In a new post on Diane Ravitch’s blog, Robert Shepherd makes many insightful observations about the sad state of reading instruction:
Back in 1984, Palinscar and Brown wrote a highly influential paper about something they called “reciprocal learning.” They suggested, in that paper, that teachers conducting reading circles encourage dialogue about texts by having students do prediction, ask questions, clarify the text, and summarize. Excellent advice. But this little paper had an enormously detrimental unintended effect on the professional education community. All groups are naturally protective of their own turf. The paper by Palinscar and Brown had handed the professional education community a definition of their turf: You see, we do, after all, have a unique, respectable, scientific field of our own that justifies our existence—we are the keepers of “strategies” for learning. The reading community, in particular, embraced this notion wholeheartedly. Reading comprehension instruction became MOSTLY about teaching reading strategies, and an industry for identifying reading strategies and teaching those emerged. The vast, complex field of reading comprehension was narrowed to a few precepts: teach kids to identify the main idea and supporting details; teach them to identify sequences and causes and effects; teach them to make inferences; teach them to use context clues; teach them to identify text elements. Throughout American K-12 education, we started seeing curriculum materials organized around teaching these “strategies.” Where before a student might do a lesson on reading Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” he or she would now do a lesson on Making Predictions, and any text that contained some examples of predictions would be a worthy object of study….
The question of how to “make an inference” is extraordinarily complex, and a great deal human attention has been given to it over the centuries, and a quick glance at any of the hundreds of thousands of Making Inferences lessons in our textbooks and in papers about reading strategies by education professors will reveal that almost nothing of what is actually known about this question has found its way into our instruction….
I bring up the issue of instruction in making inferences in order to make a more general point—the professional education establishment, and especially that part of it that concerns itself with English language arts and reading instruction, has retreated into dealing in poorly conceived generalization and abstraction. Reading comprehension instruction, in particular, has DEVOLVED into the teaching of reading strategies, and those strategies are not much more than puffery and vagueness. There is no there there. No kid walks away from his or her Making Inferences lesson with any substantive learning, with any world knowledge or concept or set of procedures that can actually be applied in order to determine what kind of inference a particular one is and whether that inference is reasonable. Why? Because one has to learn and teach a lot of complex material in order to do these things at all, and professional education folks have decided, oddly, that they can teach making inferences without, themselves, learning about what kinds of inferences there are and how one evaluates the various kinds.
But to my way of thinking, he goes too far in indicting the Common Core State Standards:
Have a look at these standards, and what do you see? Well, the standards are abstractions, generalizations: The student will be able to recognize the main idea. The student will be able to draw inferences. The student will be able to determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze in detail its development over the course of the text. In English language arts, the CONTENT of what is studied is treated in the new standards AS AN AFTERTHOUGHT. We are told that students should be reading substantive, grade-level appropriate works. Some examples of these are given in an appendix. But the standards themselves are simply a list of abstract skills and “strategies.” They don’t even include ANY descriptions of procedures that students might learn for carrying out tasks. So, they completely ignore both world knowledge (knowledge of what) and procedural knowledge (knowledge of how), though they occasionally make vague references to what would result if one had (miraculously, by what means they do not say) acquired the latter….
In our rush to make ELA education scientific, in our emphasis on abstract form over content, we’ve forgotten why we read. We don’t read to hone our inferencing skills. We don’t read because we are fascinated by where, in this essay, the author has placed the main idea. Our purpose in reading is not to find out how the author organized her story in order to create suspense. We read because we are interested in what the text has to say, and the metacognitive abstraction about the text is incidental. It grows out of and relates to what this particular text does and takes meaning from that. The Common Core State Standards in ELA is just another set of blithering, poorly thought out abstractions. And starting from there, instead of starting with the text and its content, is a mistake.
One could implement the Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts perfectly and have students entirely miss what reading literature is about. They would not come away from their literature classes with the understanding that when they read a literary work well, they enter into an imaginative world and have an experience there, in all its concreteness and specificity, and it is then THAT experience that has significance, that matters, that has “meaning.”
