Teaching reading: Who’s an expert?

Dive right into reading without much “pre-reading” prep. Ask students questions about the text, not about their personal experiences or feelings.  Education consultant David Coleman, architect of Common Core reading standards, wants instruction to stress close reading of complex texts, writes Kathleen Porter-Magee on Fordham’s Common Core Watch.

Reading strategies should not be taught as “an end unto themselves,” Coleman believes.

Reading strategies should work in the service of reading comprehension . . . and assist students in building knowledge and insight from specific texts. . . . Additionally, care should be taken that introducing broad themes and questions in advance of reading does not prompt overly general conversations rather than focusing reading on the specific ideas and details, drawing evidence from the text, and gleaning meaning and knowledge from it.

Coleman also advocates re-reading complex texts for deeper understanding.

To that end, Coleman suggests spending three days on the Gettysburg Address—a three paragraph speech. And he thinks Letter from a Birmingham Jail should take six days.

Frankly, that sounds boring.

Teachers reject Coleman’s ideas because he has no classroom teaching experience, notes Porter-Magee.  But perhaps an outsider is needed.

In fact, research suggests that a fresh perspective is exactly what’s needed to solve seemingly impossible problems. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal highlights growing evidence that “big breakthroughs often depend on the naive daring of outsiders,” not the conventional wisdom of the best and brightest in the field.

Did classroom teachers develop the current method of teaching reading? Or did it come from an earlier generation of experts?

Even more important, is Coleman right?

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  1. That does sound really terrible.

  2. I’m all for close reading; too much school time is spent on kids’ emotions and opinions unsupported by facts. Kids aren’t learning the difference between “I think” and “I feel”.

  3. It wouldn’t be boring to kids who would take an entire day to simply understand one paragraph.

    But again, that’s the problem. We aren’t addressing the needs of all students here, just the ones that can’t read.

  4. Deirdre Mundy says:

    It wouldn’t be boring to do the Gettysburg Address 3 days in a row if you were only spending 15-20 minutes a day. We’re not talking an academic symposium here. And presumably some of the 15-20 minutes could be used to explain vocab and talk about choices. For instance, why did he say 4 score and 7 instead of 87? What does it mean for all men to be CREATED equal? Is it really fitting and proper to dedicate the cemetery? Why?

    Contra Cal — I don’t think this exercise would be best for the kids who NEED three days — I think it would be best for the advanced kids who can really dig in and think about it, instead of taking it for granted. Deep reading tends to be more boring for the kids who aren’t prepared to think….

  5. Deirdre Mundy says:

    Though again, it takes background knowledge to do that sort of analysis. When I googled up the text of the speech (to make sure I didn’t make stupid, flammable errors) a picture of the cemetary came up. My 8 year old recognized it as ‘that battlefield where Lincoln gave that famous speech’ because we visited Gettysburg when we went out East to see family. (Because my husband had always wanted to go and never been, and I, a child of PA, have many fond memories of trips there).

    So the nerdy child of nerds is already more prepared to engage with the Gettysburg address than the kids who only know Lincoln as ‘that guy who’s birthday we get off from school.’

  6. It takes three days not because you are deep reading, as I understand it–I agree that’s best for high ability kids.

    It takes three days because you explain who and what Lincoln was, what the war was, and so on. You give them all the content they need in order to understand it. Then a day on vocabulary, and a day or two to read it.

    • Ideally, that content would have already been covered in history class. I think one of the real strengths of the classical curriculum (Bauer and Wise) is that the same time period is covered simultaneously in both classes. I’m sure other curricula do the same thing.

      • No, not “ideally” at all. There are thousands, if not millions, of ideas in important essays and stories that aren’t covered in history class. It’s not going to happen. History is teaching its own content. Don’t co-opt it for English class.

        And anyone who gets gooey over humanities classes hasn’t taught it. I have. That kind of curricular integration is terrible.

  7. Christina Lordeman says:

    I’m all for close reading and in-depth analysis, especially of historical texts. Too many reading/language arts teachers focus too much on # of pages read and not on quality of reading and analysis. I loved it when we spent days dissecting things like the Federalist Papers. But as others have pointed out, content knowledge is a hugely important piece of that puzzle – which means English teachers need to have a lot of cross-curricular content knowledge. That’s an idea I can totally get behind.

  8. Lightly Seasoned says:

    I spend more than a week on Letter from Birmingham Jail with my juniors. There’s enough there. Usually a full day plus a writing assignment on Gettysburg Address.

    And my kids chant “two specific examples from the text to support your answer” by this time of the year.

    I have about a dozen ways of doing close reading with all levels of students. It’s not difficult to do. It’s also not some super-glittery new rainbows and unicorns thing.