Common Core and the Death of Reading

Jelani Guzman, a fifth-grader at Silver Lake Elementary School in Middletown, Del., works on an English language arts lesson
Jelani Guzman, a fifth-grader at Silver Lake Elementary School in Middletown, Del., works on an English language arts lesson at school Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2013. Silver Lake has begun implementing the national Common Core State Standards for academics. Remembering the plot of a short story is no longer good enough. Now, students are being asked to think more critically -- what, for example, might a character say in an email to a friend. Welcome to a classroom using the Common Core State Standards, one of the most politicized and misunderstood changes in education for students and their teachers in grades kindergarten through high school. (AP Photo/Steve Ruark)

Regular readers of my Huffington Post columns have seen my position on the national Common Core Standards change during the last two years. At first I opposed the standards as mandates but thought they could be useful as guidelines. When the standards were paired with high-stakes assessments, both for students and teachers, my opposition intensified. As a teacher and teacher educator, and as a parent and grandparent, when curriculum was rewritten and instruction became constant test prep, I was angry. In this and my next post I directly challenge the Common Core approach to teaching younger children to read and older students to better comprehend sophisticated written material. The more I look at the Common Core approach to reading, the more it seems to be a shill for publishers like Pearson to sell new "Common Core" aligned textbooks, workbooks, and online packaged learning programs.

Children learn to read the way they learn to talk. Reading, like speaking, is a social activity best taught by communities and through relationships. Children learn by watching older people, especially older children, read. They learn to read by discovering that important things they want to know are in the symbols. They learn to read because of the pleasure of discovery and praise from parents, teachers, siblings, and friends for their achievements. They learn to read because it both makes them part of a broader community and because they become independent of others, more grown up. Children learn to read because it gives them a private place to visit, and because in the end, they learn to love to read because it opens their imaginations to unseen worlds. If you are reading this blog, I am pretty sure that is how you learned to read.

I was reminded of the process of learning to read last May by watching my nine-year-old fourth grade granddaughter Sadia curled up with a book in the family's living room easy chair reading the novel Inkheart. Sadia's mother and her aunt and uncle also learned to read this way and they all love reading as adults.

Part of Sadia's pleasure was that she was reading Inkheart along with her reading group at school and the students in the group were busy comparing their insights and characterizations and having conversations with each other, the book's author in absentia, and the text. The book was a good choice for all the technical reasons. According to Scholastic publishers it is written on grade level four years nine months (4.9) and has a lexile or complexity level 780 which is appropriate for strong readers in the 4th grade. But more important to these nine and ten-year olds, it was a good choice because a main protagonist in Inkheart is a twelve-year old girl named Meggie who they could all identify with, which allowed them to place themselves in the book.

Of course they were only able to read Inkheart together because it was May and they were finished with the April fourth grade Common Core assessments that had consumed the previous months of school with constant and repetitious test prep and testing. Fortunately Common Core had not succeeded in destroying the love of reading for Sadia and her friends, but I cannot say that for all of the students in her class, grade, or school.

One day I asked Sadia if she wanted to see the Inkheart movie. It turns out she had. She then launched into an hour-long explanation of why the book was better than the movie and how the movie had gotten the characters and plot that she envisioned in her mind all wrong because it was not the way that she imagined it. It was the kind of complex analysis based on reading that every teacher, parent, and grandparent hopes to see.

I am not saying children do not need help along the way with reading. That is part of what it means to be in a community and in a classroom. We all need help. We need stimulation. We need help seeing connections. We often need a little push when the going gets tough. In educational jargon that is the theory of "Zone of Proximal Development" proposed by Lev Vygotsky in the early 20th century.

But this is not what Common Core does. In Common Core based instruction reading is a mechanical activity that ignores student interest and the primary motivation to learn is your test score. To raise student scores, Common Core breaks reading down into a plethora of component skill parts. In the fourth grade, Common Core has nine reading literature standards, ten reading informational text standards, two foundational reading skills standards, six language acquisition standards, six speaking and listening standards, as well as "Range, Quality, and Complexity" standards. Lost, if not missing, in the barrage of standards are qualities like imagination, sharing, creating, thinking, or more importantly, enjoying. Asking questions and having conversations are there as activities, but they are not emphasized as the core of understanding.

The Common Core approach to reading is like breaking a molecule down into individual elements. But as any science teacher can explain, once you break the molecular bonds that tie the atoms together, you lose all the properties of the original chemical. You now have hydrogen and oxygen, but you no longer have water. In Common Core students may learn skills, but they do not learn to love reading or to really understand sophisticated written material.