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