Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Common Core, Informational Text, and Reading

There's an overt belief in the Common Core State Standards (ELA) that reading a lot of informational text is the way one learns how to comprehend such text.  To that end, the Standards specify the percentage of text types that learners must annually read:

                                   Literary                        Informational
By Grade 4                 50%                                    50%
By Grade 8                 45%                                    55%
By Grade 12               30%                                    70%
The authors of the Standards write:
The Standards aim to align instruction with this framework so that many more students than at present can meet the requirements of college and career readiness. In K–5, the Standards follow NAEP’s lead in balancing the reading of literature with the reading of informational texts, including texts in history/ social studies, science, and technical subjects...the Standards demand that a significant amount of reading of informational texts take place in and outside the ELA classroom.
So I was thinking about how I read and what informs the ways I make meaning from text, be it a literary work or an informational text, or a hybrid of both. This led me to think about several related questions:
  1. Does the mandatory increase in reading informational text so that it becomes the majority of text type read by the age of 11 for all students in public schools actually help these learners better comprehend informational text?
  2. Does the decrease in literary works at the secondary level influence reader capacity to comprehend complex texts of any type?
  3. What effect might the mandate of the percentages of text types have on readers, pedagogy, and textbook development?
  4. What happens to learners when central control replaces local decision making?
A lot to think about and I'm of course curious as to what you think and hope you will weigh in on this.  A colleague and I are writing an article about the Common Core and I would appreciate including your insights.  As I think about these questions I want to offer a few observations, beginning with the first two questions.

On Reading
I don't recall having any direct instruction about ways to read informational text as I made my way through elementary and high school.  Now to be sure I am not advocating we ignore informational text. I favor teaching text structure and unique features of informational text as ways to enhance understanding, as well as teaching learners ways to comprehend and evaluate digital texts (regardless of type).  I think all of these can be important, as well as being mindful about the accuracy and value of information.  As I was writing this, the tweet below appeared.

A timely reminder.

My question though remains rather unanswered: Does mandated amounts of a specific text type lead to better comprehension? I wonder about this as I know that reading literary works, especially poetry, continues to enhance how I read as it requires me to actively attend to vocabulary, syntax, tone, symbol, meter, form, and diction. This attention to language directly helps me to comprehend complex philosophical texts. Different genres, yet I borrow from the reading experiences I have had and continue to have with poetry to inform ways of reading and making meaning. Now poets won't be too surprised by this.  William Carlos Williams in "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower," writes:

                                             It is difficult
             to get the news from poems
                   yet men die miserably every day
                            for lack
             of what is found there.

There's an irony to Williams's words as I not only found what is essential within poems, but I also grapple with contemporary issues too.  For example, it was not an informational text that spurred my interest in El Salvador in the early 1980s, but rather it was poetry.  30 years later I can still recall Carolyn Forche's poem, "The Colonel."(Click the link and you can hear her read it.)

Now, I am not suggesting that poetry reading be mandated. I suspect that there will be different pathways to reading for different learners. And that leads me to the last two questions.

I don't think making students read a certain amount of a particular type of text is going to actually help develop life-long readers or more critical readers, especially among the more fragile reader. I know mandated practices decrease the responsiveness necessary to teach the hard to teach learner.  Had I been limited in this manner and had been force to operate with specified percentages of text types, several of the learners I taught would not have become the fine readers that they did.  If you have faced the challenge of teaching the learner who is struggling to make meaning from text, limiting options doesn't make a whole lot of sense.  I can still recall Kyle, a sandy haired boy of 14, who spent several weeks in 8th grade slumped behind a book he clearly was not reading.  Kyle tried a range of books and it wasn't until he hit on Avi that he began to build, rather quickly, lots and lots of reading muscle.  Kyle must have read a dozen Avi novels before venturing into other authors and types of texts.   Kyle had little faith in his capacity "to read" and for a time thought "the magic" rested in the author.  This is the same child who by December of that school year recommended we form a club in class dedicated to reading really long novels.  Kyle ran that club.  In the same class with Kyle, there were Jamal, Peter, and Anton who I affectionately dubbed, the disaster boys.  You may know the type: they read endless books about disasters and each piece of writing somehow featured a disaster.  That year I learned a lot about F5 tornadoes and the like.  My point here, is that I used any and every method I knew to help my learners come to love reading: to find pleasure in it and then I could nudge them into deepening and broadening their reading repertoires.

In those days, I was not hampered by a national document that specified by percentage what each learner had to read. Nor was I influenced by any administrator who felt obligated to ensure that the percentages were honored, regardless of outcome.  My selection of texts that I helped to place into my learners' hands came from a library I honed with more than 1,500 discrete titles.  I had no mandated textbook that reflected the distribution of text type by percentage that I had to use.  The issue here is not about informational text, but is more about mandates and power.

Local decision making matters when teaching and learning.  My students and I had expertise that today would be discounted by the Common Core folk.  It is as if the two people who authored the document in 2010 were somehow situated as being omnipotent, for only a self-determined god could know what the Kyles of the world need and want to do in 2011, 2013 or next week.  A mandate strips local decision-making and replaces it over time with a learned subservience.  We do x because we have been told to do so. 

