John Merrow of Learning Matters filed an important ten-minute piece for the PBS Newshour last night, looking at elementary reading programs. Merrow and his producer Cat McGrath visited three different schools in and around New York City: one that teaches with basal readers, another with “balanced literacy,” and one of the New York City schools that is piloting the Core Knowledge Language Arts curriculum.
The piece is well worth the ten-minutes it takes to watch it (a transcript is available here) and it nicely underscores a the differences between the Core Knowledge approach and the others, particularly in the over-reliance on reading strategies in balanced literacy and basals. That could pose a problem as reading instruction shifts to comply with Common Core State Standards:
AMANDA BLATTER, principal, Public School 109: We now have level libraries that are nonfiction in all of our classrooms. So the curriculum in reading and writing is now aligning to the Common Core standards.
JOHN MERROW: Just like the students using basal textbooks, these first-graders are learning reading strategies.
AMANDA BLATTER: We’re teaching comprehension strategies such as main idea, author’s purpose, inferencing, cause and effect.
JOHN MERROW: In balanced literacy, comprehension is a skill, something to be practiced, like a jump-shot or dance steps.
It’s unfair to harp on a single soundbite in a TV interview, but the idea that you can be “aligned to Common Core standards” simply by adding nonfiction to a strategies-driven, read-what-you-like approach to literacy is a broad misinterpretation of what CCSS is all about. The Standards are largely silent on the works of literature and knowledge domains children are expected to learn, but quite clear that there “must be a well-developed, content-rich curriculum consistent with the expectations laid out in this document.”
“Building knowledge systematically in English language arts is like giving children various pieces of a puzzle in each grade that, over time, will form one big picture. At a curricular or instructional level, texts—within and across grade levels—need to be selected around topics or themes that systematically develop the knowledge base of students. Within a grade level, there should be an adequate number of titles on a single topic that would allow children to study that topic for a sustained period. The knowledge children have learned about particular topics in early grade levels should then be expanded and developed in subsequent grade levels to ensure an increasingly deeper understanding of these topics. Children in the upper elementary grades will generally be expected to read these texts independently and reflect on them in writing. However, children in the early grades (particularly K–2) should participate in rich, structured conversations with an adult in response to the written texts that are read aloud, orally comparing and contrasting as well as analyzing and synthesizing, in the manner called for by the Standards.” (p. 23 CCSS ELA Standards)
“When I look at what the expectations are coming in with the Common Core learning standards,” says Joyce Barrett-Walker, the principal of PS 96, the Core Knowledge school featured in the piece. “It seems that we’re where we need to be right now.”
Basals and balanced literacy? Not so much “What is clear is that basal readers used in three-quarters of our elementary schools will have to make significant adjustments to comply with the emerging Core standards,” Merrow concludes.