Common Core turns students into literary critics. Does it turn them into lifelong readers?

In discussing reading, a UGA professor says: “Most educational policymakers are shockingly dim on these roles of reading in the human experience, reducing it instead to a means for testing and sorting.” (Melanie Bell / The Palm Beach Post)

In this interesting essay, University of Georgia professor Peter Smagorinsky talks about what reading means to the reader, as expressed by students in Mexico. He says current education policy treats reading as a way to test and sort students rather than inspire and connect them.

Smagorinsky echoes a growing concern among English teachers about the emphasis in Common Core on “close textual reading.” The framers of Common Core State Standards felt English class had strayed too far into “What does this book mean to me”” and “How do I feel about it?” and weren’t figuring out what the author was actually saying. So, students are now being asked to concentrate on what the text says so they can understand and analyze the content, arguments and contradictions. Rather than reading for self-exploration, they are reading for information and analysis.

Common Core critic and professor Sandra Stotsky explains why this approach may not meet its goal:

I am in no way suggesting that the ELA standards writers deliberately sought to make a worse conceptual mess of the secondary English curriculum than it now is and to damage the other subjects to boot. They were acting from good intentions. I believe that they truly believe that adequate college-level reading and writing comes from informational reading in K-12 and that more informational reading instruction in K-12 will make more students ready for college. Their approach, however, is based on a misunderstanding of the causes of the educational problem they sought to remedy through Common Core’s standards—the number of high school graduates who need remedial coursework in reading and writing as college freshmen and the equally large number of students who fail to graduate from high school and go on to a post-secondary educational institution.

The architects of Common Core assume that the major cause of this educational problem is the failure of our public schools to teach low-performing students in K-12 adequately or sufficiently how to read complex texts before they graduate from high school. That is, their English teachers have given them too heavy a diet of literary works and teachers in other subjects have deliberately or unwittingly not taught them how to read complex texts in these other subjects. This assumption doesn’t hold up. High school teachers will readily tell you that low-performing students have not been assigned complex textbooks or literary texts because, generally speaking, they can’t read them and, in fact, don’t read much of anything with academic content. As a result, they have not acquired the content knowledge and the vocabulary needed for reading complex textbooks in any subject.

For those interested, I recommend this essay by English teacher Daniel Katz, who writes, “If children in classrooms using the CCSS English standards learn to love reading on a deeply personal and affective level and develop a life long relationship with reading as a means of self exploration, it will be in spite of those standards, not because of them.”

With that background, here is Smagorinsky’s column.

By Peter Smagorinsky

This year I’m working with the University of Guadalajara in Mexico to help develop a literacy education program. On a trip earlier this fall, I had the opportunity to listen to panels of primary school students, early teens, and older teens talk about why they loved reading. Their audience included both adults and their classmates from school.

Although the three age groups had increasingly sophisticated understandings of the benefits of reading, they also tended to touch on a common set of points that would be quite useful for policymakers to grasp. For the most part, when talking about books they loved, they talked about narratives, primarily novels. Although our information-oriented educational policies consider literature to be a frivolous distraction from learning about facts, facts, facts, for these young readers, fictional narratives stirred their souls and generated a passionate approach to reading.

Reading, to these young experts, is a highly personal experience. When asked what they loved and learned through reading novels, they often referred to how the characters and situations paralleled their own life experiences. Drawing deeply on their personal experiences in response to what the characters go through in literature is a central aspect of a powerful reading experience.

Doing so allows them not only inform their understanding of the stories, it allows them a more sophisticated understanding of their own lives. They both see themselves more clearly, and see others more wisely. Rather than “reading like a detective within the four corners of the text,” as in the U.S. Common Core State Standards, they read like inquirers who find the literature to be both portal to other worlds and a template through which to understand their own lives.

Reading, they revealed, is also a very emotional experience for them. When one girl was asked why she loved a particular novel, she said that she loved it because she loved the person who had given it to her. The book was both good literature on its own merits, and a bond with a special person.

She thus felt a deep connection to the book as an extension of a personal relationship that mattered to her, which in turn contributed to the quality of the relationship that provided her with the book. I do not recall ever hearing the word “love” in policy discussions surrounding literacy, which tends to be treated as a set of technical skills.

Students also referred to the ways in which their imaginations were stirred by their reading. Imagination, in educational policy, is trivial and distracting from the serious work of technical analysis. Yet the youth on the panels told of how books allow them to travel around the world and become acquainted with places and people who are distant from their own lives, while still allowing them to reflect on how they live in Guadalajara. This reading is not simply an escape, but an imaginative journey that involves life lessons, the consideration of life possibilities, and the freedom that follows from unmooring the mind from its current material trappings.

