When the Common Core=Teaching Reading Strategies 2.0

by Guest Blogger
August 17th, 2012

By Rachel Levy

According to its advocates, the Common Core Standards will usher in an era of equal opportunity to higher quality education via better, richer, and more career and college relevant standards. But if the account presented in this post on Education Sector’s The Quick & The Ed is any indication, I fear the Common Core ELA standards will keep us in the same era we’ve been in.

I first came across Susan Headden’s post, “Getting Complicated With Texts: Understanding the New ELA Standards,” describing a hands-on workshop she attended on the Common Core ELA standards, via a John Thompson post “Does Common Core Have It Backwards?” in This Week in Education. The idea that most struck Thompson (who is no Common Core hater) as concerning was:

“The group was left with the overarching message that mastering text complexity is the secret to reading success.” . . . .Teachers were told that “the problem with questions based on experience is that they exclude students who haven’t had those experiences. ‘Text … is the great equalizer.’”

Thompson says that’s wrong:

The key to teaching anything for mastery is understanding the human complexity within our kids. The logic underlaying that conclusion was even worse. Even if the assessment experts who conducted the professional development have never stepped foot in the inner city, they should know that the opposite applies in high-challenge schools.  Our path to success is building on the students’ strengths, based on their real-life learning.

I don’t disagree with Thompson but I would go much further. Vital to teaching anything (okay, vital to teaching reading) for mastery to any students, is background knowledge. The Common Core is supposed to go further than just asking students to learn from text by relating the general themes in the text it to their own personal experiences. As it should, but that doesn’t mean we should limit what they are learning to the content of the texts they are studying. From Headden’s post:

As we did our reading, we kept the hallmarks of complexity in mind. On the high end of the scale, they include: structure that is unconventional rather than expected, ideas that are implicit rather than explicit, and language that is figurative rather than literal, archaic rather than contemporary, and vague rather than clear. Sentences in very complex texts tend to be complicated rather than straightforward, and vocabulary is academic rather than plain.  Informational text that is defined as complex might require specialized knowledge, have multiple meanings, and an obscure purpose. Complex literary texts tend to include references to other texts, demand cultural knowledge, and carry sophisticated, multiple perspectives. (More than one participant noted that such texts might well meet the standard of complexity, but that they might also fit the definition of bad writing.)

The group engaged in a lively discussion about how much context a teacher should supply with a reading selection. “Are you helping [students] understand the more background you give him?” Liben asked. Yes, he said. “But are you making them better readers?” No.  “If you call attention to the ‘hard parts’ are you helping them comprehend?” Yes, he said. “But you are depriving them of the opportunity to find key turning points on their own.”  In short, he asked his audience, “Do you measure success by how much you smooth the road for your teachers, or by how bumpy the road is?” The Common Core clearly leans toward the bumps.

According to this account, teachers and being told that reading comprehension is a transferable skill, that the Common Core will improve reading comprehension by virtue of giving students more complex texts to work through.

Although I’ve been critical of the Common Core Standards, that they focus on reading strategies was not one of my criticisms; to the contrary, that they emphasized content knowledge, a greater study of literature, and more and more complex writing were selling points. But this account makes the Common Core ELA Standards sound as if they are skill-heavy, or at least that teachers are being guided to implement them as if they were. The problem is you can’t really teach something like “text complexity” any more than you can teach something like the “main idea.” Just because the texts are more “complex” doesn’t make using them in the place of simpler texts a superior approach or any different from the reading strategies approach. Apart from the acknowledgement that all teachers have to teach vocabulary (agreed), there’s no nod to background knowledge or context in Headden’s post. And even teaching vocabulary doesn’t do much good if it’s taught in isolation, though certainly explicitly teaching the meaning of morphemes can help students to build and make meaning of vocabulary.

Finally, while the practice of “quality over quantity” in education resonates with me, “reading success” with complex texts even with a lot of content knowledge won’t happen without practice. Besides the fact that it will pretty quickly bore or frustrate the bejesus out of them, you can’t just have students study the patterns and codes of complex text and then imagine they’ll apply those to future complex texts and viola! they’ll be better readers. No, students have to practice. They have to read lots and lots—fiction and non-fiction books, literature, magazines, newspapers, poetry, short stories, blogs—until the patterns and structures in each genre become predictable and recognizable.

The key to reading success is a vocabulary and knowledge-rich curriculum and a lot of practice reading. If the Common Core ELA Standards don’t include this, then they won’t be much of an improvement or change from current ELA standards. However, even if the Common Core Standards result in more content-rich ELA classrooms, which means students with more background knowledge and possibly more productive focus on text complexity, for now, as Thompson points out, text is not the great equalizer. Its divides students rather starkly not based on complexity or structure but according to schema, or what they already know. If teachers don’t or aren’t able to take this into account and scaffold appropriately, students will flounder and the CCSS will fail to help them.

