many other topics that are a natural extension of The Little Engine That Could.
I’m all for reading for the pleasure of the story. But start building background knowledge of the world beyond a child’s immediate surroundings today, and you geometrically expand the number of stories a child can read for pleasure tomorrow. Weirdly, Yatvin gets this. She just seems reluctant to teach it:
“Reading any text requires more than decoding, fluency, and inferring meaning from context; the reader must form mental images of things mentioned based on previous experience or imagination. Although illustrations in many nonfiction books help considerably, there is a limit to how many unfamiliar things can be adequately illustrated in a book for young children.”
Right. Which is exactly why we need to expand a child’s base of knowledge, not view it as too high a hurdle to clear.
“Ultimately, the authors show their contempt for teachers’ competence, the use of supplementary materials, and children’s experiences,” Yatvin claims. But she shows her contempt for children in her assumption that if it’s not a part of a child’s everyday experience they couldn’t possibly be interested or expected to appreciate or understand it.
By placing subject matter content at the very heart of English Language Arts instruction from the first days of school, the authors of the Common Core Standards got it absolutely right. In order to read, write, speak and listen with comprehension, children need more content, not less. We learn new words by understanding the context in which we hear unfamiliar words. Every reading teacher has encouraged a struggling reader to “activate your prior knowledge” when reading a difficult passage; or to “use your context clues” when stumped by an unfamiliar word. Where – where exactly – do we expect that prior knowledge and context to come from if building it is not a primary function of language arts instruction?
Are there problems with Common Core Standards? Certainly. But there are far more problems with a view of literacy and teaching that boils down to “meet the children where they are…and keep them there.”