Although reading is often thought of a solitary activity, it was clear their love of reading had a strong social dimension. The students in attendance were eager to ask the panelists which books they loved, why they loved them, how they related to the characters, what they learned from reading, and other questions. The panelists were excited to talk about their reading interests with their classmates, and encouraged them to do the same with their friends.

Reading, they maintained, serves as a key part of their relationships with their peers. In contrast, reading is often considered in educational policy to be a solitary and competitive act, with students’ reading scores used to rank and sort them. These young people would undoubtedly find that a strange way to treat something that they love discussing with their friends.

Ultimately, what I learned from these young experts is the role reading played in their meaning-laden development through life. Reading for them is a highly personal experience that has a strongly social orientation. Their immersion in a literary society helped them to appreciate stories as valuable texts to engage with. The young experts I listened to in Guadalajara were products of a reading context that helped them to see literary reading as a valuable activity, one they hoped their peers would take up with passion.

Reading also contributes to how they develop as people. The youth in Guadalajara gave example after example of how they had changed through the act of reading and through the related social experiences that enriched their reading. Their knowledge of new possibilities grew; their relationships were supported and strengthened; they imagined ways they might live their lives: In other words, reading to them was a critical means of developing into the type of person they hoped to become.

Most educational policymakers are shockingly dim on these roles of reading in the human experience, reducing it instead to a means for testing and sorting. I hope these kids eventually become educators and parents who know what reading is about and why people do it. The world would be a better place if we listened to them more, and punished them less, for their passion for reading and imagining what their lives hold for themselves and others.

 

Reader Comments 0

23 comments
An American Patriot
An American Patriot

Attention Everyone, "COMMON CORE: is going away under the administration of President-Elect Donald J. Trump.  And That's a fact, Jack.  So, Maureen, IMO, you don't need to waste any more of your columns getting them all excited about it.  IT'S GOING AWAY

newsphile
newsphile

I believe helping a student learn to read can be done by parent, teacher, or any caring adult.  Simply put:  let the child read what he or she is most interest in first and then expand to other subjects.  Many school professionals in my family have found this method to work quite well.  As an example, the football player who is struggling with reading becomes interested when introduced to books about his sports idols.  Once the student begins reading books of interest, it's easier to progress into required reading.  While some people, including adults, never love reading this can help students become proficient enough to pass their courses.  Adults who were taught to read in the manner described now tell re-tired teachers how many books they are reading today.  It has worked.

MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

@newsphile


Most educators are fully aware of this approach, and you are correct.  It does work, even if one has to start the reading interest and process with easy-to-read comic books, as a launching point.

MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

Example of ideas, justaposed, that families and appropriate classrooms could discuss, which might stimulate the intellectual curiosity of some students:


"America is going to be, again, an imperialistic, hierarchical empire, or we are going to become the America of our Founding Fathers’ dreams – an America of enlightenment, education, egalitarianism, and a model for the world of that enlightenment. Harshness and cruelty vs. humanity and eternal truths pursued." 


 What factors do you, as a student, think will contribute  toward America's moving in either direction?  Which direction do you, as a student, wish America to pursue?

Sarah Hawbecker
Sarah Hawbecker

Imagination should be encouraged, not squelched. Students don't have time now to read "for fun." As a student, I read constantly, even in high school. (My thing was biographies and mysteries, especially Agatha Christie.) However, that was before all the standardized testing and hours of homework. If our children do not develop a love of reading, how will they develop into lifelong learners? I worry for my own son.

Astropig
Astropig

I may become a pariah for this (what else is new?),but I believe that only parents can turn kids into lifelong readers.Teachers are only incidental to the process.In their vanity,some (though certainly not all) educators like to take credit for the potential that already existed within their charges,when on balance,they are like the average sports fan-watching,cheering,emotionally invested...But ultimately just a spectator.


Kids emulate their parents behavior-this is inarguable-except when it politically expedient to deny it.If mom and dad seek to educate themselves every day of their lives,kids observe this and can,even at a tender age,admire this pathology and try to copy it for themselves.The ones that get a dollop of encouragement from above...Well,they seem to do great things for society.


Since I've already donned the pariah horns today,it's a pet peeve of mine that certain demographic groups are downright hostile to smart kids that seek educational excellence.Smart kids that participate in class discussion and display intelligence are routinely singled out for bullying treatment by their classmates.Their is no greater insult in some schools than to be accused of "acting white".Educators themselves are no different from those pathetic lumps when they constantly lobby the legislature to harass charter and home school initiatives.Again,kids emulate what they see us do.



CSpinks
CSpinks

Only a change in our culture will turn our kids into lifelong readers. The influence of electronic media has become so strong and so pervasive that this lifelong (except for the first eight years) reader doesn't read fiction and nonfiction as he once did.


