Thursday, May 7, 2015

The Common Core: Teaching Students in gr. 6-12 to meet the reading standards- close reading

Close reading is a term referred once in the CCSS but has received a huge amount of interest as a result of the roll out of the standards. The problem that authors Maureen McLaughlin and Brenda J. Overturf note in their book, The Common Core: Teaching Students in Grades 6-12 to Meet the Reading Standards, is that there is no agreed upon definition of what close reading is. They point out in numerous places this discrepancy.

  • Aspen Institute: it involves investigation of a short piece with multiple readings over a period of time where students are guided to "deeply analyze and appreciate various aspects of the text..." (p 78). It is an instructional strategy using direct instruction techniques to read increasingly "complex texts and apply newly acquired knowledge" (p. 78)

  • ACT: literary analysis (p. 55). Interpret text using literary devices and aspects such as theme and figurative language or identify claims and analyze support (p. 78)

  • Common Core- "read for deep comprehension;" to determine what the text explicitly reveals (p. 78)

  • Fisher and Frey- an aspect of reader response to the text (p. 56)

  • Pearson- utilize prior knowledge to support it, but gives respect to the text rather than the author, historical background, or personal disposition (p. 56-7)

  • Calfee- not the "keystone" of literacy, but a piece of it (p. 57)

  • Authors interpretation of the CCSS- both literary analysis and a way to read for enhanced comprehension (p. 57)

The fact that multiple interpretations exists presents challenges when trying to understand what we are talking about. Is close reading analysis or comprehension? seems to be the foundation of the debate, but it can be further complicated by the idea that it is a unified strategy to approach reading tasks.

In my children's schools they seem to approach close reading as a strategy involving rereading and annotating texts. My daughter has found this particularly infuriating since the annotation of a short work, well below her significantly above grade level reading, involving concepts that she readily understands is unnecessary. Afterall who annotates Pat the Bunny by Dorothy Kunhardt? For her, rereading and making notes is a tedious process that does little to enhance comprehension or enable literary analysis. For other students, however, for whom a significant portion of the vocabulary is poorly or not understood, multiple readings and question marks are not helpful. If a student must pause multiple times in a sentence to look up a word, he is not likely to persevere at the task, even if the reading is in an electronic form and hyperlinks are available to assist in word comprehension.

The idea of a scaffold of skills to understand and interpret readings is appealing, but the often poorly undifferentiated curriculum demanding every child read the same passage is somewhat of a mockery of the idea of challenging texts. You cannot teach a scaffold of skills effectively if some students never advance beyond handholding and some never encounter a difficulty. Approaching the curriculum to effectively teach reading for deep comprehension seems to imply at some level that good strategy instruction occur- that requires instruction on material at an independent level and moving to progressively more challenging material. If we want to teach students to read beyond their grade level, something that appears to be a goal in NY (look at our modules and tests that utilize readings far outside of what good sense tells us is appropriate for children at a particular age), we need to establish a progression that takes them through reading from the easy to the challenging.

I have read some authors reflect that they do not want people to look too deeply into their work because they find things that were not there. Themes that the author did not intend to explore, hidden messages that "closely reading" can reveal. This is, in fact, how my tongue in cheek high school essay about Ethan Frome and the relationship between Zeena and the cat came up. There is some sense of preposterousness and hubris in thinking that we can uncover these ideas, many of which were unintended. We say that statistics can prove anything. Are we going to a place where deep and close enough reading can as well?

If we want to have a discussion about the standards, we need to first agree on what this term "close reading," referred to in the first reading standard, means. We need to agree that not all material should be read closely and that not all reading, even in English class, should be close. We need to understand that just because a student is at a particular grade level, a particular book or passage is challenging- it could be anywhere from impossible to child's play.

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