While Shepherd is spot-on regarding the purpose and value of reading, and on the devastating overemphasis on reading strategies, on the CCSS he is making the same mistake that many educators are making—focusing too much on the standards and too little on the text surrounding the standards. The individual standards are abstract goals. Alone, they could inspire more strategy-focused instruction. But they do not stand alone.
To ensure that students acquire the breadth and depth of knowledge needed to read with ease across academic domains, the standards repeatedly call for a content-rich curriculum (the page numbers given refer to the PDF version of the standards):
While the Standards make references to some particular forms of content, including mythology, foundational U.S. documents, and Shakespeare, they do not—indeed, cannot—enumerate all or even most of the content that students should learn. The Standards must therefore be complemented by a well-developed, content-rich curriculum consistent with the expectations laid out in this document. (p. 6)
Through extensive reading of stories, dramas, poems, and myths from diverse cultures and different time periods, students gain literary and cultural knowledge as well as familiarity with various text structures and elements. By reading texts in history/social studies, science, and other disciplines, students build a foundation of knowledge in these fields that will also give them the background to be better readers in all content areas. Students can only gain this foundation when the curriculum is intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades. (p. 10)
The standards also show how to accelerate knowledge and vocabulary growth through a carefully sequenced, grade-by-grade approach to constructing content-area domains:
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. (p. 33)
Word acquisition occurs up to four times faster … when students have become familiar with the domain of the discourse and encounter the word in different contexts…. Hence, vocabulary development for these words occurs most effectively through a coherent course of study in which subject matters are integrated and coordinated across the curriculum and domains become familiar to the student over several days or weeks. (Appendix A, p. 33)
Anyone who brings a checklist mentality to these standards will get checklist results. But they won’t be able to honestly say their approach was in keeping with the spirit or intent of the Common Core.
The CCSS are stronger than states’ previous efforts to produce ELA standards because they do explain the need for domain-based studies organized in a coherent, content-rich curriculum. But in deference to America’s tradition of local control, the CCSS fall short of sealing the deal, of requiring even a few specific texts for each grade.
Just consider what Virginia, a state that did not adopt the CCSS, is currently doing. According to Rachel Levy, VA is clearing content out of the way so students can spend even more time on strategies:
Recently, Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell proposed and the General Assembly approved a bill that allows elementary schools to apply for waivers from high-stakes science and social studies testing (aka SOLs) for third graders. So far this testing season, approximately twenty-five public elementary schools have availed themselves of this waiver. The idea is that before struggling readers can learn content they have to master reading comprehension.
Virginia’s Deputy Secretary of Education Javaid Siddiqui thinks this is a good idea:
The law, which expires in 2015, is a kind of a pilot program, Siddiqi said. He said that schools with low reading pass rates often have low pass rates in social studies and science because the two are connected. “It’s not about what they know,” Siddiqi said. “They are struggling with comprehension.”
On the one hand, I am all for reducing standardized testing in Virginia. I also acknowledge that the intention here is worthy: to help struggling students, to not set them up for failure.
However, I’m afraid that the logic is misguided and that that this will mean a decrease in social studies and science instruction and an increase in reading test prep. Yes, reading is a gateway to learning and limited instruction in reading strategies can be helpful, but the reason these students are struggling to comprehend what they read is because they aren’t learning enough content. It’s true that “it’s not about what they know;” it’s about what they don’t know. A valid test of reading would have passages related to the subject matter the students have already learned.
Putting off content-rich instruction to “focus on reading” will only serve to put off progress in reading proficiency.
Sadly, Virginia’s misguided new plan clearly shows that the CCSS are a real step forward. They give states, districts, and schools a strong foundation to build on. So instead of trying to tear down that foundation, let’s help the nation’s educators build up the excellent curriculum, and related materials and professional development, they need.