In the 1990s, much of the fireworks in the education policy debate centered around a “reading war” where supporters of whole language squared off against the forces of phonics. Now, in the Common Core era, I predict a similar firestorm is on the horizon. Only this time, the debate will not be about how to teach students to read in the first place, but rather how to help them build knowledge and improve comprehension over time. More specifically: It’s about how to choose the books you are asking students to read. And the outcome of this debate could go a long way towards deciding the long-term impact of CCSS ELA standards.

"What to read?" will become the next debate in education policy.
 Photo by Duncan Harris

There are two camps in debate over how to select and assign texts. The first is what I’ll call the “Just Right” or “Goldilocks” books approach. The second I will call the “Grade Appropriate” approach.

The prevailing view among many educators in the United States today is that the best way to improve student reading comprehension is to assign lots books that are “just right” for individual students. The theory is that every student has three reading levels: an independent reading level (what the student can read without teacher scaffolding or support), an instructional reading level (something just above the student’s independent level, but something that they can access with scaffolding and support), and a frustration level (something that will cause the student to throw up his hands in frustration). In class, the theory goes, teachers should assign (or students should select) books that are pitched at their instructional reading level—not too easy so that they don’t stretch themselves but not too hard so that they don’t get turned off to learning.

Teachers strictly following this approach are challenged to frequently assess student comprehension and carefully monitor student progress, all the while gently push them up levels with incrementally more difficult texts.

Makes sense, right?

Not necessarily.

Let’s take, as one example, a ninth grade student –Maria—who has the equivalent of a fifth grade reading level. Her peers are reading things like Shakespeare, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Hemmingway. Maria is reading Maniac Magee. If we assume that both comprehension and cultural and background knowledge build over time, how we will ever get Maria to the same place as her peers? How do you get her from Maniac Magee to Macbeth?

The reality is that, the incremental increases in complexity that the “just right” books theory demands simply will never close the gap between Maria and her peers.

Enter the Common Core. The “Grade Appropriate” approach that drives its ELA standards is based on a very different assumption. Teachers who follow the “Grade Appropriate” theory select books, poems, articles, and stories that are appropriate for the grade level, even if that level is above the students’ instructional or independent reading level.

Teaching with this approach can be more challenging, particularly in schools where many students are far behind grade level. A great deal more scaffolding is needed to ensure that all students—including those who are reading far below grade level—are able to understand grade-appropriate texts. And there’s no easy way to ensure that students do more of the “heavy lifting” of the reading on their own, rather than to rely on teachers to help them struggle through.

Figuring out how to target remediation and how to scaffold difficult texts is exactly the kind of work that needs to happen to make a serious push to close the reading gap. And for those looking at whether CCSS is going to live up to its promise to drive student achievement, we could do worse than to start tracking the type and complexity of texts being assigned in classrooms across the country as Common Core implementation ramps up.

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