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Common Core: Uncovering Solutions to Students' Literacy Struggles

Despite an increase in non-fiction reading in K-12 education since the adoption of Common Core standards, most students—specifically in high school—aren’t reading at their grade level, and worse, aren’t ready for college reading either, shows a recent report from Renaissance Learning.

Author of “Teach Like a Champion” and coauthor of new book “Reading Reconsidered: A Practical Guide to Rigorous Literacy Instruction” Doug Lemov, sees a way to change this trend, and it starts with asking the right questions. He discussed his research process for improving learning value in literacy under Common Core with EdWorld.

“The lion’s share of the ‘research’ we did [for ‘Reading Reconsidered’] involved observing actual teachers in their classrooms-- as well as talking to them, looking at their lesson plans, etc.—that’s what makes this book different from so many others.  Its premise is: ‘let’s learn from teachers as they problem-solve the important challenges they face in the classroom.’ We obviously read a lot of research, including especially the research behind the Common Core, but to us the question isn’t so much ‘is it a good idea?’ as ‘how do you apply that good idea?’ and maybe ‘how do you apply a good idea in the real world of 30 students, 25 things to get done and 55 minutes to your name?’ Let’s say you know a certain idea is a good idea—‘research backed’ even,” said Lemov. “Does that mean you should do it every day? Exclusive of all other things or in combination with them? If so, how do you do combine them for maximum value? What other things do you need to do to make the idea work or to ensure that your students succeed?”

Another coauthor of “Reading Reconsidered,” Colleen Driggs, noted that finding the right balance is paramount “in an era when literacy instruction is both changing and in fact mandated to change—in directions many of us think could use a bit of clarity.” Driggs sees being creative in the approach as a major bridge to getting through to students.

“We know that the Common Core tells us to read more nonfiction, for example. That argument is pretty sound. But how do you do that really well? Reading nonfiction can be a tough slog for kids—it’s complex and dense and thorny and they aren’t always drawn to it. There’s less likely to be a compelling narrative voice beckoning you to come sit and listen to an article about the Stamp Act or the survival adaptations of the puff adder. So it’s hard. And reading more nonfiction appears to possibly mean reading fewer novels and short stories,” said Driggs. “Are we talking about the end of literature here?  We set out to describe how you could answer those challenges. We describe, among other things, how certain teachers combine their nonfiction with their fiction. They might read a novel and choose five or six ideas or scenes in the novel to bring more depth and context to by reading a short nonfiction excerpt about them. We call this embedding—it connects the nonfiction to something that kids are already reading with interest. The nonfiction helps them absorb more of the novel and the novel helps them make more sense of the nonfiction.  The ‘absorption rate,’ the rate at which readers are building knowledge as they read, increases for both texts.”

After looking at 9.8 million students through 2014-2015 across the nation, the report, "What Kids Are Reading," investigates how student reading matches up to text complexity under the standards, amongst other trends in literacy. Their Accelerated Reader 360 and STAR Reading assessments generated the report’s data.

According to the report, nonfiction reading has gone up in every state spanning from 16 percent to 29 percent. However, with nonfiction reading still lacking in the United States by the National Assessment of Educational Progress’ standards (which recommends that 55 percent of student reading should be of nonfiction texts), the nation’s districts are hungry for new approaches to catch up with literacy standards.

Erica Woolway, the third author of “Reading Reconsidered,” believes that making adaptations to evolving expectations is the easiest way for teachers to navigate the political challenges and pressures of Common Core implementation “and still be true to the work in the ways that made you first become an English or reading teacher.”

“Teachers are being asked to make huge changes and they are being assessed as they make those changes- sometimes before they even know fully what those changes will look like. That’s a difficult and stressful thing to do. We try to help teachers walk through the valley of the PARCC by studying central ideas behind the Common Core—some of which are very good,” said Woolway. “Yes, you [heard] that correctly. In the midst of all the flux and the politics of implementation there are some very good ideas there. Focus on them and your classes will be more rigorous and, we dare to suggest, the assessment part will work out too because you’ll be doing the core ideas well and with rigor. ”

The "What Kids Are Reading" report also shows that 54 percent of students read under 15 minutes per day, a rate that only allows students to see “1.5 million words during the course of their schooling." Students committing 30 minutes to daily reading see “millions more words," comparatively.

Many of the striving readers studied in the report are doing well, however, and the report shows that "students who start low but who receive high-quality instruction, read books that are of interest to them, spend more time reading, encounter more words and demonstrate comprehension on their daily reading can surge ahead and catch up to their peers on the path to college and career readiness."

“Intentionality is key when choosing non-fiction—thinking specifically about the primary text that the non-fiction is paired with and how the non-fiction can be used to support understanding of that text or how it can be used in conjunction with the primary text to deepen students’ understanding of the world,” said Lemov. “Carefully planned overlapping questions that cause students to see the connection between the fiction and non-fiction text are also central to successfully incorporating non-fiction. We encourage teachers to work with a colleague, or colleagues, to evaluate the nonfiction text they’re planning to embed. Conversations with peers can be a useful tool in starting a deeper conversation about the text before investing in teaching the time to teach it.”

Lemov included that any time a teacher works to incorporate more non-fiction, they are hitting the mark “at least to some extent.”

“Regular exposure to and practice with non-fiction is crucial to the development of students as readers, so I’m never disappointed when I hear the phrase ‘more non-fiction.’ However, time is a teacher’s most valuable resource and it’s important to choose non-fiction that is worthy of the time investment it will require,” said Lemov.


Article by Jason Papallo, Education World Social Media Editor

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