Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Common Core's Supposed Emphasis on Close Reading is a Joke (not much reading, and not very close)

In the curriculum materials developed by the Common Core authors' own company, there is very little time available for high-volume reading, and the close reading questions lack depth or complexity.  Poor readers will not read enough to improve; good readers will be bored and very likely contemptuous.

Resources from the Standards' authors' own company
The Common Core standards are supposed to promote increased complexity of text, but they offer very little guidance on how to do it. Since the standards don't say much about what teachers should actually do, I couldn't be sure, but I have long been skeptical that the standards would do much to improve students' ability to read more complex texts, since the most important factor is how much students read, and the standards say very little about reading volume. Nevertheless, ready to be proved wrong, I decided to look at some curriculum that was developed with the Common Core in mind by an organization founded by the some of the authors of the standards.

Both Bill Gates and some corporations (I think GE gave 18 million dollars) have supported an organization called "Student Achievement Partners," which describes itself, awkwardly, as a "nonprofit organization that assembles educators and researchers to design actions based on evidence that substantially improve student achievement." (With tens of millions of dollars, you'd think they could have substantially improved their own writing!)  This organization has established a website called "," which offers "free, high-quality resources for educators to implement the Common Core Standards."  When I visited the site, I was surprised not only by the paucity of resources, but also by their relatively low intellectual level.

What about "literary texts" in high school? What about independent reading?
From a none too extensive list of lessons on close reading, I clicked on an eighth grade unit on Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken and Jeanne Watasuki Houston's Farewell to Manzanar--partly because I was surprised that Hillenbrand's book would be taught in the eighth grade (a strong student in one of my Honors Junior classes is reading the book and fnding it challenging because of the length, complexity and the unfamiliar historical content), but also because I wanted to look at a lesson plan on a "literary text", not on an "instructional text," and the site offered not a single lesson plan at the high school level for use with a "literary text." This omission, no doubt related to CCSS's infamous call for 80% of kids' reading in high school to be of informational texts, was disappointing enough--but then I dug into the lesson plan.

The lesson plan only focuses on a few passages from each book.   Each day of the five-day lesson plan has the kids reading one passage from each book, then hearing it aloud, then writing about it, then discussing it.   This would not be terrible--if time were built in for extensive reading beyond these few paragraphs--but the writing and discussion prompts strike me as tedious and shallow, and I am very skeptical that a class doing this lesson plan would have kids actually reading more than a page or two a day.

"Close Reading": Boring Writing Prompts and Discussion Questions

The lesson is prefaced by a warning that since this is close reading, the teacher should not offer students any introduction, background or context for the texts.  This strikes me as truly bizarre advice (the weakness of New Criticism with none of its strengths), especially when the texts in question are brief excerpts from much longer works.  The instructions read:

It is critical to cultivating independence and creating a culture of close reading   that students initially grapple with rich texts without the aid of prefatory material, extensive notes, or even teacher explanations.

These instructions are comically ironic, since this entire teacher-selected, teacher-directed, non-open-ended lesson plan seems designed rather to stifle independence.

Here is the first passage, from Unbroken:

The men had been adrift for twenty-seven days. Borne by an equatorial current, they had floated at least one thousand miles, deep into Japanese-controlled waters. The rafts were beginning to deteriorate into jelly, and gave of a sour, burning odor. The men’s bodies were pocked with salt sores, and their lips were so swollen that they pressed into their nostrils and chins. They spent their days with their eyes fixed on the  sky, singing “White Christmas,” muttering about food. No one was even looking for them any more. They were alone on sixty-four million square miles of ocean. A month earlier, twenty-six-year-old [Louie] Zamperini had been one of the greatest runners in the world, expected by many to   be the first to break the four-minute mile, one of the most celebrated barriers in sport. Now his Olympians body had wasted to less than one hundred pounds and his famous legs could no longer lift him. Almost everyone outside his family had given him up for dead.”

The writing prompt is:

In one or two sentences, briefly describe the condition of Louie Zamperini and the other men who were "adrift" in Japanese-controlled waters.

Then there are three discussion questions, one about how the author establishes "time and geographic location," one about the mental and physical condition of the men on the boat, and one about why the author writes about Louie Zamperini's past life and experiences.

For a good reader, these are boring questions.  They are neither very difficult--it is pretty obvious that the men are in poor shape--nor, just as important, are they open-ended.  These are not questions that could have more than one answer (in case the teacher is not himself a good reader, the lesson plan helpfully gives the answer; for example: "Hillenbrand describes Louie Zamperini's former condition as an Olympic athlete to show how, within a very short period of time, a popular star-athlete could quickly find himself weak, emaciated, and near death while floating aimlessly on a rescue raft in the South Pacific. This portion of text helps students establish a sense of how far Louie was from his former life before the war.")

