Teacher: ‘Cold reading’ is boring, shallow

Common Core Standards’ recommended English lessons are shallow and boring, writes teacher Jeremiah Chaffee on Answer Sheet.  Along with colleagues at his upstate New York high school, he spent a day on an “exemplar” lesson that calls for “cold reading” the Gettysburg Address. Teachers are told not to introduce the speech or discuss the Civil War, he writes.

Students are not asked to connect what they read yesterday to what they are reading today, or what they read in English to what they read in science.

The exemplar, in fact, forbids teachers from asking students if they have ever been to a funeral because such questions rely “on individual experience and opinion,” and answering them “will not move students closer to understanding the Gettysburg Address.”

. . .  it is impossible to have any deep understanding of Lincoln’s speech without thinking about the context of the speech: a memorial service.

Teachers are told to read the speech aloud, pronouncing the words clearly, but not dramatizing it.

That’s not good teaching, writes Chaffee, a 13-year veteran. He thinks Common Core’s stress on just-the-words reading is designed to prepare students for tests.

David Coleman, who co-wrote the English Language Arts standards, demonstrates a close-reading lesson on Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail here via EngageNY on Vimeo.  Is this good teaching?


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  1. Stacy in NJ says:

    Providing context up front is a bit like telling the ending of a mystery novel; it’s a spoiler. As a student it’s much more interesting to cut to the chase and just read the material. You then get to roll around with the material mentally and build your own framework. It’s more engaging than being spoon fed the context first. After reading, it’s rewarding to discuss the context by asking what the students do and don’t understand and assessing this. You can use the actual text to fill in understanding gaps using socratic questioning.

  2. Roger Sweeny says:

    d = vit + 1/2at2

    But I won’t tell you the context. That would spoil it.

    • Deirdre Mundy says:

      Wait, your teachers gave you that equation outright??? We had to DERIVE it! 😉

      • Stacy in NJ says:

        The differing nature of math and literature call for different approaches.

        • Roger Sweeny says:

          What? You mean all teaching isn’t the same?

          Seriously, I agree with EB and Michael E. Lopez that you should provide “just enough” context. What is “just enough” will differ depending on the lesson and depending on the students.

  3. It’s not either-or. And it makes a difference if the text is something the students have heard as they grew up (the Bible would be a great example for many children) or whether they are going to encounter it for the first time ever in class.

    There is also such a thing as “just-enough” context; just enough to keep the students from being frustrated as to what they’re reading/discussing. Knowing that a piece of writing is 400 years old is enough to let most students know that it’s going to be rough sledding in terms of vocabulary and sentence construction, so they will know that all students their age have to struggle. I would add that for the Gettysburg Address, students should know that the context is the Civil War.

    But I agree that spending a lot of time on context is not a good idea. For intersting comments on the Common Core standards (and how Jeremiah Chaffee’s school district is misunderstanding their purpose) from teachers, link to the Answer Sheet story.

  4. Deirdre Mundy says:

    Also, how many students are coming to the Gettysburg Address completely cold? You’re probably reading it as you study American History, and Lincoln and the Civil War show up a lot in popular culture– he’s one of the few presidents kids DO know.

    It’s not like you’re reading some obscure letter of James Garfield……..

    A one line introduction should suffice: “This is the Speech Pres. Lincoln made when he dedicated the soldier’s graveyard at Gettysburg.”

    For fun, you could THEN have them read a modern presidential speech, and compare. Except it seems cruel to maker kids slog through a long, boring, meandering speech like the presidents of the last 20 years or so have preferred…..

    • Richard Aubrey says:

      Not so fast wrt The Gettysburg thingy. I was in Charleston recently with, among others, a thirteen year old relative who’s gone to good ‘burb schools and done well, according to the good schools. Said we were going to visit Ft. Sumter.

      “What’s that?”

  5. Michael E. Lopez says:

    EB’s right about “just enough”. There’s a fine line to walk between offering materials to students for which they are prepared, and letting them go at it, and giving them something so difficult or foreign that they tune out and aren’t engaged.

    The length, I think, also matters.

    Scaffolding/Prep/Context is probably a pretty good idea if kids are going to be reading a novel on their own. It takes effort and energy to read through something that you don’t entirely get at first, and sustaining that for several hundred pages can, I think, be too much to ask of some students.

    Most students can probably handle a letter, though.

