Reading, Writing, and Common Core

Here are three ways teachers can educate for reading proficiency using Common Core standards without robbing students of the full experience of reading.

By Amber Chandler

I’ve always said that if a PhD is ever in my future, it will focus on one central question: How is it that all five-year-olds adore being read to and are hyper-motivated to learn, but talk to a seventh grader and a great apathy has often replaced the enthusiasm?

As an English teacher, I’ll be the first to admit that the ability to read well — at and above grade level, across text types, and comprehend what is being read — is perhaps the best indicator of potential success.

In short: Reading is what it takes to be college- and career-ready. As an avid reader, a-flashlight-under-the-covers kind of girl, I am also screaming, “How dare you ruin reading?”

As it turns out, there’s lots of conversation about the dichotomy between learning and the love of reading. In an article online at the Center for American Progress, Melissa Lazarín explains:

During the 2014-15 school year, more high school seniors read the young-adult-oriented books The Fault in Our Stars and Divergent than Shakespeare’s Macbeth or Hamlet, according to a report that tracks what K-12 students at more than 30,000 schools are reading during the school year. … There is substantial evidence that much of what students are currently reading is not particularly challenging. This lack of complexity in students’ reading and writing is likely undermining their preparedness for college and the workplace. … The Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects — or ELA standards for short — help address some of these readiness gaps.

I’d like to suggest that there is a better way than the either/or approach that so often lauds the Common Core Standards (CCS) as the beacon of good teaching.

Here are three ways teachers can educate for reading proficiency without robbing students of the full experience of reading:

1. Use the Common Core Standards as guidelines, not guardrails

The Common Core Standards are only the latest in a long succession of guidelines dictating what students should know and be able to do. I don’t lose sleep over any of these standards because any educator who truly cares about the success of his or her students will always make sure that they have the ability to: read for information, decipher unknown vocabulary words by using context clues and resources, and have collegial conversations.

The standards are meant to be guidelines, not guardrails.

Think of it this way: a guideline is similar to the white lines painted on the sides of the road that are meant to keep you on the road to your destination, illuminating the paved path, the proven route to your end goals. If there happens to be a unique view you’d like to take in, you can pull off the well-worn route and take a side road, one that is perhaps not so well-marked, but worth the detour.

If we turn the standards into guardrails, though, we are preventing the side trips and adventures, relegating learning to what is on the road. Guardrails may sound innocuous, but in reality, when institutions give the CCS power to prevent learning that is not on the approved route, we are diminishing the authority of the teacher and school itself.

Don’t get me wrong — my lesson plans are aligned with the Common Core Standards. The experiences I choose for my students are built on the premise that the more ways I can support their reading and create gains, the more they will be prepared for the future.

However, it is crucial that Common Core Standards, and the expensive, yet efficient, materials that promise results, are not given prominence over authentic experiences. The trouble (and beauty) of teaching is that it is both an art and a science.

If administrators and educators are willing to take the easy way out with practice book upon practice book, it becomes much more apparent how students no longer love to learn.

My daughter Zoey, who is in the sixth grade, recently mentioned to me that she’d found an amazing book on her teacher’s bookshelf called Bud, Not Buddy, and she couldn’t put it down. The lexile range for grades 6 to 8, recommended by the CCS, is 860-1010 and the “stretch” is 925-1185. This novel is lexiled at a 950. Additionally, the novel is an eye-opening foray into the Great Depression, told in a way that children can absorb the jazz, the humor, and the humanity.

Sounds like a perfect pick, if guided by the Common Core Standards. However, this is not a book my daughter’s class will be reading. Instead, they are piloting yet another anthology that efficiently metes out daily doses of Common Core skills. Those readings are organized around which standard they can meet and check off, not by the quality or experiences of reading imaginative literature.

This worries me.

It worries me because as long as institutions are more concerned with standardizing reading and writing rather than offering rich and rewarding experiences with texts and characters, the fewer flashlights we are going to find lighting the way for young readers. Do I denounce using prefabricated reading selections to assess students on specific Common Core skills? No. But I do have deep issues with replacing the experiences with excerpts.

2. There’s more to life (and learning) than perceived complexity.

Shakespeare is name-dropping. If we want others to think we are educated, we cite Shakespeare. I know it. I’ve done it. I don’t wish to deny that Shakespeare is Kind of a Big Deal.

But ultimately Shakespeare’s Hamlet is lexiled at an 850, just as The Fault in Our Stars is. I’ve read every Shakespeare play, many far more than once, but if I were 17 years old, The Fault in Our Stars would be, hands down, the best book I could imagine reading.

And guess what? It was so good that this 40-something lady has now also read every one of John Greene’s books, some more than once.

Is John Greene approaching Shakespeare in some imaginary influence contest? No.

Ultimately neither Shakespeare nor Greene are the defining influence that will help students to be college- and career-ready.

I don’t care which you read, or if you read something else altogether — you just need to read. And read. And read some more.

As you read more, the task will become more rote, and then the choices of what to read will open up to you. Once that freedom from the task itself is achieved, you’ll be college- and career-ready because you will be ready to learn what is asked of you instead of having to focus on the skill sets involved with reading.

Making reading an elite activity reserved for Shakespeare lovers is the biggest detriment I’ve witnessed from the implementation of the Common Core.

What does this elitism look like in schools?

Diary of a Wimpy Kid.

This is a graphic novel, an easy read to be sure — but wow, does it deliver the emotional hook that reluctant readers just might need to get over the difficult (for them) task of reading. The more they read, the less the task will even be considered a factor. Yet teachers ban this book, and others like it, in the name of “complexity.”

But wait! What if a very capable reader is trying to be lazy and use this book for independent reading, just because it is easy?

Well, shame on the teacher then.

If a teacher is already armed with the information that this book is woefully too simple for a student, why wouldn’t that teacher then suggest a more appropriately challenging book, a graphic novel even?

If we make reading into an elitist activity, replete with classes of books, we are suggesting that it is an act for some sorts of people and not others.

3. But what about nonfiction?

I’ll be the first to say that Common Core Standards have improved my teaching.

Not because CCS stopped me from doing anything, but instead because I could see a huge gap in what I was doing and what would best benefit my students.

When CCS came out, the big takeaway for many of us was simple: We teach too much fiction and not enough nonfiction. That one insight has forever impacted my teaching, and I couldn’t be happier with the results.

This means that I still teach The Giver, which has a low lexile but an incredibly dark and daring plot, but I also supplement it with nonfiction texts about times in history when groups have tried to create real utopias.

Not only does it not interrupt the literature, it actually grounds it in a reality that is even more intriguing.

This means that I won’t trade The Outsiders, a classic that still steals the hearts of the most reticent reader, but I do pair it with really challenging readings about animal behaviors and have students analyze the characters through this lens.

I’m letting students keep their flashlights, but I’m providing them with other places to look for answers.

Amber Chandler is a National Board Certified ELA teacher and the author of The Flexible ELA Classroom: Practical Tools for Differentiated Instruction in Grades 4-8.