The next reading war?

Blog readers know that I hold lots of opinions about proposed education reforms. Yet today I’m blogging about a question that leaves me genuinely torn. Should language arts instruction – more specifically reading instruction – focus more heavily on informational, expository reading, and less heavily on imaginative literature?

I teach history, government, and economics, and in all of these classes I’ve fretted over students who struggle to identify, much less evaluate, the main points of an informational or persuasive text. Yet when I look back at my long years as an avid reader, and my own children’s development as book lovers,  it’s imaginative literature that I remember . . . and credit.

This matters – a lot – because the new common core standards ask teachers to focus much more heavily on informational texts.

I’ve recently read two interesting, and opposing, articles on this subject.

In the Fordham Institute’s Education Gadfly, Core Knowledge Foundation Vice President and former fifth grade teacher Robert Pondiscio defends the new standards against the charge that they downplay literature. Instead, he argues that they move students away from content free test preparation exercises to real reading:

Reading is “domain specific.” You already have to know at least a little bit about the subject—and sometimes a lot about the subject—to understand a text. The same thing is also true about creativity, critical thinking, and problem solving. Indeed, nearly all of our most cherished and ambitious goals for schooling are knowledge-dependent. Yet how many times have we heard it said that we need to de-emphasize teaching “mere facts” and focus on skills like critical thinking, creativity, and problem-solving? CCSS rescue knowledge from those who would trivialize it, or who simply don’t understand its fundamental role in human cognition.

Common Core asks not just for more nonfiction, but for a coherent, knowledge-rich curriculum in English language arts. Yes, there’s a difference. Perhaps the gravest disservice done to schoolchildren in recent memory is the misguided attempt to teach and test reading comprehension not just as a skill, but as a transferable skill—a set of tips and “reading strategies” that can be applied to virtually any text, regardless of subject matter.

http://www.edexcellence.net/commentary/education-gadfly-daily/common-core-watch/2012/nobody-loves-standards-and-thats-ok.html#body

Education professor (and common core critic) Sandra Stotsky isn’t buying this argument.

It is amazing that one badly informed person could single-handedly alter and weaken the entire public school curriculum in this country, without any public discussion.  Indeed, David Coleman, author of the Common Core standards in English Language Arts, had no trouble imposing his personal preferences on a document called our “national standards” and keeping them there. Not one legal organization in this country has so far mounted a challenge to the entire series of non-transparent procedures, funding sources, and appointments that gave one person the authority to make national educational policy over the heads of parents, local school boards, and even Congress.

Why did David Coleman mandate over 50% reading time on “informational” texts in K-5 and up to 70% thereafter in the form of ten grade-level informational reading standards and nine grade-level literature standards at every educational level in the Common Core standards in English Language Arts?  Here is my hypothesis based on his speech, “Part 4–Introduction to the Common Core State Standards for ELA & Literacy.”

We begin with the first of Coleman’s many extra-evidentiary claims: his claim that 80% of the elementary school day is currently spent on “stories/literature.”  He says the research is clear, but I can find no study to provide evidence for this claim. Most schools spend about an hour a day on math alone. The other four hours a day are not spent reading or listening to stories. If they were, our educational problem might be in good part solved.  Perhaps Coleman is trying to count as part of literary study the time kids spend writing and revising experience-based “stories.”  But, whatever is left of the elementary school day after math instruction and the typical 2 ½ hour “literacy” block is not spent on reading literary stories, as any elementary teacher would attest.

http://parentsacrossamerica.org/2012/06/the-common-cores-5050-mandate-for-literaryinformational-texts/

Both articles are well worth reading in their entirety.

So what do you think?

4 comments

  1. howard beale

    My mother is a fish.

    That’s what I remember from the classics. I also remembered how reading them in Junior Honors English killed my love for reading fiction and literature. I mostly read for utilitarian reasons.

    What this leads to. Teachers need to sign reading that has meaning and interest to them. I wonder if Faulkner would be excited that students all over America are being required to read him. I don’t think this is what he would want.

  2. howard beale

    My mother is a fish.

    That’s what I remember from the classics. I also remembered how reading them in Junior Honors English killed my love for reading fiction and literature. I mostly read for utilitarian reasons.

    What this leads to. Teachers need to sign reading that has meaning and interest to the students. I wonder if Faulkner would be excited that students all over America are being required to read him. I don’t think this is what he would want.

  3. Suzie

    I think everyone should love reading, but the truth is that most people just aren’t hard-core readers, and it’s more important to be able to manage hard-to-read stuff than it is to enjoy ‘superficial’ reading. Yes, try and get kids to love reading as much as you can while they’re young and impressionable, but more important than enjoying reading is being able to read and understand, even when it uses big words.

  4. Bruce Price

    Ah, if only we could trust the Education Establishment, perhaps I could take Coleman seriously.

    Fact is, they are still teaching sight-words in the first and second grades. Millions of children are still being damaged right from the beginning. This tells me that Coleman & Co. are not serious about literacy.

    But that aside, we all know from personal experience that it’s the fun reading that pulls us along. Look at what people of all ages actually read during their summer vacations. I’ll bet it’s vastly weighted in favor of fiction. So if it works for adults, presumably the same inducement would work for children. All that matters is that they read something, and lots of it. Coleman wants to emphasize the dullest, driest prose. The result will be a decline in total number of pages read by all children, which means a decline in fluency across the society. A teacher told me this new stuff should be called Common Bore. When you read that Coleman wants children to read boilerplate prepared by the EPA, you know this teacher is right.

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