    Educators, theorists, and curriculum designers, I think, latch on to the fact that something is good in one context (contextual scaffolding for novels, say), and assume that it must be good in every context. “Let’s scaffold this sentence!” they cry. “Because scaffolding is good!”

    But it’s just a sentence. You can just read it.

    Of course, it’s hard for me to be objective in this particular case because (gratuitous ad hominem alert) if I had to sit in a classroom with someone explaining anything whatsoever to me in David Coleman’s excruciatingly earnest, affected, milquetoasty voice, I’d contemplate suicide.

  6. Cranberry says:

    The last time I quickly glanced at the proposed Common Core standards posted online, I felt the standards emphasized American history, literature, and political writing to an unhealthy extent. I don’t buy that “covering” a period of history in 4th grade is equal to covering it in 9th grade. Each year students’ intellectual capacity expands; they’ll understand the Gettysburg Address in 9th grade, but not in 4th grade.

    At any rate, The Gettysburg Address is a poor document to choose to attack “cold reading. By the time they encounter TGA, they should know enough American history to place it into context, without spoon feeding. If he had chosen a lesson on the Magna Carta, or the Lend-Lease Act, he would have a point.

    I do agree with Jeremiah Chaffee, the scripted lesson instructions seem bizarre, when considered out of context, as one exercise. On the other hand, surely an English class should read and discuss the text? I imagine it would be all to easy to waste class periods discussing “funerals I have attended,” and giving everyone an opportunity to read the text aloud.

  7. That is bizarre. It’s like they want to teach the students how to accept doubletalk and doublethink… Remove everything from its proper context, then insert whatever context you want in its place.

  8. Lightly Seasoned says:

    I went in and looked at the actual lesson since I’m starting the CC alignment for my district this week (fun times ahead). The lesson is broken down into a few parts: a cold reading, the teacher reading, and then a reading with context. I wouldn’t do this all the time, but it’s not a bad lesson. The trouble is, when you pin a high-stakes test to something like this, what is a great lesson occasionally becomes the only lesson all the time.

    Cold reading is a great way to test independent comprehension skills. It’s not a great way to teach them. Doing a novel that way would be a bad idea. A speech or letter now and then, a fine idea. Of course, it is exactly what they need to do on the SAT/ACT/AP.

    This approach to independent reading — stripping background knowledge/New Criticism — is the complete opposite of the Core Knowledge approach, of course.

    • I thought the point of the Core Knowledge approach was to ensure that kids enter HS with the kind of background knowledge/cultural literacy that would enable them to place the GA (or other works) into proper context with no more than the briefest intro. In other words, they would already be familiar with the Civil War, and probably would have read the GA.

  9. Also, how many students are coming to the Gettysburg Address completely cold?

    Really, some of you come from some weird nirvana.

    About 90% will be functionally equivalent to completely cold.

  10. Ponderosa says:

    As EB said, it’s not either/or. Both close reading and understanding the context are important. It’s encouraging to me to see an obviously-smart guy like Coleman steering this ship. I can imagine him leading a top-flight AP English class, and it seems he wants to set high AP standards for the whole of the teaching profession. I love how he skewers the reading strategies approach (“Imagine you were watching a movie…”). So he “gets” that the reading strategies bandwagon has been another boondoggle. Hooray. But a lesson like this will crash-and-burn in classrooms where most students have little knowledge in their heads: King’s long sentences will short circuit their under-powered brains. I don’t think he quite “gets” the Hirsch/Willingham concept that, unless one already knows a high-proportion of the vocabulary and/or can construct a mental framework (i.e. see the basic situation), comprehension will not occur. A solid Core Knowledge curriculum would endow kids with these capacities; but 99.9% of American kids receive nothing like a Core Knowledge curriculum. Coleman, like a lot of smart people, does not see how vast background knowledge underpins his own capacity to comprehend the text, and so he thinks kids don’t need it.

    • Lightly Seasoned says:

      AP is designed for very motivated high school students ready to take on college -level work, not the average student. And I spend a LOT of time building background knowledge for my AP students — and I get top flight kids. It may seem like they are going into an exam cold, but they’re not. When they read that Vaughn poem, it may be one they’ve never seen before, but they’ve seen plenty of metaphysical poems and know how one works. The year they put a section of Henry VIII as the poetry prompt threw kids off because they didn’t get the allusions — have the background knowledge — to pick up on the tone, not because they couldn’t read Shakespeare.

      I think the focus on close reading isn’t bad, but if it is the only focus it will not engender the hoped-for results.