Rachel Levy is a parent, teacher, and writer who lives in Central Virginia, with her husband and three children. She normally blogs at All Things Education.


  1. Rachel,

    Thank you for this thoughtful and interesting piece. I agree with you that if CC trainers are emphasizing text complexity in itself, they are missing the mark–badly.

    Substance is more important than text complexity. A good curriculum should be filled with superb works of literature (and literary nonfiction, and, in history class, historical works). They should be selected for their inherent merit and substance and combined in interesting ways.

    For instance, a high school could structure a semester of a literature course around the Book of Job. Students would read the Book of Job and a few works that make extensive reference to it or that have parallels with it: King Lear, Moby-Dick, Jude the Obscure, Seize the Day, and possibly more (though I’d say that’s enough for a semester). They would read and discuss each of these works for its inherent qualities but also examine allusions to Job and transformations of the Job story.

    All of these texts are “complex”; all of them would add substantially to students’ literary and cultural knowledge. But they would be chosen not for their complexity, but rather for what they contain, what they are, and how they fit together. And for their beauty, goddamit.

    Such a course would meet CC standards but go beyond them.

    As for the question of “scaffolding,” I see the term as a misnomer in many cases. When you study good literature, you’re never done. Each reading (or almost each one) can bring new insights, emphases, and questions. In college and graduate school, professors lecture on works of literature, and that isn’t for the sake of “scaffolding.” The students can read the work. It’s because there’s so much in them that you can offer insights and take nothing away from the reader’s own experience. It is the teacher who knows how to draw attention to certain passages–because the teacher has been there before.

    Now, of course, one should exercise caution with students approaching a text for the first time. Yes, they should be given the chance to figure out a great deal of it on their own. Yes, they should be allowed to approach it fresh, without relying on other people’s interpretations. But it is simply folly to assume that the goal of literature class is to bring students to the point of independent reading. That should be the starting point, not the end point.

    That also means that students must develop the practice of doing the reading at home, without distraction, so that they can come to class prepared to probe it further. Many students lack this practice; it must be built gradually. Then, and only then, can you have something like a real literature class.

    I support many aspects of the CC but am deeply worried about some of the implementation, interpretation, and inherent flaws. Thank you again for your insights (which I do not take as “scaffolding”).

    Comment by Diana Senechal — August 18, 2012 @ 8:07 am

  2. Suppose Alliyah gets A’s through K-8 but gets a mediocre education there. Her mom is a nurse’s assistant and doesn’t bestow much general knowledge and vocab on her. Then Alliyah begins an ambitious 10th grade English class. Is there any realistic chance she’ll read and comprehend Jude the Obscure? Isn’t this like asking a beginning German student to read Faust in the original –possible only with herculean determination and effort?

    Methinks Coleman and other CC masterminds underestimate the critical importance of building VAST background knowledge first. The children of well-educated parents can get through Jude the Obscure with a little effort. Ditto kids who attend Core Knowledge elementary school. But what about the rest –the majority of American public school kids? Unless we bolster K-8 curriculum first, the majority of kids will crash and burn in a rigorous HS English course. And this will force a retreat to some form of pseudo-rigor a la Lucy Calkins’s. This push for rigorous HS English should be delayed until several years after we successfully bolster the K-8 curriculum.

    Comment by Ponderosa — August 18, 2012 @ 12:54 pm

  3. Ponderosa,

    While I appreciate your points (and generally enjoy your comments), I think it would be a mistake to delay a rigorous and substantial HS curriculum. Those who are not prepared for it should get supplementary help or alternate instruction.

    First, it could take a decade or more for the high schools to start enjoying the full fruits of CK preparation. Of course, it’s worth waiting for that–but it would be unwise to postpone a strong literature curriculum until that time.

    Second, there are bright, capable kids who have to endure low-level classes. We should always teach to the highest level, while addressing other levels as well. That will enliven the schools intellectually.

    Third, many students are unused to challenge. They don’t know how to sit with a difficult text or problem until they understand it. We need to start teaching students to bear with initial discomfort and confusion (not to extremes, of course, but to a much greater extent than they have done).

    Fourth, one of the main reasons to read literature for the first time is to make way for the second reading and third. If a student doesn’t “get” all of it the first time around, this isn’t a disaster.

    Fifth, a skillful and wise teacher can point students to important passages–so even those who struggle with it a bit can gain a great deal from it.

