Common Core reading: Too hard? Too factual?

The new common standards for K-2 reading are too hard, “harsh” and “dreary,” writes Joanne Yatvin, a former president of the National Council of Teachers of English, in Education Week. The standards “overestimate the intellectual, physiological, and emotional development of young children,” Yatvin writes.

This amounts to meeting children where they are and keeping them there, responds Robert Pondiscio on Core Knowledge Blog. He lists the standards’ “three big ideas.”

1. Students should read as much nonfiction as fiction.

2. Schools should ensure all children—and especially disadvantaged children—build coherent background knowledge that is essential to mature reading comprehension.

3. Success in reading comprehension depends less on “personal response” and more on close reading of text.

The standards call for teaching vocabulary and background knowledge. It’s too much academics too soon, writes Yatvin. She thinks children should “learn words connected to their everyday lives and their interests rather than to things and experiences as yet unknown.”

We learn most words in context, Pondiscio replies.

So while it certainly it makes sense to connect words to kids “everyday lives and experiences” it’s something very close to educational malpractice not to make a concerted effort to expand a child’s knowledge base beyond their immediate experiences.  If there is anything that ensures a low-level of academic achievement it is the idea that kids can only learn from their direct experiences.

Yatvin also disagrees with the standards’ call to teach non-fiction as well as fiction. Young children have “limited experience in the fields of science, geography, history, and technology,” she writes. “It is one thing for a child to read The Little Engine That Could for the pleasure of the story and quite another for her to comprehend the inner workings of a locomotive.”

Actually, many children, especially boys, enjoy reading about science, nature and technology, including trains. I was a huge fan of history and geography — anything that wasn’t about the boring suburb where I lived.

Little Engine That Could “is ripe with opportunities to build background knowledge” about “colors, mountains, trains and transportation, to name but a few,” writes Pondiscio.

I’m all for reading for the pleasure of the story.  But start building background knowledge of the world beyond a child’s immediate surroundings today, and you geometrically expand the number of stories a child can read for pleasure tomorrow.

Very few kids have personal experiences with dinosaurs, dolphins, pirates or superheroes, yet many enjoy reading about them.  The first graders I’m tutoring in reading love the Magic School Bus series, which teaches science. They can’t read the book I’ve got (about kitchen chemistry), but they’re longing to be able to.