February 24, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

RE: Reading | Consider the Source

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 To use outdated terminology, it’s good for reports when students can snap up the information at a glance, and it’s a pleasure read when they can zoom through it.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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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.

Facts Matter: Information Literacy for the Real World
Libraries and news organizations are joining forces in a variety of ways to promote news literacy, create innovative community programming, and help patrons/students identify misinformation. This online course will teach you how to partner with local news organizations to promote news literacy through a range of programs—including a citizen journalism hub at your library.


  1. Myra Zarnowski says:

    Funny you should mention favorite nonfiction passages. Among my favorites is Albert Marrin’s description of the origins of smallpox in his book DR. JENNER AND THE SPECKLED MONSTER: THE SEARCH FOR THE SMALLPOX VACCINE. Almost every sentence contains speculation. He uses words like “probably,” “and phrases like “in some way that is still unclear” to build the strongest case possible even when there are gaps in information. I admire how he combines what is known with what is possibly true. I think this work merits rereading and study. I very much like the idea of making a collection of good nonfiction writing worth close reading and study. This would be a great classroom project.

  2. Richard Moore (@infosherpa) says:

    >>> can you point to a nonfiction passage that you have praised because it rewards rereading?

    Well I was going to mention the Bible, The Gettysburg address, and Shakespeare, but then you forbid MLK. So How about Robert Caro describing JFK in his oval office, wondering what to do about that preacher causing a fuss out on the Mall? Or Rachel Carson starting a movement with golden lines about a possible future in Silent Spring?

    Please don’t play into the hands of the Common Core folks by thinking that non-fiction is anything other than non-813. Truman Capote created a whole genre in 364.1 with In Cold Blood. Audubon gave us rich visuals to bathe in which deserve “deep reading” as well. And they reward revisit, just as hundreds of volumes in the 700s do — even the baseball books, which thrill us with achievement told well. I began my Steinbeck journey with Travels With Charley in 1961, not Grapes of Wrath. A librarian handed it to me, then Ray Bradbury’s October Country, then spent the next four years anticipating and suggesting until I was hooked.

    The point? Kids need well stocked libraries with highly qualified librarians, to lead them to their own choices of “information” well told. At the moment there are 834 credentialed librarians for 10,000 schools in California, so good luck with that.

    David Coleman is a scam artist who worked for Michelle Rhee, then decided he could create a curriculum for the entire nation. Billions will go for computers to test the children in this brave new world and not a cent for libraries.