    I read Jude the Obscure on my own at age 14. I had already read Far from the Madding Crowd and The Mayor of Casterbridge in school. I wish I had read Jude in class, not because I didn’t understand it, but because I related too strongly to it. I didn’t know how to mitigate this. It left me in a somber mood for a while. A teacher brings perspective to a text; she helps students see what the author is doing.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — August 18, 2012 @ 2:08 pm

  4. Exactly why the “Common Core” ought to have been modeled on the trivium, so that students would get the same complete sequence of humanities thrice, at the early, middle, and high-school grades, reading mainly primary sources of literature and history by high school (for knowledge, baby, not “reading strategies”). But doubtless there’s not as much opportunity for profit and cronyism in adopting a thousand-year-old instructional model. Only “research-based,” cutting-edge gimmickry can keep the “experts” in the engineer’s seat on their gravy train.

    Almost makes me glad Texas did not adopt CC. But then again, we’re Texas. I love my home, but I wouldn’t nominate us as an educational model either.

    Comment by James O'Keeffe — August 18, 2012 @ 3:29 pm

  5. Here is the problem with the Common Core or any other educational theory. The truth, it is not a magic bullet, it will require a lot of hard work and uncomfortable questions about current practice. On rigourous and reflective practice will take kids who society has under-invested for years and pull them up to viable educated citizens. We will probably not see substantial results for years, but when we do it will make a difference. No politician makes this promise, no principal can and it is a lot to ask of a teacher to say just trust us, especially with the high stakes out there. Plus what is the point of all those consultants if they don’t have strategies other than solid content rich teaching. It is what we need to do, but we need quit selling this as a miracle cure. There will be many that just don’t trust this as an opportunity and will instead find a way to sell their own version of the snake oil. I have to say, I don’t know of a website of folks saying I see the light, they either refashion things a la Calkins or just oppose the change outright.

    Comment by DC Parent — August 18, 2012 @ 4:53 pm

  6. Rachel,

    I’m just learning as I go on Common Core. Perhaps my biggest problem is lack of background knowledge! There is so much I need to know about the history of these controversies, as well at elementary realities. For the life of me, though, I can’t understand how they will get more bang for their reform buck than if they invested in Core Knowledge.

    Your point and mine reinforce each other. With low-skilled students they face both hurdles – difficulty with complexity and the lack of background knowledge. I wouldn’t hazard a guess about which is the higher one.

    Comment by John Thompson — August 18, 2012 @ 6:04 pm

  7. Ponderosa, I believe, has hit the nail on the head. Critics, if they are to add value, should focus on his central point, that building the background knowledge necessary for the comprehension of greater text complexity is problem number one. How on earth is that going to be accomplished when, as Rachel implies, the average teacher, reading specialist, principal, superintendent, professor of education, parent, and politician has no clue that the reigning paradigm, reading comprehension being a set formal analytical “skills,” is flawed? Ponderosa is correct to point out that Coleman, et al, are not blowing that trumpet. What the establishment is hearing instead is the same old tune, and the publishers are eager to peddle it.

    Several weeks ago I wrote here about the conversation I had with a fellow English colleague at my middle school, that she had spent her meagre book budget this year on a non-fiction reading anthology with which to teach “non-fiction reading skills” when we roll out our common core curriculum this fall. I have no doubt that hers will be the vast response across the nation. How else could it be, given the national lack background knowledge about reading comprehension?

    For all the wisdom Diana has contributed in this space over the years, I believe she is dead wrong that just pushing students off the diving board into the depths of text complexity is feasible. The very science of reading comprehension argues against that. There was once a time in my own practice when I made sure that all my bright 7th grade girls read The Witch of Blackbird Pond. (Those were the reading workshop days when whole class reading was verboten; few boys could be induced to finish such a feminine story.) Then the history and geography curriculum was obliterated in favor of what you might call “Social Studies Workshop,” and so even my very best readers could not get any purchase on the story, bereft as they were of any cultural knowledge of the setting. Now it has been over ten years since a student of mine has finished that book, and I shudder to think what happens in tenth grade when a teacher puts the The Scarlet Letter in their hands.

    If there were a wise public school system in the country—and I concede there could be as many as five or six—that, understanding the issues completely, decided to undertake a twelve or even a six year sequential implementation of Common Core, (call it the Japanese response,) they would be prohibited from doing so by the federal Race to the Top law.
    Common Core cannot be anything but a train-wreck. As I see it the only good question for Core Knowledge advocates is how to protect and nurture their own small success against the day when the last fragments of the Common Core settle out of the atmosphere fifteen to twenty years hence.
    We seem to have become the nation that ever must learn the hard way.

