Busy work kills love of reading

School assignments killed his son’s love of reading, writes Tony on Leading Motivated Learners.

Reading logs and summaries became a chore, he writes. Written responses were “never checked or responded to.”

“Book reports . . . became more about drawing some amazing picture to go on the cover of the report than anything else,” Tony complains. “They were also so formulaic that little thought went into completing them.”

Johann Sebastian Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach

Instead of reading a passage, then answering comprehension questions, his son “would just read the questions and the multiple choice answers and then scan the passage for the correct answer – no reading really involved there.”

Close readings, a Common Core staple, meant “reading the same book for months and doing endless assignments around that one book.”

Even before the close reading era, my daughter would complain that it took forever to read a book, hunt down its symbolism, “journal” about it and beat it to death in class.

We did almost none of this when I was in school, except for writing book reports.

My fifth-grade teacher told us to write a 1 1/2-page book report for every book we read. I was reading a book a day, so it was a lot of work. I suspected she didn’t read the reports. One day, in my largest handwriting and widest margins, I wrote:

Johann Sebastian Bach is a book about Johann Sebastian Bach. Sometimes Johann Sebastian Bach was called Johann Sebastian Bach, but sometimes Johann Sebastian Bach was called Johann, Johann Sebastian or Bach. However, Johann Sebastian Bach was not called Sebastian or Sebastian Bach.

That was the first page. On the second page, I wrote:

 Johann Sebastian Bach is a very good book for boys and girls who are interested in reading about Johann Sebastian Bach.

The teacher never said a word about it. I kept churning out book reports, because that’s the sort of person I am. did not lose my love of reading.

In sixth grade, we just had to fill out an index card for every book we read. For years after, the teacher used my stack — 184 books, I  think — to terrify her new students.

Robert Pondiscio wrote on Facebook: “You know what REALLY kills the love of reading: Not teaching kids how to @#%*! read…. ”

How can teachers teach reading without boring readers?

Update: A New Jersey district lets teachers assign short excerpts from a novel for close reading, then show a movie based on the book. In my school days, we watched the movie of Julius Caesar (James Mason!) and Pride and Prejudice (Laurence Olivier!), but we read whole books, not excerpts.

Core reading in the classroom

Common Core standards have transformed reading instruction in Reno’s Washoe County, writes Emily Hanford as part of an NPR series.

Books for independent reading are sorting by difficulty.

Books for independent reading are sorted by difficulty.

English teachers used to teach “skills and strategies.” They’d tell students what they were going to read, introduce the vocabulary, ask about their personal experiences with the topic, then give them a text at their reading level.

Angela Orr, who was a high school history teacher, was told to excerpt primary sources for top students, define all the hard words for “medium” kids and rewrite it in simplified form for struggling readers.

Under the Core, students are reading more complex texts at grade level, regardless of their reading level.

“Instead of using a text as a springboard into kids’ personal experiences,” the new standards demand that “students stick to the material, reading it carefully and citing evidence for all that they say or write.”

The new standards also call for “building knowledge through content-rich nonfiction.”

That’s a big change,  says Aaron Grossman, a teacher trainer who used to teach elementary and middle school.  “Social studies and science just weren’t being taught,” he says. “In the effort to teach kids reading skills, we had kind of forgotten about the importance of a lot of other stuff.”

Linnea Wolters, who teaches low-income fifth graders, was shocked by a sample lesson on “The New Colossus,” the poem by Emma Lazarus engraved on the base of the Statue of Liberty. She assumed it was too difficult for her students.

Instead of introducing the sonnet, she had students read it on their own, then read it out loud herself.

After everyone had read the sonnet at least twice, Wolters guided the class through a series of “text-dependent questions and tasks.” The first asked students to figure out the poem’s rhyme scheme and to assign a different letter to each set of rhyming words.

A girl who’d been diagnosed with a learning disability was the first to see the rhyming pattern.

Two boys who don’t speak English at home and struggle with reading were the first to figure out that the poem was about the Statue of Liberty.

Wolters asked the boys if they had any evidence to support their idea. They pointed to the sonnet and said, “It says it’s a woman with a torch.”

“What do you think of Ezekial and Salvadore’s ideas?” Wolters asked the class. The other students weren’t sure. “Why don’t you see if you can find more evidence?” she asked them.

And that got the class going.

“All of a sudden I’ve got kids popping off with, ‘She’s in a harbor!’ and ‘There’s two cities!’ ” Wolters says.

Wolters was amazed to see her students so excited. High achievers are less enthusiastic about close reading, she tells Hanford. They’re used to reading quickly, answering a few comprehension questions and moving on.

In a Washington, D.C. school, fifth graders are struggling to understand a reading on the settling of the west, writes Cory Turner. The teachers asks if the Native American tribes are “nomadic.”

“On page 6, paragraph 2,” (Khalil Sommerville) says, “the first sentence: ‘The Haida and Tlingit of the Northwest built permanent wooden homes called longhouses.’ ”

Khalil flags the word “permanent.” In other words, not nomadic. After an attaboy for Khalil, Ms. Wertheimer asks about the Sioux.

Destiny Brown volunteers: “Page 6, on the first paragraph, at the end it says ‘They lived in tents called tipis.’ “

Here’s more from Turner on leveled reading and the question of how much struggle is helpful and how much is too much.

“Close reading” can be fun or awful, writes Larry Ferlazzo in Ed Week.

