Last week, I wrote a post about how reading instruction would change when aligned to the Common Core. Specifically, I outlined the vision of “close reading” that has been promoted by David Coleman and Sue Pimentel, the two chief architects of the CCSS ELA standards, which puts the focus on reading and re-reading grade-appropriate texts and using effective, text-dependent questions to guide lessons and class discussions.
The vision is compelling—I believe in the power of close reading and I also agree with Coleman’s point (made clearer in his comment on the post I wrote) that reading strategies are important only inasmuch as they are used to support comprehension of difficult texts. (They are not, in other words, an end in themselves.)
Its hard not to be biased in favor of one’s own interpretations of a text when it repeated back to you.
That said, there is one part of Coleman’s vision—specifically, his rejection of using “pre-reading” strategies to help prepare and provide context to students before they dive in to a complex text—that is likely to send shock waves into reading classrooms around the country, including those who are using the strategies suggested by Doug Lemov in Teach Like a Champion. And, while the decision about whether or not to download background knowledge and information to students before reading may seem like small potatoes in the context of our larger Common Core implementation discussion, it actually gets to the heart of a key debate about the long-term impact of “gap-closing” schools.
Coleman argues that by telling students a little about the stories they are about to read, teachers replace complex texts with a simpler version—their own words—and subtly encourage students to parrot back them what they said, rather than to engage in and draw conclusions for themselves. That, in turn, creates a classroom environment that encourages mimics rather than strong, independent readers. After all, if we tell students what is most important, then ask them questions about what’s most important, aren’t we most likely to hear what we’ve told them to say? And try as we might, its hard not to be biased in favor of one’s own interpretations of a text when it repeated back to you.
It’s a compelling argument. But for those teachers who have built instruction around the strategies outlined in Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion, following it would also be a significant departure from their current practice.
Both Lemov and Coleman agree on the importance of close reading to drive reading instruction and student comprehension. But Lemov’s vision differs from Coleman’s in at least two important ways.
1. Lemov suggests that “champion” teachers effectively pre-teach targeted background information, give students pre-reading summaries of the text, and “introduce key scenes before students read them.”
Lemov argues that “lack of prior knowledge is one of the key barriers to comprehension for at-risk students and it affects all aspects of reading, even fluency and decoding, as struggling with gaps soaks up the brain’s processing capacity.”
Lemov does emphasize, however, that these pre-reading mini-lessons should be short, and razor-focused on filling gaps, rather than on generating discussion. “Ten minutes of teacher-driven background and then getting right to reading is usually worth an hour of, ‘Who can tell me what Nazis were?’ Efficiency matters.”
Similarly, Lemov notes that the best teachers use summarizing effectively—they begin a class by summarizing what the students read the day before, and by “front loading” information and scenes that they will encounter today.
This is exactly the kind of practice that Coleman warns against, arguing that it’s precisely these kinds of summarizing and pre-reading activities that effectively give students “Cliff’s Notes” versions of complex texts and let them off the hook for engaging with the texts themselves.
2. Pointing out for students key “focal points” while reading
Lemov notes that students
“learn to determine what’s worthy of attention with time and practice. Without years of practice, readers often make questionable or nonstrategic decisions about what to attend to. They notice something of tangential relevance but miss the crucial moment. The trapeze artists are in full swing, and they can’t stop looking at the cotton candy seller. They see three details but fail to connect them to one another.”
To help students hone this critical skill, Lemov suggests that “champion” teachers
“steer them in advance toward key ideas, concepts, and themes to look for. Which characters will turn out to be most important? What idea will be most relevant to the story discussion? In addition, they advise students what’s secondary, not that important, or can be ignored for now.”
I am sure that Lemov and Coleman would agree on the problem—that students need to learn how to determine what’s worthy of time and attention. But Coleman values teachers who resist the temptation to point out key focal points and instead plan very strategic—often very humble—text-dependent questions that force students to go back into the texts themselves and recognize these focal points.
What Lemov saw in his best teachers could amount to “spoon feeding” answers to students.
The difference may be small, but its impact may be significant. What Lemov saw in his best teachers could amount to “spoon feeding” answers to students. It might let kids off the hook by putting most of the heavy lifting of reading on the teacher’s shoulders. And it could be one factor that contributes to the ongoing struggle that gap-closing schools have in helping their students learn the kinds of life-long independent reading and analysis skills they will need to be ready for the rigor and demands of college and beyond.
Of course, the challenge these schools have is real. As I mentioned in a previous post, gap-closing schools have to maximize every moment because every moment wasted simply adds to the already significant achievement gap between rich and poor. But, in reading class, have schools gone too far in their quest for efficiency and not left the space for students to learn the persistence they will need to do the kinds of analysis that will be required of them in the years ahead?
There is no easy answer—and there is no one right answer. But how schools approach these and other strategic questions in the months and years will go a long way towards determining the long-term impact of Common Core.