Common Core turns students into literary critics. Does it turn them into lifelong readers?

In this interesting essay, University of Georgia professor Peter Smagorinsky talks about what reading means to the reader, as expressed by students in Mexico. He says current education policy treats reading as a way to test and sort students rather than inspire and connect them.

Smagorinsky echoes a growing concern among English teachers about the emphasis in Common Core on "close textual reading." The framers of Common Core State Standards felt English class had strayed too far into "What does this book mean to me"" and "How do I feel about it?" and weren't figuring out what the author was actually saying. So, students are now being asked to concentrate on what the text says so they can understand and analyze the content, arguments and contradictions. Rather than reading for self-exploration, they are reading for information and analysis.

Common Core critic and professor Sandra Stotsky explains why this approach may not meet its goal:

I am in no way suggesting that the ELA standards writers deliberately sought to make a worse conceptual mess of the secondary English curriculum than it now is and to damage the other subjects to boot. They were acting from good intentions. I believe that they truly believe that adequate college-level reading and writing comes from informational reading in K-12 and that more informational reading instruction in K-12 will make more students ready for college. Their approach, however, is based on a misunderstanding of the causes of the educational problem they sought to remedy through Common Core’s standards—the number of high school graduates who need remedial coursework in reading and writing as college freshmen and the equally large number of students who fail to graduate from high school and go on to a post-secondary educational institution.

The architects of Common Core assume that the major cause of this educational problem is the failure of our public schools to teach low-performing students in K-12 adequately or sufficiently how to read complex texts before they graduate from high school. That is, their English teachers have given them too heavy a diet of literary works and teachers in other subjects have deliberately or unwittingly not taught them how to read complex texts in these other subjects. This assumption doesn’t hold up. High school teachers will readily tell you that low-performing students have not been assigned complex textbooks or literary texts because, generally speaking, they can’t read them and, in fact, don’t read much of anything with academic content. As a result, they have not acquired the content knowledge and the vocabulary needed for reading complex textbooks in any subject.

For those interested, I recommend this essay by English teacher Daniel Katz, who writes, "If children in classrooms using the CCSS English standards learn to love reading on a deeply personal and affective level and develop a life long relationship with reading as a means of self exploration, it will be in spite of those standards, not because of them."

With that background, here is Smagorinsky's column.

By Peter Smagorinsky

This year I’m working with the University of Guadalajara in Mexico to help develop a literacy education program. On a trip earlier this fall, I had the opportunity to listen to panels of primary school students, early teens, and older teens talk about why they loved reading. Their audience included both adults and their classmates from school.

Although the three age groups had increasingly sophisticated understandings of the benefits of reading, they also tended to touch on a common set of points that would be quite useful for policymakers to grasp. For the most part, when talking about books they loved, they talked about narratives, primarily novels. Although our information-oriented educational policies consider literature to be a frivolous distraction from learning about facts, facts, facts, for these young readers, fictional narratives stirred their souls and generated a passionate approach to reading.

Reading, to these young experts, is a highly personal experience. When asked what they loved and learned through reading novels, they often referred to how the characters and situations paralleled their own life experiences. Drawing deeply on their personal experiences in response to what the characters go through in literature is a central aspect of a powerful reading experience.

Doing so allows them not only inform their understanding of the stories, it allows them a more sophisticated understanding of their own lives. They both see themselves more clearly, and see others more wisely. Rather than “reading like a detective within the four corners of the text,” as in the U.S. Common Core State Standards, they read like inquirers who find the literature to be both portal to other worlds and a template through which to understand their own lives.

Reading, they revealed, is also a very emotional experience for them. When one girl was asked why she loved a particular novel, she said that she loved it because she loved the person who had given it to her. The book was both good literature on its own merits, and a bond with a special person.

She thus felt a deep connection to the book as an extension of a personal relationship that mattered to her, which in turn contributed to the quality of the relationship that provided her with the book. I do not recall ever hearing the word “love” in policy discussions surrounding literacy, which tends to be treated as a set of technical skills.

Students also referred to the ways in which their imaginations were stirred by their reading. Imagination, in educational policy, is trivial and distracting from the serious work of technical analysis. Yet the youth on the panels told of how books allow them to travel around the world and become acquainted with places and people who are distant from their own lives, while still allowing them to reflect on how they live in Guadalajara. This reading is not simply an escape, but an imaginative journey that involves life lessons, the consideration of life possibilities, and the freedom that follows from unmooring the mind from its current material trappings.

Although reading is often thought of a solitary activity, it was clear their love of reading had a strong social dimension. The students in attendance were eager to ask the panelists which books they loved, why they loved them, how they related to the characters, what they learned from reading, and other questions. The panelists were excited to talk about their reading interests with their classmates, and encouraged them to do the same with their friends.

Reading, they maintained, serves as a key part of their relationships with their peers. In contrast, reading is often considered in educational policy to be a solitary and competitive act, with students’ reading scores used to rank and sort them. These young people would undoubtedly find that a strange way to treat something that they love discussing with their friends.

Ultimately, what I learned from these young experts is the role reading played in their meaning-laden development through life. Reading for them is a highly personal experience that has a strongly social orientation. Their immersion in a literary society helped them to appreciate stories as valuable texts to engage with. The young experts I listened to in Guadalajara were products of a reading context that helped them to see literary reading as a valuable activity, one they hoped their peers would take up with passion.

Reading also contributes to how they develop as people. The youth in Guadalajara gave example after example of how they had changed through the act of reading and through the related social experiences that enriched their reading. Their knowledge of new possibilities grew; their relationships were supported and strengthened; they imagined ways they might live their lives: In other words, reading to them was a critical means of developing into the type of person they hoped to become.

Most educational policymakers are shockingly dim on these roles of reading in the human experience, reducing it instead to a means for testing and sorting. I hope these kids eventually become educators and parents who know what reading is about and why people do it. The world would be a better place if we listened to them more, and punished them less, for their passion for reading and imagining what their lives hold for themselves and others.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.