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.”

Mom, what’s a pimp?


Louisiana fourth-graders received a worksheet with “pimp” and “mobstaz,” a mother complains. The superintendent says it was taken from a web site with “real-world text” that is “aligned” to Common Core standards.

The worksheet provides examples of the word “twist,” including tornadoes, the dance craze and a rapper named “Twista.”

My questions:

How does “real-world” text differ from text?

Why does a rundown on a rapper’s career — he sings with Mobstaz and has a hit called Po-Pimp — enhance students’ understanding of the word “twister.”

Reading, writing and knowing

Core Knowledge got its start from E.D. Hirsch’s years teaching literary theory as an English professor, he writes in How Two Poems Helped Launch a School Reform Movement in The Atlantic. He discovered the importance of background knowledge when he looked at ways to improve college students’ writing.

When the topic was familiar to readers, you could measure the benefits of good writing (and the problems caused by bad writing) quite consistently. But the time and effort it takes to understand a text on an unfamiliar topic completely overwhelms the effects of writing quality.

At a Richmond community college, students couldn’t read or write clearly because they lacked a base of knowledge, Hirsch writes.

These students, primarily from disadvantaged backgrounds, could easily read a text on “Why I like my roommate.” But even after controlling for vocabulary level and syntax, they could not easily read about Lee’s surrender to Grant. These Richmond students, surrounded by Civil War mementos on Monument Avenue, were clueless about the Civil War. Their lack of knowledge was the reason they were unable to read well about anything beyond the most banal topics.

Researchers have found that “relevant prior knowledge — information already stored in one’s long-term memory — is the single most important factor in reading comprehension,” Hirsch writes.

Schools talk about “grade level” reading skills. This makes sense for decoding skills, but not reading comprehension, Hirsch argues. Students can comprehend a reading passage if the content is familiar, but struggle if it’s unfamiliar. ”

For understanding a text, strategies help a little, and knowledge helps a lot,” Hirsch concludes.

Without books at home, few read well

Children raised in low-income families have few age-appropriate books in their homes, according to First Book, which gives books to disadvantaged children to encourage reading.  The infographic is based on research by Susan Neuman, co-author of Giving Our Children a Fighting Chance.

[INFOGRAPHIC] The Haves and the Have-Nots

Education reform starts with reading, writes Michael Mazenko in the Denver Post. He supports Common Core standards’ recommendation that 70 percent of all high school reading be non-fiction. Students can analyze literature in English class and think critically about informational text in social studies, science, math and arts classes, he writes. That will help the 44 percent of high school students who can’t truly comprehend what they read, according to NAEP.

Knowing, reading and writing

In the new American Educator, Jennifer Dubin praises Core Knowledge’s approach to teaching reading and writing in An Early Grades Reading Program Builds Skills and Knowledge.

The gains in reading, science, and social studies made by young students in a Core Knowledge language arts pilot show that the language arts block can be used to develop both the reading skills and the knowledge of the world that are essential to later reading comprehension.

In Core Knowledge schools, teachers read to students from more challenging books than they’d be able to handle on their own, Dubin explains. Each grade focuses on certain knowledge domains. For examples, kindergarteners learn about nursery rhymes and fables, the five senses, stories, plants, farms, Native Americans, kings and queens, seasons and weather, Columbus and the Pilgrims, colonial towns and townspeople, taking care of the Earth and presidents and American symbols.

Several New York City elementary schools tried the Core Knowledge approach with great success.

Before switching, students at a mostly low-income Queens elementary school knew little about the world — not much science, history or geography — says Joyce Barrett-Walker, principal of P.S. 96. Students had been taught reading strategies — find the main idea — but lacked the background knowledge and vocabulary to understand what they read. They had nothing interesting to write about.

Are ‘just right’ books wrong for readers?

Common Core Standards have set off a debate about what students should read in class, reports Education Gadfly. A new book, Text Complexity: Raising Rigor in Reading, argues against  assigning “just right” texts written at a student’s individual reading level. Instead, it calls for assigning “grade-appropriate” texts with special help for below-grade readers.

