The new reading lesson

Common Core standards will change reading lessons, writes Timothy Shanahan in The American Educator.  To start with, the new standards specify the complexity of reading texts at each grade level, writes Shanahan, an emeritus professor who directs the Center for Literacy at the University of Illinois in Chicago.

That’s a big change. For years, teachers have been told each student should read a “just right” book that’s not too hard (frustrating) or easy (boring). Common Core will require much harder texts, writes Shanahan.

Unfortunately, teacher preparation typically includes few tools for helping students to learn from challenging texts. No wonder teachers so often resort to reading the texts to students, using round-robin reading, or, in history or science, not using the textbook at all.

Common Core proponents also want to cut down on time spent preparing students to read, so more time can be spent on “close reading,” Shanahan writes.

Reading preparation includes discussions of relevant background information, explanations of context in which the text was produced, previews or overviews of the text itself, “picture walks,” predictions, and purpose-setting.

. . . If students are to read about tide pools, for example, teachers are counseled to start out by asking questions such as, “Have you ever visited a beach? What plants and animals did you see near the shore?” Or if students are to read Charlotte’s Web, they might first learn the biographical details of E. B. White’s life.

. . . I recently observed a primary-grade reading lesson that included such a thorough and painstaking picture walk (previewing and discussing each illustration prior to reading) that eventually there was no reason for reading the eight-sentence story; there was no additional information to be learned.

“Close reading” puts the stress back on reading, he writes. But there’s evidence that some preparation aids comprehension. That’s important “at a time when texts are supposed to get harder for kids.”

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  1. Deirdre Mundy says:

    Wouldn’t it make more sense to dive in, have the kids read, then ask comprehension/vocab questions to help them retain what they learned and understand the things they fuzzed over?

    As far as I can tell, the heavy preparation for reading/listening actually leaves the kids unable to understand a story or article unless you spoonfeed them. Even intelligent kids who’ve been in public schools since nursery school seem to have a real issue with listening comprehension— my 3 year old pays more attention, understands more, and asks more on target questions…..

    There’s something wrong. I know my kids are outside the norm, but my 3 year old is no where near the same planet as a typical 8 or 9 year old. Kids have somehow lost the habit of getting information from what they hear, watch, or read, unless they’re told in advance exactly what they’re supposed to learn.

    This is not good.

  2. palisadesk says:

    “Kids have somehow lost the habit of getting information from what they hear, watch, or read, unless they’re told in advance exactly what they’re supposed to learn.”

    I have not observed this to be the case Perhaps it is a middle-class phenomenon? I have not worked in any middle-class schools.

    There are no viable hard-and-fast rules about how much or little pre-reading preparation is required — it is context-dependent. If introducing the story “Dog of Pompeii” (a classic found in several basal reading series at the 5th or 6th grade level) it makes sense to preview the story with information about Pompeii, volcanoes and ancient Rome; ideally, the story would be read in tandem with social studies or science work on those topics.

    This is good teaching, not “telling them what they have to learn.” However, using advance organizers and unit study guides to help student organize what they have to learn is an empirically validated method of increasing learning and retention.

    Asking “comprehension questions” after the fact has much less evidence of effectiveness. It’s not really “teaching” in fact. It’s testing. That, too has a place, but it doesn’t supplant actually teaching kids. E.D. Hirsch talks about “cognitive velcro,” which is a metaphor I like: kids need some background knowledge to learn the stuff we want them to learn. It’s our job to supply it, to varying degrees, as the occasion demands.

  3. Deirdre Mundy says:

    This is mostly kids I’ve dealt with in volunteer positions… Hmmm… maybe the issue is a lack of cognitive velcro? The thing is, these are normal kids… they SHOULD be able to retain information…. so…. hmm…. maybe they need more of a framework?

    • Richard Aubrey says:

      They say poetry–actually old verbal stories–were designed to rhyme and scan because it was easier to recall them.
      Once had to memorize and perform Jabberwocky for a psych class against a free-verse person and a traditional rhyme&scan poem.
      Point is, I think, that individual facts make more sense if they are seen to be connected to other things you know, and fit within a framework, are hung on a frame, etc. Otherwise, it’s trying to learn to recite Jabberwocky.

  4. Mike in Texas says:

    Timothy Shanahan’s website is hawking CC materials, so i really could care less what he thinks