March 22, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

(Mis)Guided Reading | Consider the Source

Teacher reading at desk with children

Photo by Hemera

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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Marc Aronson About Marc Aronson

Marc Aronson is a Rutgers University lecturer in the School of Communication and Information and the author of many notable nonfiction titles for children and young adults including, The Skull in the Rock, winner of the 2013 Subaru Prize from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. His book The Griffin and the Scientist (with Adrienne Mayor) will be published in April 2014. He was the first recipient of the Robert F. Sibert medal from the American Library Association for excellence in nonfiction writing for youth.

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  1. As a “minatory” reading coach, I would like to tell you that you are WRONG. It is the state & district who push mandates on coaches who must, in turn, bring these malpractices to their schools. The coaches are messengers (‘harbingers of reading doom’ being a better term). Ask most of us, we know our heralding is for the wrong deity.

    I obtained a master’s degree in reading education because I LOVED the process of learning to read, was enamored with its complexity and jumped for joy when I saw first graders begin to form meaning from symbols. I had a proud ideal and then I went to work as a reading coach.

    Now, when people ask me what I do, I reply with, “I kill the next Michael Jordon or Michael Jackson.” I will not elaborate further here, lest my district call me to the carpet (and I really need my job), but before you point fingers at the coaches, especially those of us who are actually specialists in the field of reading education, please know that we are caught in a mandated, terribly flawed, system.

    As I ponder my career direction, whilst holding on to my health insurance plan, I hope that I have the courage to address these malpractices in a way that leads to change….. I like the potential of the CCSS. However, if the CCSS assessments test only narrowed ELA skills, continue to be tied to merit pay & ridiculous VAMs, test ALL students without regard to individual circumstances, and if students continue to lose arts and physical education classes to intensive classes of homogeneously grouped mayhem, it won’t matter how good the new standards are.