Imagine trying to figure out a modern art painting, says Christopher Lehman, author of Falling in Love with Close Reading.  “It involves looking at something again and again, studying details, and being curious.”

Teachers are using the new standards to create lesson plans, writes Lucy Boyd in Education Next. A seventh-grade English teacher at an Uncommon Schools charter, she worked with her co-teacher to decide how to teach to the Core. For example, they paired literature units with nonfiction readings, such as Julius Lester’s To Be a Slave and Walter Dean Myers’s The Glory Field.

What’s wrong with close reading

Common Core’s push for “close reading” goes awry when it ignores the reader’s background knowledge, writes cognitive scientist Dan Willingham on RealClearEducation.

As I’ve seen it described, close reading has three critical features. First, we assume we will spend a good deal of time with a text. We will not simply read, but reread, and likely reread again. The first reading may be devoted to straightforward comprehension, but further readings will uncover other layers of meaning, allusions, techniques of authorship, and so on.

Second, the extended time spent on a text will be devoted mostly to the author’s words. We will pay close attention to the particular words used, to the structure of the argument, and so on.

Third, we will view a text as being self-contained. We will only draw conclusions that are defensible via the author’s words. In fact, we will read the text as though we know nothing about the subject at hand; the author’s words will be not only necessary for our interpretation, we’ll consider them sufficient.

That last part is crazy, writes Willingham. “Pretending that one’s knowledge is not relevant to interpreting a text conflicts with how writers write and with how readers read,

Researchers Eli Gottlieb and Sam Wineburg showed the importance of background knowledge when they asked clergy, scientists and historians to read George Washington’s Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1789.

Clergy and scientists focused on Washington’s invoking the “providence of Almighty God,” and other religious phrasing, with clergy applauding the Christian tone, and scientists upset by it.

Historians, in contrast, focused on what the document did not say; it did not mention Jesus, nor salvation, nor Christianity. They saw the document as Washington’s self-conscious attempt to craft a statement that would be acceptable to the diversity of religions practiced in the United States, and in so doing send a message of religious tolerance and separation of church and state. That Washington knew his audience may be adduced from the fact that clergy at the time protested the lack of overt Christian references.

No amount of close reading restricted to the text would lead present-day students to this interpretation.

Reading in a knowledge vacuum makes no sense, Willingham concludes.

Why teachers hate ‘close reading’

Close reading is being turned into a do-it-or-else teaching fad, writes Coach Brown, who’s being professionally developed yet again.

Close reading is basically hyper-analysis of a small text or a small piece of a larger text.  Kids identify first impressions, vocabulary, main idea, points-of-view, contextualization, and so on.  The goal is to get students to not only have a greater understanding of the literary passage but to also be able to apply it to something else.  It’s actually a very effective method of analyzing text.

But not for all subjects and not all the time, writes Brown. Among other things, “advanced students hate it,” “it’s boring,” and “the skill becomes the important part of the exercise.”

He cites John Spencer’s explanation of why teachers hate close reading.

Often, due to policies that demand “evidence of close reading” during walkthroughs, teachers are using this strategy for everything. Poems should be closely read. Difficulty, but relevant, primary sources need close reading. However, novels don’t need this. Grade level articles don’t, either. And when close reading replaces things like silent reading, kids lose their passion and interest in reading.

The Common Core is very big on close reading.

RIP, close reading

Close Reading passed away last week, writes Dave Stuart, Jr. on Teaching the Core.  The cause of death was buzzwordification.

The death of “close reading, one of the most ubiquitous terms of the Common Core literacy era, is mourned by the very teachers (myself included), administrators, coaches, consultants, and authors who killed it through overuse,” writes Stuart in the obituary. “In classrooms, blogospheres, publishing houses, and convention centers,” close reading’s name will live on, “if not its actual meaning.”

Students need to analyze, not just respond

It’s not just which books English teachers teach,  but how they teach, argues Mark Bauerlein on Ed Next.  Instead of asking students to analyze the text closely, teachers are more likely to assign “reader-response” exercises or focus on “the biography of the author, relevant social issues at the time of publication, and the ethnic identity of the characters.”

Bauerlein cites Sandra Stotsky’s survey (PDF) of more than 400 English teachers, which asked how they approached teaching fiction and non-fiction.


“Close reading” is chosen less than one third of the time, while “reader response” is very popular, especially for fiction. That’s a problem, Bauerlein writes.

Without focused training in deep analysis of literary and non-literary texts, students enter college un-ready for its reading demands.  Students generally can complete low-grade analytical tasks such as identifying a thesis, charting evidence at different points in an argument, and discovering various biases.  But college level assignments ask for more.  Students must handle multi-layered statements with shifting undertones and overtones.  They must pick up implicit and explicit allusions.  They must expand their vocabulary and distinguish metaphors and ironies and other verbal subtleties.

Those capacities come not from contextualist orientations (although “outside” information helps), but from slow, deliberate textual analysis.  The more teachers slip away from it, the more remediation we may expect to see on college campuses, a problem already burdening colleges with developing capacities that should have been acquired years earlier. 

In an analysis of college readiness, ACT found that “the ability to comprehend complex texts” is what distinguishes college-ready students.

My daughter was assigned to make posters, instead of writing papers, all the way through high school.  There was even a poster assignment in 12th grade for AP English.  Poster-making skills did not prove useful in college. Fortunately, she knew how to write.