It's hard to imagine a good discussion coming out of questions like the ones in this unit. There are things in the passage that seem interesting to me, either because I wasn't familiar with the phenomena (rafts turning to jelly, salt sores, etc.) or because I was curious about why (the looking at the sky, the singing of "White Christmas," etc.), or because the logical continuity of the writing seemed tenuous (in the last two sentences, there seems to be an implied connection between Louie's famous legs wasting away and his being given up for dead by folks back home, even mthough you wouldn't know his legs were wasting away unless you were on the raft).  But the questions in the unit just don't get at these strange and interesting elements of the passage, and if I were a student in the class I would feel like I was mostly wasting my time.

It seems to me that it would be much more worthwhile to have students mark up and make comments directly on the passage and then have a more open-ended discussion, beginning perhaps with a pretty broad question like "What didn't you understand in the passage?" or "What do you think the author is doing in this passage?" Open-ended questions will lead to real discussion, and real discussion will help students get better at answering even the boring questions like these.  But answering boring questions won't help kids learn anything, except to dislike school and reading.

Kids need to read a lot, and this lesson plan doesn't encourage that

If this were run as a five-day unit, the students would read a total of four pages in class, and at most another three pages at home.  An appendix does present the possibility of doing a three-week unit in which students would read one of the texts in full, but this possibility would require, for kids reading Unbroken, an average of over thirty pages per night, a pace which, for this demanding text, would lead nearly all students to cheat on the reading, pushing some into the arms of study guides, others into desperate skimming, and all into frustration and contempt.

Assuming that the unit is done as a one-week unit, students would get well-organized lesson plans on interesting, but very brief texts with boring tasks and very, very little reading.  This is not a good way to learn to be a good reader.  Students need to read a lot, and the discussions they have about what they read need to be based on interesting, open-ended questions to which the teacher or lesson-planner does not already know the right answer.

It might be tempting to think that this lesson plan is just a lemon, but it's not.  The Common Core sets an expectation that students will be "given frequent opportunities to read a high volume of
texts independently and be held accountable for this reading", but nothing in the Standards, or in the materials I've seen developed for them, or in presentations I've watched by David Coleman or others, offers any hint as to how this could be accomplished, especially in the context of all the other stuff students are supposed to be doing.  I know from experience, and from the very, very consistent literature on fostering higher-volume reading (by Mary Leonhardt, Nancie Atwell, Stephen Krashen, Richard Allington, Penny Kittle, Kelly Gallagher, and others) that teachers must make a concerted effort to provide students with high-interest books, and with time to read them.  The Common Core just doesn't do this; therefore, unless we teachers take matters into our own hands, students will not advance on the "staircase of text complexity."

The high school lesson plans are no better
For the high school grades, there are no sample lessons on fiction or literature, only on "informational text," and for grades 11 and 12 there are only two sample lesson plans.  The first is a three-day lesson on a two-paragraph speech by the great jurist Learned Hand about America and freedom; the second unit takes "several days" to read and re-read Andrew Carnegie's four-page article,  "The Gospel of Wealth," about how wonderful inequality is, and how poor people should be grateful for it, since it allows rich people to spend some their wealth on philanthropic endeavors.  

Leaving aside the fact that these texts, especially the Carnegie essay, are of dubious literary quality and are essentially propaganda, there are again two major problems with these lesson plans:  (1) the questions and prompts are not not very interesting, and any good reader would hardly have to do any "close reading" in order to answer them; (2) they are together less than five pages long, and yet would seem, along with the "text-dependent questions" and the culminating essays, to be all that was intended to occupy the students for over a week of class time.  This is not a curriculum that is prioritizing reading.

The Common Core's supposed emphasis on close reading is a joke.  Again: in the curriculum materials developed by the Common Core authors' own company, there is very little time available for high-volume reading, and the close reading questions lack depth or complexity. Poor readers will not read enough to improve; good readers will be bored and very likely contemptuous. Of course, a good teacher could probably make these lesson plans work--but then, a good teacher wouldn't need them in the first place.

Although I am more and more sure that the CCSS effort is basically a stalking horse for standardized tests and for-profit curriculum, and that the authors are mostly clueless about how to help students develop into good readers, I do think it would be possible to develop a CCSS curriculum that would work very well.  That curriculum would involve large amounts of independent reading at the students' own reading level, along with focused close reading and instruction in how to read closely.  You might say, Well, that's just what Student Achievement Partners is trying to do!  Perhaps, but they are ignoring the independent reading side of it and doing the close reading side poorly.

In the future, I'm going to put up some curriculum I think would be better--and I'll also have to write about those lesson plans on how great America and inequality are...


  1. I think you've nailed it. I especially like how you describe the probable reaction of the good readers as "contemptuous." That would be my guess too. Whew! Worse than I thought.

  2. You can read some of my posts on the work of Student Achievement Partners here:

    Including such hits as "The Problem is that Student Achievement Partners are Incompetent" and "Common Core Habits of Mind: Believing in Miracles and Myths."

    Here's a choice quote: "Anyhow, Student Achievement Partners seems to simply lack any real expertise in English Language Arts instruction, particularly beyond the elementary school level. They seem to lack even an *interest* in ELA instruction beyond a couple of hobby horses (text complexity, text-based questions, writing arguments). I wouldn't be surprised if all these exemplars were written by interns."