The new common core standards are challenging widely accepted instructional practices. Probably no ox has been more impressively gored by the new standards than the widely-held claim that texts of a particular difficulty level have to be used for teaching if learning is going to happen.
Reading educators going back to the 1930s, including me, have championed the idea of there being an instructional level. That basically means that students would make the greatest learning gains if they are taught out of books that are at their “instructional” level – meaning that the text is neither so hard that the students can’t make sense of them or so easy that there is nothing in them left to learn.
These days the biggest proponents of that idea have been Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell, at Ohio State. Their “guided reading” notion has been widely adopted by teachers across the country. The basic premises of guided reading include the idea that children learn to read by reading, that they benefit from some guidance and support from a teacher during this reading, and, most fundamentally, that this reading has to take place in texts that are “just right” in difficulty level. A major concern of the guided-readingistas has been the fear that “children are reading texts that are too difficult for them.”
That’s the basic idea, and then the different experts have proposed a plethora of methods for determining student reading levels, text difficulty levels, and for matching kids to books, and for guiding or scaffolding student learning. Schemes like Accelerated Reader, Read 180, informal reading inventories, leveled books, high readability textbooks, and most core or basal reading programs all adhere to these basic ideas, even though there are differences in how they go about it.
The common core is based upon a somewhat different set of premises. They don’t buy that there is an optimum student-text match that facilitates learning. Nor are they as hopeful that students will learn to read from reading (with the slightest assists from a guide), but believe that real learning comes from engagement with very challenging text and a lot of scaffolding. The common core discourages lots of out-of-level teaching, and the use of particularly high readability texts. In other words, it champions approaches to teaching that run counter to current practice.
How could the common core put forth such a radical plan that contradicts so much current practice?
The next few entries in this blog will consider why common core is taking this provocative approach and why that might be a very good thing for children’s learning.
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