Close reading: A revolution delayed

For all of the talk about how different reading instruction is meant to be in the Common Core era, and for all of the hand wringing over the critical “instructional shifts” embedded in the new literacy standards, a glimpse at the world of classroom implementation reveals that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Thanks to a combination of inertia, self-interested publishers, and leaders who prefer to see reading taught the way it’s been taught for years, Common Core-aligned reading instruction runs the risk of becoming a repackaged version of the ubiquitous balanced literacy we’ve seen in schools for decades.

This issue came into sharp relief last month, when the New York Times reported that New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña has been counseling schools to continue using the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project as the foundation of their literacy instruction. This is a repudiation of the guidance given to City schools by Fariña’s own Department of Education just last year, when the Teachers College project was conspicuously missing from a list of recommended, CCSS-aligned literacy programs.

It was just the latest sign that despite all of the discussion about how the Common Core is going to “change everything,” the message that’s getting to the field is, “This, too, shall pass.”

That message isn’t always delivered so clearly, though. While Fariña may have been unusually direct in her guidance to Gotham schools, the messages being sent elsewhere are far more subtle. A quick Google search for “close reading,” for example, reveals various interpretations of what close reading should look like in a reading classroom. In almost every example, close reading has merely become another strategy to be taught, and the “steps” for close reading seem to depend on the goals and focus of the program itself, not on the purpose or intent of the standards. Worse still, far too many of these examples seem to suffer from the same critical flaw: they emphasize “standards-driven” rather than “curriculum-driven” reading instruction.

Take, for example, this video, during which the teacher demonstrates strategies from the book Notice and Note: Strategies for Close Reading. Specifically, she teaches the “again and again” strategy in the hopes that understanding and recognizing repetition as a rhetorical device will make students stronger readers.

In many ways, this video exemplifies a well-developed and well-executed standards-driven lesson. It is well planned, well executed, and teaches something explicitly called for in the CCSS literacy standards. Specifically, reading standard 4 in second grade asks students to

describe how words or phrases (eg: regular beats, alliteration, rhymes, repeated lines) supply rhythm and meaning in a story, poem, or song.

Teaching the “again and again” strategy, as shown here, will help students describe how repeated lines supply “rhythm and meaning.”

Unfortunately, this video also exemplifies an incredible lost opportunity to shift the way we approach reading instruction in the standards and accountability era.

For many years, standards-driven instruction has been the norm. For subjects like math and science—where specific content is explicitly spelled out in the expectations—standards-driven classrooms make perfect sense.

But in reading, where standards for grades 3–12 largely list the skills that strong readers and writers have already mastered, standards-driven instruction is a mistake.

To understand why, it’s useful to compare a math standard to a reading standard. A third grader in Virginia, for example, “will recall multiplication facts through the twelves table, and the corresponding division facts” and will “tell time to the nearest minute, using analog and digital clocks.”

Such expectations, typical of strong state math standards, are clear, specific, and measurable. A teacher could usefully use them as the foundation for a strong curriculum and to guide lesson planning and instruction. She could break each math standard down into bite-size chunks, teach those chunks in a coherent sequence, and help bring students to mastery.

In reading, the correlation between what mastery looks like and how to teach it—or learn it—is far less obvious.

Take, for example the following, also drawn from third grade in Virginia:

The student will read and demonstrate comprehension of fictional text and poetry.

a)   Set a purpose for reading.

b)   Make connections between previous experiences and reading selections.

c)   Make, confirm, or revise predictions.

d)   Compare and contrast settings, characters, and events.

e)   Identify the author’s purpose.

f)   Ask and answer questions about what is read.

g)   Draw conclusions about text.

h)   Identify the problem and solution.

i)    Identify the main idea.

j)    Identify supporting details.

k)   Use reading strategies to monitor comprehension throughout the reading process.

l)    Differentiate between fiction and nonfiction.

m)  Read with fluency and accuracy.

In a standards-driven classroom, the teacher would likely take these expectations, break them down, and teach them. Critically, text selection would be secondary to skills acquisition. This was obvious in the “again and again” video linked above. The book was selected because it included the strategy the teacher wanted students to master.

But what does it look like to “master” the “again and again” strategy? Or how do you teach “prediction?” And more importantly, what do you do when your student doesn’t seem to have mastered making predictions? Do you find new and innovative ways to teach prediction (as you would in math, say, if a student was struggling with subtraction)?

The reality is that, in reading, your ability to “identify the main idea” or to describe and understand the importance of repeated lines tends to depend on knowing a thing or two about the subject you’re reading about. To take an example written by my colleague Robert Pondiscio several years ago, it would be difficult to identify the “main idea” of the following passage without knowing a thing or two about baseball:

A Rod hit into a 6-4-3 double play to end the game.

Like so many texts we read, comprehension of this passage depends not on being able to ask and answer questions, identifying the main idea, or a host of other reading strategies. Instead, it depends almost entirely on the reader’s knowledge of baseball. Worse still, a standards-based approach to literacy might convince teachers their students have mastered inference-making on texts read in class, only to find that they flounder on test questions that require inferential thinking.

Said differently: Because your ability to make inferences or find the main idea leans heavily on your knowledge of the subject, standards-driven reading instruction can create a comforting illusion of proficiency on texts that teachers and students choose themselves that evaporates when reading about unfamiliar subjects.

A curriculum-based approach to meeting standards is intended to combat this by explicitly encouraging teachers and schools to select and sequence content and texts within and across grades and to wrap skills and strategies around the goals of building content and vocabulary and of deeply understanding and analyzing important texts. In a curriculum-based classroom, skills and strategies are useful tools, but they are not an end in themselves.

In summary, changing literacy instruction to align to the Common Core will require more than selection of more difficult texts or integrating more nonfiction into literature class. While those shifts are necessary, they are insufficient. We also need a shift in mindset, particularly among the most faithfully standards-based and data-driven teachers among us. And whether this shift actually happens may go a long way towards determining how much the CCSS will actually change.