    Comment by bill eccleston — August 20, 2012 @ 11:07 am

  8. Um, the Trivium was about the teaching of Latin. Not but that I don’t think it is valuable to teach Latin. I do.

    Comment by Harold — August 20, 2012 @ 8:15 pm

  9. Bill,

    I don’t understand what you think I was proposing. Did you think I was implying that the course should be for any entering high school students, regardless of preparation? That wasn’t my point at all.

    In fact, I wasn’t proposing a course at all! My point was to illustrate how a high school course could include literary works for their substance, combination, importance, and beauty, not for their complexity per se.

    In fact, the course would BUILD background knowledge considerably, since it would involve close study of the Book of Job and other works that have seeped into our culture.

    I thought of it as an advanced high school course for those students who were reasonably ready for it. But I also firmly believe that students can take on more challenge than we expect of them–especially in a well-taught and well-planned course.

    I am not talking wishfully or wildly. Last year I taught Plato, Seneca, and Tolstoy to tenth graders (and will be doing much more of that this year, as I will be teaching all of the high school philosophy at my school).

    I brought it up in the first place to add to Rachel’s point that CC, with its emphasis on text complexity, may be heading for the same old error of teaching generic skills. Rachel stresses the importance of background knowledge; I stress the importance of substance. The two are not opposed.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — August 21, 2012 @ 8:23 am

  10. To add to the point about challenge: I had an English-language-learner student who had been placed in special ed because she seemed shy and withdrawn. When she joined my class, she took to the literature so strongly that she became one of the liveliest participants. She would go home and study it for hours until she understood every word. She wrote eloquent, careful essays with a delightfully imaginative touch. At the end of her seventh grade year, she was tested again–and she was reading in English at the ninth grade level and showing outstanding progress in all of her subjects. She was taken out of special ed.

    Now, I recognize that she was exceptional. But what she did–and what many of the others did not do–was go home and pore over the material, not only to do well in class, but to take it into her mind, to understand it.

    Over the past two summers, I have taught at the summer institute for teachers at the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. There teachers come from all grade levels and subjects to immerse themselves in literature. There are math teachers with minimal literary background alongside high school honors English teachers. Everyone plunges in. Sometimes it’s the math teachers who bring up particularly interesting questions, because they don’t assume that they understand it all.

    As a faculty member, I knew I had much less background than the others; they had been teaching these courses for years, and I was doing it for the first time. How was I to prepare lectures on the Odyssey, the Inferno, and Moby-Dick? There was only one way: by doing so. And delivering those fifty-minute lectures was among the most exhilarating teaching experiences I have ever had.

    Background is highly important. But so is a willingness to take on challenge for the sake of something beautiful.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — August 21, 2012 @ 8:56 am

  11. Thanks, everyone, for reading and commenting. I am thrilled that my post summoned such thoughtful and substantial comments.

    Speaking of substantial, I wish I had thought to use the word “substance” in my post because, indeed, when literacy development is approached as a skill then the substance of what is studied or read is deemed irrelevant, or at the very best, secondary. It’s important to pay attention to the substance or content of the curriculum and it’s equally important to pay attention to the substance or content of the texts chosen, and not to their “complexity.” Whether in content or text, all students yearn for substance, for meaning. There is no such thing as text complexity in of itself; the meaning and substance of the words and ideas adds or detracts complexity.

    Comment by Rachel Levy — August 21, 2012 @ 12:02 pm

  12. Diana, there are different levels on which I fundamentally disagree with you. For one, I don’t believe in the heroic model of teaching. Not that I don’t believe in heroic teachers. I do. I work with one or two, and consider with sincerity that you might be an exemplar as well. But I’ve learned from hard experience that my own feet are made of clay, as are those of most of my colleagues in the profession, and we are the teachers of most all of the nation’s children. Yet, in the course of the next two weeks, we all will be hearing the same speech from the same administrator chiefly responsible for the Common Core who will be up on the stage using a variation of the same metaphor in conceding to our painful anxiety: “True, this process is not very deliberate…You’re being walked off the plank, pushed off the diving board, flung into the breach, shoved over the edge of the cliff, etc. But by a heroic effort of the will, I am confident you will succeed,” etc. etc. etc. Why? Why do they day this? What do they expect? If it has not worked with the innumerable reforms we’ve gone through before, how is it going to work this time? “Background Knowledge” as Rachel pointed out is already lost in the cacophony. The curricula have already been rushed into being with hardly a thought about book selection and knowledge base and coordination with social studies and science. The response to this panic each teacher is facing will be more of the same. “Complex Text Reading Skills” will be center stage. Ovid, Seneca, Tolstoy? Are there two of ten licensed English teachers in the country who can tell whether these are Roman, Russian or Mayan? So yes, I very much believe we should post-pone a strong literature curriculum. I don’t believe a strong literature curriculum will do students any good until they and their teachers are carefully prepared for it. In my comment I deliberately alluded to the Japanese who manifestly do not exhort their teachers to heroism but instead proceed always with care, patience and caution. I would have strong hope for success if the Core were implemented sequentially year by year and a rigorous high school curriculum were post-poned for a decade. But that isn’t reality. Instead, over the next few weeks I must choose and elaborate 9 separate, measurable new goals for my teaching practice, (the Race to the Top evaluation scheme,) while simultaneously implementing our district’s brand new Common Core curriculum based on all 10 standards that, for an English teacher, expand like a concertina to cover 30 standards combining reading, writing and speech. One must understand how under these circumstances the heroic note must be struck with the utmost delicacy. If I have insulted your good intention, may I apologize? I regret most of all that the circumstances of teaching today tend not to inspire the habits of gentleman.

