Implementing the Common Core with Struggling Readers

While political fireworks are grabbing most of the Common Core headlines these days, the real story is how teachers and leaders—particularly those within the reform community—are changing their daily practice in light of the content and rigor demands of the CCSS.

Out of sight but hard at work, leaders of the “No Excuses” schools are taking the adoption of the Common Core as a challenge to refocus their reading instruction in ways that will help their students make greater gains in reading and writing than they have historically been able to do. Central to that challenge is the question of how to help students—a majority of whom are struggling readers who often lack basic reading skills and vocabulary—meet the content and rigor demands of the CCSS.

Reading in the Common Core era

As longtime readers of this blog know, my support for the Common Core literacy standards stems from three things: (1) the emphasis on building knowledge to improve comprehension, (2) the focus on close reading and using evidence to support answers and analysis, and (3) the push to give all students regular practice with complex texts.

It's the combination of all three—working together—that holds the promise of finally helping students, particularly those from low-income backgrounds, master the reading skills needed to succeed in college.

While each of the three changes poses its own special challenge to the status quo, it’s the last piece—the emphasis on text complexity—that is most threatening to the conventional wisdom driving reading instruction in American classrooms, traditional and reform-minded alike.

And the pushback against this particular CCSS directive is growing. For example, self-described “small-town English teacher” Peter Greene likened assigning texts based on grade level “without regard for the student’s reading level” to “educational malpractice.” This pushback is backstopped by an entire industry built up over decades on the premise that students should be kept away from complex texts at all costs.

Unfortunately, there is no good way to pinpoint a student’s reading level with the precision promised by the most popular guided reading and leveled literacy programs. Instead, as folks like E. D. Hirsch and Robert Pondiscio have long argued, an individual’s reading level ebbs and flows depending on the content covered, the vocabulary used, the syntax, and on. And, more than that, even if we could, most of these leveled literacy programs underestimate the amount of struggle a student can tolerate and the amount s/he may need to effectively “push” comprehension to the next level.

At the same time, though, simply handing students texts that are too difficult to understand alone and asking them to do the analysis required by the Core would be educational malpractice. And so, teachers of our most disadvantaged students must grapple with one essential question: How do we meet students where they are without bending the difficulty of the text to ever lower levels of complexity?

Lemov to the rescue?

To find out how educators are grappling with this question, I traveled to Tarrytown, New York, to attend Doug Lemov’s new literacy training workshop “Achieving the Common Core: Writing for Reading and Close Reading.”

While politicians and talking heads grabbed the spotlight in the political theater of the Common Core debate, Lemov and his colleagues Erica Woolay and Colleen Driggs have worked tirelessly over the past four years to understand the demands of the CCSS, and they have spent countless hours observing and working with teachers in the field to understand how they—the teachers—are helping even their most struggling readers access texts that, until recently, virtually everyone assumed were too difficult.

The training was wonderful for a host of reasons, not least of which because Lemov, Woolay, and Driggs are outstanding presenters: well planned, engaging, funny, and self-deprecating. And they weave actual practice into every workshop. That means that for a good part of the day, you can expect to plan and actually deliver a lesson and to get real-time feedback from colleagues. It’s intimidating but worth it.

But more than that, this was a CCSS training that focused squarely on three things: choosing great texts, writing great questions, and giving students just enough in the way of vocabulary and background along the way that will help them understand and grapple with the texts.

Five things that stood out to me over the course of my time in the workshop that Lemov and company are getting right and I hope others are quick to beg, borrow, and steal as they continue to align their practice to the CCSS:

  1. Complexity, unapologetically. We still hear all too often that we should “wait” to have students engage in difficult texts until they’re ready. Lemov and his team were determined to put that myth to rest from the start. And throughout the session, the guidance and the questions from the teachers focused not on whether students could read and analyze the texts but rather on how teachers could help them do so.
  2. The text is king. Throughout the workshop, it was clear that the text was the star and that the skills and strategies were designed in service of understanding the text. And the videos and activities that were highlighted throughout the day demonstrated how a teacher can structure his or her lessons so that the text drives the questions, the writing, the answers, the analysis, etc. Perhaps even more importantly, Lemov and his colleagues gave clear and actionable guidance about how to choose texts, including a useful frame to help teachers sort out the often-nebulous “qualitative” measure of text complexity.
  3. Respect for elders. For students, reading texts that were published long before they were born is difficult. People wrote differently, spoke differently, talked about different things, and on. Lemov and his team acknowledged the importance of reading older texts even when “relevance” suffers as a consequence.
  4. Writing great questions. Obviously, one of the driving forces behind the CCSS literacy standards is the idea that reading instruction should center on great texts and be driven by great, text-dependent questions. But especially for teachers of struggling readers, it’s important to think not just about what we want them to analyze but also what in the text will be a barrier to the student’s understanding—the vocabulary, the syntax, idioms, etc. And throughout the workshop, the focus was on how to craft questions that help students make sense of those barriers in a way that enhances their understanding of the author’s words.

Caution: Work ahead

Of course, Lemov and his team are still working to hone their guidance and to learn from teachers who are implementing it in the classroom right now. Even with the best guidance, there should be no underestimating the challenges of this transition.

Reflecting on the session, there are three big questions that remain, particularly for teachers of struggling readers.

  1. How do we ensure that scaffolds don’t become crutches? It is clear that Lemov and his colleagues have given a ton of thought to how to anticipate and proactively plan for student misunderstanding. This is critically important and is something that is too often glossed over in curricular and instructional materials. But by focusing so strongly on providing scaffolds to help students understand the text, we need to be careful to also allow students the time and space to struggle with the text independently.
  2. How do we focus on knowledge building in an every-minute-counts school? One thing I felt was missing from the day was a discussion of how to intentionally build knowledge and vocabulary as part of literacy instruction. It’s such a big obstacle, particularly for low-income students, and it’s hard to imagine we can succeed in closing the reading-comprehension gap without a solution that proactively addresses this problem.
  3. How do we get text sequencing right? I worry that teachers too often choose texts in isolation, rather than as part of a carefully sequenced curriculum that is aimed at building knowledge and vocabulary. I crave more guidance for teachers that talks about how to sequence text across the curriculum with knowledge-building as a goal.

I’m not a political expert, and I don’t pretend to know how the political debate in state legislatures will ultimately turn out. But I left my time with Lemov and his team optimistic that the standards are pushing teachers to make changes for the better in their classrooms, just as many of us hoped they would back in 2010. There is a long implementation road ahead, but at least in reading, I’m heartened to see more than a few moving in the right direction.

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