What’s the Deal About “Close Reading” and CCSS?

Welcome to the Common Core-ral, Y'all

Well, y’all, one of the big issues arising from the Common Core State Standards is the issue of close reading. I think we can all agree that it would be terrific if all kids did this. And I’d say that most educators fight this fight on a regular basis — nothing new here. After all, we’d be hard-pressed to find anybody who said, “Oh, no. I only focus on shallow reading. Just skimming. That’s good enough.”

But, but, but.

There’s some controversy about close reading. There’s some talk that “close reading” means “no pre-teaching — just leap into the text and good luck, folks. If you’re an English Language Learner or have a special ed diagnosis or have never been more than five miles from home, and your novel is set in the Antilles 300 years ago, well, just find the information you need in the text.”

So here’s the landscape as I see it … and please correct me if I’m off-base.

First, the strategy of “close reading” is not actually in the standards. In fact, there’s nothing in the standards that indicates how someone should teach to get the students to master the standards. Here is what the Common Core Standards’ “Myths vs. Facts” web page says on the topic:

Myth: The Standards tell teachers what to teach.

Fact: The best understanding of what works in the classroom comes from the teachers who are in them. That’s why these standards will establish what students need to learn, but they will not dictate how teachers should teach. Instead, schools and teachers will decide how best to help students reach the standards.

Pretty clear, eh? And here’s another:

Myth: These Standards amount to a national curriculum for our schools.

Fact: The Standards are not a curriculum. They are a clear set of shared goals and expectations for what knowledge and skills will help our students succeed. Local teachers, principals, superintendents and others will decide how the standards are to be met. Teachers will continue to devise lesson plans and tailor instruction to the individual needs of the students in their classrooms.

So … we agree … how to teach is a local decision, right?

Not so fast.

It turns out that two of the chief authors of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), Susan Pimental and David Coleman (now newly-appointed head of the College Board, which administers Advanced Placement tests and the SAT, which Coleman wants to align with Common Core, even though some states have not adopted CCSS) wrote a set of publishers’ criteria on what CCSS resources should focus on. This document is where the phrase “close reading” crops up — it comes up 10 times, as a matter of fact. (That’s nothing once you realize that the word “careful” comes up 31 times!) It says:

At the heart of these criteria are instructions for shifting the focus of literacy instruction to center on careful examination of the text itself. In aligned materials, work in reading and writing (as well as speaking and listening) must center on the text under consideration. The standards focus on students reading closely to draw evidence and knowledge from the text and require students to read texts of adequate range and complexity. The criteria outlined below therefore revolve around the texts that students read and the kinds of questions students should address as they write and speak about them (page 1).
Reading strategies should work in the service of reading comprehension (rather than an end unto themselves) and assist students in building knowledge and insight from specific texts. To be effective, instruction on specific reading techniques should occur when they illuminate specific aspects of a text. Students need to build an infrastructure of skills, habits, knowledge, dispositions, and experience that enables them to approach new challenging texts with confidence and stamina. As much as possible, this training should be embedded in the activity of reading the text rather than being taught as a separate body of material (page 9).

Wait … the very folks who said that the standards won’t dictate how to teach are now going to articulate the questions students should address? Why, yes. But I digress.

The criteria make plain that developing students’ prowess at drawing knowledge from the text itself is the point of reading; reading well means gaining the maximum insight or knowledge possible from each source. Student knowledge drawn from the text is demonstrated when the student uses evidence from the text to support a claim about the text. Hence evidence and knowledge link directly to the text (page 1).

This idea is great in theory — of course we should dig into the text to find evidence. This builds on the work of Junior Great Books, Shared Inquiry, and more. It’s powerful.

The problem is that this idea has been extrapolated (and I’m working on digging out the source of this) to indicate that there shouldn’t be pre-reading scaffolding — that students should explore the text in isolation, uninfluenced by outside factors.

One of my preservice teachers reminded me of just how difficult this would be. Imagine Shelley’s Frankenstein. Can you read that text without having some understanding of what academic learning looked like in the time of the novel? Some sense of Milton’s Paradise Lost, from which the Creature learns about humanity? Some understanding of European geography? She worked in a working class school, and her answer was NO. (Plus, who isn’t influenced as a 21st-century reader by cartoons or Brooks’ Young Frankenstein? It’s impossible to ignore prior knowledge.)

The point is that when we ask comprehension questions of students, we should keep the questions confined to the text itself. Page 6 says, “Eighty to ninety percent of the Reading Standards in each grade require text-dependent analysis.” Okey-dokey.

Assigning simpler texts isn’t an option. Page 2 says:

Far too often, students who have fallen behind are only given less complex texts rather than the support they need to read texts at the appropriate level of complexity. Complex text is a rich repository of ideas, information, and experience which all readers should learn how to access, although some students will need more scaffolding to do so.

Ah, scaffolding. OK. Now we’re getting somewhere. I can handle that — instead of substituting easier texts, do the hard texts but add scaffolding.We did that in decades past. I suppose it’s doable.

Well, let me turn this over to reading expert Dr. Douglas Fisher. This video, posted on the McGraw-Hill web site (note: McGraw-Hill bought Grow, the company CCSS co-author Coleman founded), should clear things up. (If you prefer transcripts to videos, click here.)

So did that clear everything up, folks? Good. Because you don’t want to get me started about Coleman saying things like “kicking our butts” (see part 3) or “nobody gives a sh-t“ in a 2011 New York Department of Education speech. That would just be tacky.

Let me know if I’m missing something, OK?

Hat tip to Doreen on LM_NET for the video link.

Leave a Reply