    Comment by bill eccleston — August 22, 2012 @ 12:29 pm

  13. Again, Bill, I don’t know what you thought I was suggesting.

    I wasn’t proposing a uniform high school curriculum. I brought up a combination of literary works as an example of how one might structure a course around substance.

    Not once did I say all students should read these works. But if a number of students are ready for this sort of thing, must we say,”no, too bad for you, you can’t read Hardy until the whole country is ready”? Isn’t it better to offer courses like these and draw more students into them over time?

    When speaking of challenge, I was speaking in a relative sense (and took pains to make that clear). I wasn’t thinking of heroic teachers. I don’t consider myself heroic. I was envisioning setting where students were willing to bear with things they did not immediately understand. Not to extremes–but beyond what we typically expect.

    I think you might have thought I was proposing a national curriculum based on the Book of Job. I wasn’t.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — August 22, 2012 @ 1:43 pm

  14. Bill, I’ve been thinking about your comments for days now. They have a depth that has quickened my thinking. I’m not ready to say much more than this now.

    Comment by Ponderosa — August 24, 2012 @ 11:01 pm

  15. [...] education discussions, when I have suggested that students read Sophocles or Thomas Hardy or study a Newton theorem, people have often exclaimed, “That’s too hard!” (Andrew Hacker [...]

    Pingback by It’s Too Hard!—No, It Isn’t « Diana Senechal — August 25, 2012 @ 6:32 pm

  16. I am coming late to this discussion, and I am finding it very interesting, but I have to comment to Harold. The trivium (basically “three way” in Latin) is not just about teaching Latin. The trivium is Grammar, Logic (Dialectic), and Rhetoric. In the middle ages, the study of the trivium was followed by the study of the Quadrivium of Arithmetic, Geometry, Music, and Astronomy. Once these seven liberal arts were mastered, a student was considered ready to study Philosophy or Theology. I think perhaps what James O’Keefe was referring to in suggesting the Common Core be based on the Trivium was Dorothy Sayer’s essay “The Lost Tools of Learning,” where she talks about students going through three stages of learning comparable to the arts of the trivium. The first one is the Grammar stage, where students like to memorize, recite, and soak up facts (background knowledge). The second is the Logic stage, where students ask why and are fond of debate. The third is the Rhetoric stage, where students learn “all knowledge is one” and yearn to express themselves in poetic fashion. In this phase, they are more likely to appreciate Thomas Hardy.

    And, Diana, I read Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Far From the Madding Crowd at 15 in school, and proceeded from there to devour The Mayor of Casterbridge, Jude the Obscure, and The Return of the Native on my own. I, too, related very strongly to Jude the Obscure at the time. I think you are right that we should not deprive students of the chance to struggle or fly through books like that until all are ready. I know they could read them on their own, but most likely they won’t unless they are exposed to them at school. How much better to have some framing and context as they read. Things I learned while reading the first two Hardy books in school helped me to better understand the others I read.

    Comment by Cynthia — September 4, 2012 @ 9:53 am

  17. […] education’s ills. To the contrary, it will be more of the same. I’ve said over and over again that the substance of the Common Core standards are not worth debating when the way they were made […]

    Pingback by Public education for me but not for thee | K-Blog — March 10, 2016 @ 2:18 am

  18. […] this leads me to two more points. One is what I argued here, it doesn’t matter if the texts are more complex, it doesn’t mean teaching reading […]

    Pingback by When the Common Core is old wine in new bottles | K-Blog — March 10, 2016 @ 2:14 pm

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