Being out in the field, talking to teachers and librarians about the Common Core (CC), I’ve learned as much as I’ve taught. My world is often centered in my study (where I research and write), or in the graduate classes that I teach, or in the K–12 classrooms that I visit. In those spaces, I’ve learned, secondhand, about students being told they can only read an “L” or an “R” book—and how parents have demanded that libraries rearrange their collections from A to Z, according to carefully determined reading levels, so their kids can read totally non-frustrating texts. But it took being at a workshop out on Long Island, NY, for me to really understand the fundamental clash between guided reading and Common Core—something that many of you doubtless experience daily.
At the workshop, librarians spoke of their schools being, in effect, taken over by guided reading crews with their alphabet soup of labels and rigid instructions. That type of approach made absolutely no sense to me, so I did my homework. I learned that guided reading began as a good idea: breaking classrooms into groups by reading levels didn’t work since poor readers didn’t improve when they were clumped together, so teachers needed a new way to match individual readers, reading levels, and texts. So far, so good. Indeed, as one reading expert told me, providing a space, say 20 to 30 minutes daily, where, as part of the reading diet, a learner experiences clear sailing seems at worst harmless and at best a step toward success.
But this relatively benign approach has turned into an expensive program complete with minatory reading coaches who run around mandating to librarians what kids should be allowed to read. The second problem is that the steroidal guided reading monster is directly at odds with the Common Core.
As literacy expert Timothy Shanahan pointed out in “The Common Core Ate My Baby and Other Urban Legends,” a recent article in Educational Leadership, limiting students to below-frustration texts doesn’t necessarily help them (see, especially, “Legend 4: Teachers Must Teach Students at Frustration Levels”) nor does CC require all kids to tackle weighty tomes far beyond their previous reading ranges. In the early grades, where students are working to become fluent readers, CC doesn’t demand that they read more complex texts. And it’s precisely in that preK-to-2 band that learners may need some reading time where they don’t have to struggle. And that brings us to content.
The key clash between guided reading and CC is that those A-to-Z labels have nothing to do with content—they are about the ease of decoding. Starting in earnest in second grade, CC stresses that knowledge is a key part of literacy. This cuts two ways. Every elementary school librarian knows that a student who’s passionate about a subject isn’t daunted by the text’s difficulty—the multi-syllabic names of dinosaurs being a prime example. Curiosity drives readers on from one record, one wacky fact, one sports stat, one set of rules on how to care for pets, to another—and the text’s length or structure isn’t a formidable barrier. In turn, the Common Core standards emphasize that in order to read a student must identify details that add up to evidence and tap into modes of thinking that add up to argument and point of view. You can’t build those muscles without what librarians used to call “stretch,” or challenging, books.
Whether young people are on a sports team or practice an instrument, whether they play Minecraft or chess, they realize that to be good at something you have to work at it; you have to test your limits. Reading works the same way: you build muscles through confronting and overcoming a challenge, and you’re drawn to that challenge because you have a specific goal. We in library land know of many reading goals that appeal to students—books they want to tackle because they find them engaging, interesting, and exciting. Common Core adds the goal of preparing students for a successful life after school. That is the sort of guided reading that makes sense to me.
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