“Just right” texts don’t frustrate struggling readers, but they don’t challenge them either, the book argues. Teachers can help poor readers understand challenging texts, the authors write.

Turning reading into a bore

Students spend too much time practicing reading strategies that won’t improve comprehension, writes cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham on his blog. A little dab’ll do ya, he writes in a longer article. More is a waste of time — and it makes reading a bore.

The chart shows the various strategies:


Too much strategizing turns reading into drudgery, Willingham writes.

How can you get lost in a narrative world if you think you’re supposed to be posing questions to yourself all the time? How can a child get really absorbed in a book about ants or meteorology if she thinks that reading means pausing every now and then to anticipate what will happen next, or to question the author’s purpose?

My daughter’s second-grade teacher thought she read too quickly. I guess she wasn’t using reading strategies. She was just reading.

Build knowledge to teach reading

Building background knowledge orally is the “secret sauce” of Core Knowledge’s reading program, writes Robert Pondiscio.

Freed from the cognitive work of decoding, children can more readily understand a story with sophisticated vocabulary when it’s read out loud than if they had read it on their own.

. . . This is critical for children from low-income homes and especially those where English is a second language.  They usually come to school on Day One with smaller vocabularies and less background knowledge of the world than more advantaged kids, who tend to hear more rich and complex language at home and enjoy more opportunities for language and knowledge enrichment. . . .  If we wait until a child can read independently to build background knowledge and vocabulary, we are almost certainly cementing their knowledge and language deficits permanently in place.  If you’re not building background knowledge, you’re not teaching reading.

Also on Core Knowledge Blog: ‘Opinion is to Knowledge as Dessert is to Vegetables.’

Elementary reading books are short on non-fiction, but California’s new readers are a small step in the right direction, writes Dan Willingham on his blog. He agrees that background knowledge is critical for reading comprehension.

Reading: quantity, nonfiction, knowledge

The common standards movement has sparked a useful discussion of teaching reading. Many critics like the newest draft of the standards, reports Curriculum Matters.

Carol Jago, the president-elect of the National Council of Teachers of English, tells me she thinks the draft has improved in two ways. First, it emphasizes “quantity in reading.” Jago, an author and former high school teacher, served as one of several outside reviewers of the English-language arts version of the document.

“More is more when it comes to students and reading,” Jago told me in an e-mail. “I was delighted to see this important point addressed so directly…The dramatic difference between the number of books students read in high school and the number they are assigned in college I believe contributes enormously to student failure in the first semester at university.”

Jago also likes the focus on reading challenging books independently, a skill needed for college and the workplace.

Will Fitzhugh, the founder of The Concord Review, wants more stress on nonfiction documents and research papers.

In a Washington Post op-ed, cognitive scientist Dan Willingham critiques the standards for assuming students can understand what they read without background knowledge. Teaching “strategies” doesn’t lead to comprehension, he writes.

Remarkably, if you take kids who score poorly on a reading test and ask them to read on a topic they know something about (baseball, say, or dinosaurs) all of a sudden their comprehension is terrific—better than kids who score well on reading tests but who don’t know a lot about baseball or dinosaurs.

In other words, kids who score well on reading tests are not really kids with good “reading skills.”

Once students have “cracked the code of letters and sounds” and read fluently, the good readers are the ones with the prior knowledge to enable them to understand what they read, Willingham argues.  Students who lack background knowledge can reason their way through a text, but it’s slow and difficult, “a recipe for creating a student who doesn’t like reading.”

Illiterate in America

According to a federal literacy study,  one in seven U.S. adults can’t read well enough to understand a newspaper article, follow instructions for medications or decipher a utility bill, reports USA Today.

“They really cannot read … paragraphs (or) sentences that are connected,” says Sheida White, a researcher at the U.S. Education Department.

Slate offers suggestions for parents to help your child learn to read. None of it works for parents who can’t read well, but I suppose they’re not reading Slate.

Update: Teaching content is teaching reading, says Dan Willingham on a new video (with annoying background music). Comprehension requires background knowledge.