By the way, did Peter's kids have "smart" phones? If they did, I'd be pleasantly surprised.

redweather
redweather

Books have an awful lot of competition when it comes to capturing the interest of children and young people. Find a way to minimize the influence and pervasiveness of that competition and reading aptitude will probably increase. Do nothing about how much time they spend playing with their cell phones and video games and no teaching method will make much if any difference. 

Michael McIntyre
Michael McIntyre

These two approaches to reading are each valid.  As in most things educational, a balance must be found between the two.  The problem is that the all-important test at the end of the rainbow is decidedly slanted towards the one approach -- and thus most instruction has shifted toward that model.  Yes, the Stephanie Harvey "schema" approach may have left some teachers feeling unfulfilled in the analysis department. But, it did engage students and offer a vehicle for student choice -- both key elements in improving a reader's comprehension and his or her likelihood of remaining a reader.  Just see what Nancie Atwell says about true engagement in _The Reading Zone_ or what Terri Lesesne says about it in _Naked Reading._   Don't get me wrong -- there are teachers out there who are successfully balancing the two approaches.  Just check out what Penny Kittle is doing. Lucy Culkins and the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project (Units of Study) embrace a vision to "help young people become avid and skilled readers, inquirers, and writers."  The balance is attainable, but it will take time to prepare most teachers to tackle both ends -- rather than just preparing kids for the types of questions they'll see on the dreaded end-of-course test. 

teachermom4
teachermom4

Amen! I fell in love with history through the Little House on the Prairie series. It took me to a time and place I never could have experienced, through the eyes of someone who lived it. It was engaging, fascinating, and educational all at once. I cannot tell you how sad reading instruction has become, focused as it is on highlighting, citing, and explaining text. If kids don't learn to love to read, they won't read, no matter how good they are at analyzing what they read.

Starik
Starik

Mexico? They don't have the important subjects, like football, basketball and shoes.

EdJohnson
EdJohnson

@Starik Yes, Mexico.  Does your mental model of Mexico disallow reading and comprehending the reality Prof. Smagorinsky here tells in standard English?

Wascatlady
Wascatlady

I agree with this.  With CCGPS, with NCLB, with Reading First! we have made reading as sterile and boring as possible.  Folks, the Bush's "Texas Miracle" was a fraud!  And so much of our education policy from then has been shown to be detrimental to the development of reading, both for pleasure and for information.


Do students need to learn to read informational text?  Absolutely.  Some of us prefer it!  But learning to appreciate and connect individually with text is an important skill as well.


We have thrown the baby out with the bathwater. I have seen how Reading First! virtually KILLED the love of reading for about 10 years' worth of students, and they came out poorer readers because of it.  Of course, FOB made a ton of money...

pay4play
pay4play

Testing and sorting, as Smagorinsky so characteristically denigrates the necessary process of assessment, isn't going away.

Despite the fear and loathing of Smago's union buddies.

MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

@pay4play


We must try not to perceive in simple dichotomies. One can support the expansive and excellent thoughts in Dr. Smagorinsky's essay, above, regarding developing a thirst for reading and, also, support a degree of precision testing that will be used to refine instruction in the classroom.


EdJohnson
EdJohnson

@pay4play

“Testing and sorting, as … the necessary process of assessment, isn't going away.”

Please, help me and perhaps other puzzled readers here understand why testing and sorting compose the necessary process of assessment.  Can you help us puzzle out that thinking?

pay4play
pay4play

I'll bet you're no slower than the rest of us to see your child's achievement test scores. And how well the school itself did.

teacheralso
teacheralso

Great column!  I have been saying these things for several years. 

MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

"I do not recall ever hearing the word 'love' in policy discussions surrounding literacy, which tends to be treated as a set of technical skills."

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++


The love of learning lasts a lifetime and begins with reading.  That love spills over into all of the arts, i.e. visual arts, film, stage, music, and the cultivation of that learning informs how we relate to others in the world.  Through reading we not only are aware of the present but also of the past and we can, therefore, project with some degree of accuracy into the future.


Discernment also comes with reading.  Most  of the readers of this blog know that I have become a student of Thomas Jefferson in my retirement years.  This past week, in the library, I checked out a book by an author named O'Connor which was his fictional impression of the relationship between Jefferson and Sally Hemings.  I only had to read a few pages to become figuratively nauseous in reading that book.  I turned it back into the library the next day.  The literary standards were poor, imo, and I simply could not read what so offended my learned sensibilities.  The same sensibilities now apply to film and all of the arts, as well as to relationships.  Reading is the foundation upon which higher consciousness depends. Our world's survival will depend upon it, in my opinion.