How to kill reading achievement

Call it the Iron Law of Pedagogy: Every good teaching idea becomes a bad idea the moment it hardens into orthodoxy.

The latest example might be “close reading,” which has become yet another hot-button issue among Common Core critics. But complaints about it bother me less than its potential overuse, or the creeping notion that close reading is what all reading instruction should look like under Common Core. That would be bad for the standards, and even worse for reading achievement in the U.S.

Close reading is “an intensive analysis of a piece of text, in order to come to terms with what it says, how it says it, and what it means,” writes literacy expert Tim Shanahan of the University of Illinois at Chicago. Common Core expects students to “read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.”

Sounds simple, benign, even obvious. Would anyone not want students to be able to do this? Close reading for evidence and to support inferences is a far more rigorous and academically useful standard to meet than, for example, expecting student to produce a “personal response” to literature—the kind of content-free literacy practice Common Core is intended to supplant. The mischief comes in translating “reading closely” into sound classroom practice. Some of the guidance teachers have been getting has been, frankly, terrible.

In a recent piece on RealClearEducation, University of Virginia cognitive scientist Dan Willingham rightly takes exception to a common interpretation of close reading. “We will read the text as though we know nothing about the subject at hand; the author’s words will be not only necessary for our interpretation, we’ll consider them sufficient.” Says Willingham, “That seems crazy to me.”

It doesn’t just seem crazy. It is crazy. It’s impossible not to bring your prior knowledge to reading. It’s like being told, “Don’t think of a pink elephant!” It’s suddenly hard to think of anything else.

Writing is not interpretive dance. When authors commit words to paper, they do so expressly to create associations in the reader’s mind. As Willingham notes, “Writers count on their audience to bring knowledge to bear on the text.” Students may lack background knowledge to fully appreciate a work of literature or an historical document. But it does no good whatsoever to keep them in a state of ignorance on purpose, let alone make a virtue of it. If teachers are being told that close reading means telling students to disregard all their prior knowledge, they’re being given bad advice.

It’s also not what the standards intend. I have, in other forums, made much of the singular virtue of Common Core and its call for a content-rich curriculum “intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades.” This is the critical backdrop against which all reading takes place in Common Core. Background knowledge is intended to be built systematically over time and across subjects—neither disregarded or backfilled in the minutes before students begin reading a complex text.

Seen through this lens, close reading is not a workaround for a student’s lack of background knowledge and vocabulary; it’s a way of getting more by engaging kids in challenging works that stretch their abilities. That requires supporting students via multiple readings, providing vocabulary, working in pairs or groups, and posing questions designed to lead students to understand the text, among other techniques. None of these is tantamount to handing kids Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and saying, “Here you go, kid, figure it out.”

“When close reading is done well, you have weak readers who never would never have had the chance to deal with rich, complex text in the ballgame, grasping it, learning from it, and feeling good about it,” notes reading specialist David Liben of Student Achievement Partners. You’re not just giving them a steady diet of dumbed-down, content-free books at their “just right” reading level. “A part of every day, it’s good for kids to bear down on a text,” says Liben. But, critically, this is not to suggest that all—or even most—reading should be close reading. Kids also need a high volume of text they can read independently to build knowledge, vocabulary, stamina, and more. It’s indispensable.

Close reading also means something different—or should—in different classes. “The conception of close reading that is embodied in the Common Core standards is the one drawn from literature,” notes Shanahan. “However, it is not a particularly doctrinaire version of the concept, so it really can be applied across the curriculum.” Historians read very differently than literary critics, he notes. It’s a critical point.

I teach a civics and citizenship class to high school seniors at Democracy Prep in Harlem, New York. My students are reading Aristotle, Locke, Montesquieu, and others before we study foundational American documents in the second semester. I could have asked my students to dive cold into the Declaration of Independence, but why would I want to? Bringing your background knowledge about Enlightenment thought to a close reading of the Declaration is not a problem, it’s the point.

There’s little to be gained in “practicing” close reading on any ol’ text as long as it’s sufficiently difficult. The works we put in front of kids should be worth the time it takes to read them repeatedly and thoughtfully. If the work isn’t stimulating, it’s unlikely to stick.

If I worry about close reading being done badly, I’m even more concerned about its overuse. If close reading becomes de facto reading instruction—if it becomes just another iteration of the knowledge-free, mind-numbing skills-and-strategies approach of the past several decades—it will be fatal not just to Common Core, but to reading itself. If students lack the vocabulary and background knowledge to make sense of complex text—if schools aren’t honoring their responsibility to build knowledge coherently, across subjects and over time—“there’s no amount of experience with close reading that will enable them to read complex text independently,” Liben concludes.

Now please read that last sentence again. Closely.

photo credit: Librarian In Black via photopin cc cc

Robert Pondiscio
Robert Pondiscio is a Senior Fellow and the Vice President for External Affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.