New York State has just finished its first round of Common Core ELA testing, and the feedback is beginning to pour in. The comments I have read are mostly very critical of the test. But, let’s approach these statements with some caution: who is the most motivated to respond? The people who have posted are those who want to see changes instituted in the test. Others may be taking a wait-and-see approach. While I didn’t find any overwhelmingly positive comments, there was one post that focused on an aspect of the test that warrants consideration:
“In the Common Core era, we have all begun to adhere to a shift toward close and careful reading of complex texts. We expect students to think more deeply about the texts they are reading, from the “zoomed out” ideas of overall structure, organization, and theme to the very “zoomed in” details such as the effect a particular word choice has on tone and meaning in a sentence. We are teaching student [sic] that a lot can be gained by lingering over a particular text, or section of a text, and rereading sections that are confusing or they believe to be important.” The key word in the last sentence: rereading.
Anyone who follows this column knows libraries well. So I ask, can you point to a nonfiction passage that you have praised because it rewards rereading? So often when we promote a nonfiction title we stress that it goes down easy. We commend it because it’s browsable, meaning that it’s not necessary to read it through. Perhaps we applaud its fun facts—or because it’s a page-turner, or because it reads like a novel, or we couldn’t put it down. Indeed if a nonfiction title has unfamiliar terminology we extol its glossary and definitions, and we criticize it if we fear it will be too challenging for its intended audience.
Notice what we are actually saying: that nonfiction text should be quick and easy; it should not demand that readers slow down and return to it in order to winkle out its deeper meanings. To use outdated terminology, it’s good for reports when students can snap up the information at a glance, and it’s a pleasure read when they can zoom through it.
And yet the Common Core informs us—in the standards, and now, clearly, in the assessments—that students, from the third grade on up, need to dig in, to read purposefully, to read closely, and often, to reread nonfiction passages. We have long practiced this approach with fiction–it takes no effort to find the works of William Shakespeare or Emily Dickinson or commentaries on or critiques of them. Newer versions or graphic interpretations of classic fiction titles are often available to help students comprehend these works. What we need to ask ourselves is, what tools do we have as educators to help students and colleagues prepare for the careful reading of nonfiction?
But, back to my question–can you point to a single book, a paragraph, or a chapter in a nonfiction book that you can highlight as rewarding rereading? And don’t point to primary sources–sure, those are great, but teachers don’t need help finding Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” They need to find passages that complement a study of that brilliant essay, passages that are worthy of reexamination. To help our students and colleagues, we must begin by examining our own reading, we must consider our knowledge of the books on our shelves and in our ebook collections, and the resources in the databases we access.
The comments on the first round of New York State ELA Common Core testing suggests that the tests themselves must be improved. That gives us time to sharpen our ability to prepare students and teachers to meet the Common Core standards—starting with the challenge of nonfiction rereading.
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