The further we dive into implementing the Common Core, the more questions and concerns arise. Some see this as evidence that the Core is crumbling. I don’t. I think it’s an inevitable, and welcome, phase of wrapping our minds around some very big changes. In fact, the more time I spend talking to people—from teachers deep in this work to policy wonks on the foggy fringes—the more it reminds me of debates about the Constitution.
No, I’m not ready to give the Common Core’s writers Founder status, but I do think that the new standards will prove to be living, lasting documents. The main way I am reminded of the Constitution is in the debates I’m hearing about what the writers intended. I’m glad that these debates are happening. Figuring out the intent is far more important than “covering” each individual standard. As I noted several weeks ago, anyone who brings a checklist mentality to these standards will get checklist results.
One line of questions and concerns I find really interesting is how close reading might work (or not) early in elementary school. Is a 7-year-old really supposed to analyze and cite evidence from a complex text?
Yes, but—two big buts! First, keep in mind that the text is supposed to be complex from the 7-year-old’s perspective, not from the adult’s perspective. Second, there are things the adult can do to make the text accessible.
As the Core Knowledge Language Arts team has been revising the pilot version of the program and rolling out the final version, it has been writing close reading lessons. In second and third grades, they’re doing about one per week (earlier grades are focused more on building the foundation via close listening). This hasn’t been easy. After plenty of head scratching and bumping, here’s what they figured out: Close reading in the elementary grades should focus first and foremost on ensuring students’ comprehension of the text; a secondary focus should be the manner in which words have been used as literary devices or how text has been crafted. CKLA’s close reading lessons focus student attention on words with multiple meanings, figurative or idiomatic speech, and syntactic structure as a way of unpacking the meaning of the text.
Recently, I got a peek at some materials currently being developed for a unit on the War of 1812 that comes at the end of second grade. I’m just going to share some snippets here. I think they show that second graders really can analyze complex text—if the curriculum is carefully constructed to make the text accessible.
For accessibility, one critical feature is that children are reading about the War of 1812 after having listened to and discussed a series of teacher read-alouds on the same topic. (For those who are familiar with the program, the War of 1812 first appears about halfway through second grade as a domain in the Listening & Learning strand; then, at the end of the year, the War of 1812 returns in the Student Reader in the Skills strand.) So, students are already familiar with the ideas, people, events, and vocabulary. Another important way CKLA makes this text accessible is that the Student Reader is decodable. From K – 2, all of the Student Readers are written using only the sound-spellings and tricky words that have been taught to date.
Now, let’s take a look at the Student Reader on The War of 1812. Chapter 1 explores some of the disagreements that the Americans and British were having. Chapter 2 looks at internal disagreements between American war hawks and merchants. Here’s roughly the first half of chapter 3, “The War Starts”:
Presidents have to make hard choices. James Madison had to decide whether to side with the war hawks or with the merchants who hoped for peace. In the end, he sided with the war hawks. Madison asked Congress to declare war. On June 18, 1812, the U.S. declared war on Great Britain.
The Americans were in for a hard fight. The British had a huge army. They also had the world’s biggest navy. But the British were already at war with France. They could only send some of their troops to fight the U.S. That was a good thing for the Americans. It meant that they would have a better chance of winning.
Even so, not a lot of people at the time could imagine that the U.S. could win. Today the U.S. is a strong nation. It has been around for many years. It has a strong army and navy. But that was not the case in 1812.
In 1812, the U.S. was not very old as a country. It had broken away from Great Britain only about thirty years before.
The U.S. had a different kind of government, too. At the time, most of the nations of Europe were monarchies. That means they were ruled by kings. A king would rule until he died. Then, in most cases, his oldest son would take over. The U.S. was not a monarchy. It did not have a king. Instead, it had a president. The president was chosen by voters. He did not get to serve until he died. He served for 4 years. Then the voters got a chance to pick their president. If they voted for a different president, the old one had to step down.
In 1812, most people in the world felt this was a very strange way of doing things. They were not confident that the system would last and that the U.S. would be able to survive.
Before we get into specifics, here’s on outline of CKLA’s approach to close reading:
- Have students partner-read a selected chapter in their Readers.