Such action is dangerous. A republic requires far more autonomy, far more thinking.


  1. Excellent post! I think your key point is "I used any and every method I knew to help my learners come to love reading: to find pleasure in it and then I could nudge them into deepening and broadening their reading repertoires." Once we develop confident, engaged, passionate readers, we can encourage them to tackle other writing. Not that we never expose our learners to different writing, but rather that enforced reading leads, in my opinion, to students who hate to read and think they can't read.

  2. What an awesome post. Some states are interpreting the "suggestions" in the core standards as mandates. I remember more about literary texts than I do informational, though I'm proficient at reading informational texts. My teachers prepared me in a 20th century mindset, but it prepared me pretty well for the world I live in now. The NAEP scores alone should not be the impetus for improvement and change. A full third of the text complexity formula is dependent upon the reader--choice is everything at this point, and not necessarily informational text choices. I have VERY fond memories of fictional texts as a kid, and I reread some of those now as an adult. I am a better reader because of them, and I would kick ass on Jeopardy!

  3. @anonymous,
    I would concur. Being forced or feeling like you are being forced can create conditions where learning is diminished. Agency accounts for so much. Thanks for posting.

  4. @Mike,
    I think there's something to say for the kind of thinking reading/hearing literature might occasion. Agree with you about NAEP. A single measure ought not be the determiner for action at the scale of the Common Core. I'm reading Finnish Lessons and it isn't lost on me that the ways we are 'being reformed' is the opposite of what the author says Finland did.

  5. >it was not an informational text that spurred my interest in El Salvador in the early 1980s, but rather it was poetry.

    And I learned a lot about Haiti through young adult fiction. (Taste of Salt is a good one.)

  6. I think you've delineated the challenges, but I want to try out some notions of what I think may be opportunities.

    As I see the state of affairs much of our present teacher work force has not had a chance to develop as natural learners. Should not be a surprise as most have gone through the same education system that has evolved from the needs of a previous society.

    My understanding - from outside the system - is that much of the narrative that is being used is not taught to unlock it's real power.

    What I like to believe is that the thinking that underlies Common Core has at least a strand that says critical engagement with the text as text is a needed spur to get us all to where we have to be.

    I base much of my feelings about CC on this one hour long vid. there is also a PDF full transcript here

    What makes things more difficult is the strong passions that have been aroused that makes it so much harder to see whatever opportunities are being opened.

    In that context, I feel very lucky to have had a chance to meet you, read your writing and I hope to continue the CC conversation here or where ever is appropriate.

  7. To reiterate what MikeFisher821 said, everything in that document that is not an enumerated standard is just commentary, and the page you link to is poorly thought out, misleading, self-contradictory commentary. You understand the Common Core standards LESS after reading that than you do from simply reading the text.

    The proportion of different text types in the curriculum is outside the scope of the standards. It is a curriculum question.

    That, and whether or not it all simply means that kids should read more in science, social studies, math, art class, etc. is not at all clear.

  8. @ Sue, Taste of Haiti was one of the 1500 books in the library I mentioned. Several learnrrs loved that book. Thanks for joining the convo.

  9. @Michael J. I have watched the video you referenced and actually participated in a day long Common Core "training" in which David Coleman did a mock lesson as he did in Albany. I recount the event here:

    The challenge with the assumption about critical engagements is that the Common Core advocates a single method for reading (Close Reading). Critical engagements with text is plural.

    I simply do not believe the Common Core is about learning. It seems to be more about control.

    Thanks for commenting:)

  10. @Tom Hoffman:
    I think the distinction you make between the commentary and the actual listing of standards is a big idea worth delving into. Thank you. It makes me wonder why the commentary is there? What was the intention? How does one read the commentary? As suggestion? As directive?

    Already there are textbooks being mass produced that will keep the percentages as I outline above a reality. That's the shame.

    Appreciate your insights.

  11. The commentaries and appendixes on these standards in particular should be read as political statements aimed at mollifying various political constituencies who won't read the standards themselves particularly closely or know how to interpret them.

    The whole non-fiction thing is I think a reaction to elementary reading patterns which may be out of whack for a variety of reasons (i.e., removing science and social studies from the curriculum...). I'm a high school person so I don't really get it either way. In part what they're doing in kind of hacking in a sub-set of history and science standards in there so maybe they'll have something to use for accountability purposes if they can't actually get common science and history standards passed.

    The thing that radicalized me about these standards was actually the benchmarking to other national and international standards that was only included in the first draft. If you want a trip down my memory lane, see:

    I think at that point I was just commenting on the draft College and Career Ready Standards, the grade level standards weren't out yet.

  12. I really enjoyed your post. I have had similar questions, I.e., does eliminating a lot of narrative and reading more informational truly lead to better learning of informational text? I'm concerned about unanticipated consequences.

    I am working through all of the research cited in Appendix A and am currently looking at the studies/articles behind the informational text shift. It has been quite interesting. I have posted blogs on about this analysis of the research. You might find it interesting.

    I would love to see your article when you finish.

    Jan Burkins
    Jan at literacy head dot calm :)

    Oh, yea...not to mention that I founded a website that is about connecting literacy and the visual arts. :) it seems we have common interests!


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