The reading paradox: How standards mislead teachers

Before the age of standards and tests, teachers generally taught the textbook. They began on page one and got as far as they could before the end of June, sometimes racing through the last four chapters in less time than they devoted to the first.

Standards, testing, and accountability changed that. Now there are clearly defined goals that all students must meet, and teachers are asked to ensure not just “coverage,” but that all students master a predetermined set of content and skills.

That means today’s curriculum and instruction are driven not by where you began but by where you want to end up. In a data-driven, results-oriented classroom, good teachers begin with the standards and “backmap” from June to September to ensure that the most critical or difficult topics get the instructional time they deserve.

This approach makes sense for most subjects, where the standards describe the actual content that students need to master within and across grades. Math, for instance, is a hierarchical subject with a logical progression of skills and content. Yearlong curriculum plans can be devised and focused on ensuring adequate time to master all of the key standards. And teachers who themselves are math experts may well be able to piece together a coherent program that meets their students’ needs using the standards as their guide.

Reading, however, is different.

Beyond the foundational reading skills, standards in this realm don’t articulate the content that students need to learn to become good readers. Instead, the standards describe the habits and skills of “good readers.” Good readers can, for instance, identify the main idea of a text. They can understand “shades of meaning” and can even use evidence to support comprehension and analysis.

The challenge arises when a habits-driven subject meets a results-driven classroom. In that environment—i.e., in our world of standards-based and data-driven instruction—schools have often tried to do for reading what they did for subjects like math, science, and history. They took the standards—which, for reading, were mostly a list of skills that strong readers demonstrate—and backmapped those skills across the year, carefully selecting texts that would illustrate a particular strategy or that would give students extra practice as they honed particular skills.

A decade into this effort, the results have been underwhelming. While we’ve seen gains in math achievement, we have seen only modest improvements in reading achievement in grade four, and minimal, if any, in grades eight or twelve.


The answer is simple, although the solution is not.

In grades K–3, reading is largely a suite of skills to be developed. Students need to learn to decode, which demands fluency practice and explicit instruction in phonics and vocabulary. This approach to reading instruction—where discrete skills are broken down into bite-sized chunks and taught explicitly, largely independent of texts—works for beginning readers. And our standards-driven reading instruction in grades K–3 has been rewarded by modest achievement gains in grades three and four, when reading tests with relatively simple passages still largely reward mastery of decoding. But fourth grade also marks the beginning of a worsening decline, particularly among low-income students’ scores, as tests demand ever more sophisticated reading-comprehension ability.

After students learn how to read, the “outcomes-focused” instruction that characterizes the standards era needs to adapt as the classroom shifts to English language arts. Then we must stop trying to teach reading the way we teach math. Rather, we need to view the skills and habits described by the standards as tools—tools that can and should be honed over time, in service of understanding and analyzing great texts, but that are not the “content” of reading instruction.

That is precisely why the Common Core ELA standards deliberately call for a “content-rich curriculum.” The CCSS authors realized that, particularly when it comes to reading, standards do not a curriculum make. They provide a broad outline upon which a curriculum needs to be built, but it’s the curriculum, and not the standards, that should drive daily practice in the classroom.

Stated more plainly: When it comes to teaching reading, a curriculum that is aligned to the standards—but not the standards themselves—should drive daily instruction. Taken seriously, this idea has enormous implications for the routines of the American elementary school classroom, from the use of interim assessments to the selection of books and much else. (Stay tuned for more thoughts on all that.)

In the end, the path to improved reading comprehension—to mastery of the skills outlined in state literacy standards—is a cumulative process driven by effective curriculum-centered instruction. If we continue to treat reading like every other subject and march through the standards as if they were a curriculum, we will remain stuck in place.

Kathleen Porter-Magee
Kathleen Porter-Magee is a Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.