- After students have finished reading the chapter with their partners, lead students in a close reading of the text that requires them (individually, in pairs, or in small groups) to draw on evidence from the text by doing the following (as appropriate, not all texts will support all of these forms of analysis):
- calling attention to and explaining instances of words with multiple meanings, figurative or idiomatic speech, specific word choices, and nuances of meaning.
- identifying and discussing general academic (Tier 2) vocabulary.
- unpacking sentences with difficult syntax, including identifying pronoun referents, discussing the temporal and/or causal relationship and meaning of specific conjunctions, calling attention to words that signal transitions, and breaking complex sentences with clauses into separate parts.
- discussing sections of the text that might pose difficulty due to dense information and/or that require making inferences and/or connections to previously read texts or knowledge.
- discussing the voice or narrator of a particular text excerpt.
- calling attention to literary devices such as imagery, metaphors, similes, personification, and onomatopoeia.
Now, let’s take a look at some ways teachers could apply this to our excerpt of chapter 3:
Text from Student Reader: James Madison had to decide whether to side with the War Hawks or with the merchants who hoped for peace. In the end, he sided with the War Hawks.
- Vocabulary: side with – to take sides; agree with
- Text-Dependent Question: In the end, who did Madison agree with – the War Hawks or the merchants?
- Response: Madison sided with the War Hawks in the end.
Text from Student Reader: The British had a huge army. They also had the world’s biggest navy. But the British were already at war with France. They could only send some of their troops to fight the U.S. That was a good thing for the Americans.
- Vocabulary: troops – soldiers
- Text-Dependent Question: Why were the British able to only send some of their troops to fight the Americans?
- Response: The British were fighting another war with France.
Text from Student Reader: Even so, not a lot of people at the time could imagine that the U.S. could win.
- Vocabulary: imagine – think; believe (Note the multiple meanings of imagine. Here is a slightly different meaning: it was a cold, winter day, but I imagined I was at the pool in the summer; dreamed, pretended.)
- Syntax: not a lot of people…could imagine that the U.S. could win = a lot of people could not imagine that the U.S. could win
- Text-Dependent Question: Were there many people who thought the U.S. could win?
- Response: No, not a lot of people could imagine that the U.S. could win.
Text from Student Reader: The United States was not a monarchy. It did not have a king. Instead, it had a president. The president was chosen by voters. He did not get to serve until he died. He served for four years. Then, the voters got a chance to pick their president. If they voted for a different president, the old one had to step down.
- Vocabulary: serve – to work for a certain period of time in government or in the military (Note the multiple meanings of serve. The waitress served our dessert; delivered or brought to the table.); step down – to stop doing a job; resign; retire
- Syntax: Who or what is it in the sentence, “Instead, it had a president?” (the United States)
Text from Student Reader: In 1812, most people in the world felt this was a very strange way of doing things. They were not sure that the system would last and that the United States would be able to survive.
- Vocabulary: the system – the American way of government in which the people voted for a president
- Syntax: What does this refer to in the sentence, “In 1812, most people in the world felt this was a very strange way of doing things?” (choosing a president by voting)
- Text-Dependent Question: Why did most people in the world think the United States would not be able to survive?
- Response: They were not sure that the system of government in the United States would last.
To practice close reading, the student workbook sends children back to the text. In the examples below, CKLA second graders must write “true” or “false” and provide the page numbers on which they found evidence for their answers:
1. On June 18, 1812, the United States declared war on Great Britain. __________
2. In 1812, the British were already at war with France, so they could only send some of their troops to fight the United States. __________
3. At the start of the war, most people thought the United States would defeat the British easily. __________
4. A monarchy is a nation that is ruled by a king. __________
5. In 1812, the United States was a monarchy. __________
6. In 1812, most of the nations of Europe were ruled by presidents who were elected and served for four years. __________
Some second graders will be able to do this independently; others will need lots of support. (And don’t forget—the Skills strand offers many options for differentiation, so no one expects the whole second grade to tackle this in the same way at the same time.) I think we can confidently say that all will be learning a great deal.