Why I Support the Common Core Reading Standards

This English professor thinks the program's approach to reading could fix the problems she sees among her college students.
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The text of the Gettysburg Address on the wall of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. The Common Core proposes having students study the structure and content of such texts in detail, reading for comprehension before emotional connection. (Reuters)

"I have reading comprehension." She whispered it, as though it were a communicable disease. The young woman and I were chatting outside the meeting room at a prestigious university where an education symposium was taking place. She was a college sophomore, bright, talented, and confident. With a bit of pressing, I verified that what she meant was that she had poor reading comprehension skills and had struggled with reading throughout all of her school years. Having learned that I was an English professor, she wanted me to suggest books for her to read; she wanted to enjoy reading more. I readily provided, along with some slight comfort.

"Many of my college students have trouble reading," I told her. "And it's not your fault or theirs. Students just aren't being taught how to read anymore."

She nodded emphatically. "I don't feel like I've ever been taught how to read well," she said.

She is far from alone.

When I was invited recently to attend a two-day conference with David Coleman, president of the College Board and the main architect of the Common Core State Standards, I was skeptical. With seven years of experience in secondary education and over twenty years in higher education, I've seen a lot of so-called reform. The purpose of my meeting with Coleman, who'd assembled a small group of scholars, writers, and, educators, was to explore the state of reading today and the opportunities offered by the Common Core literacy standards for improving reading skills. After two days of discussion with stakeholders united by a love of language and a desire to increase the level of reading comprehension at all learning levels, I was convinced. The Common Core's "deep reading" approach to literacy and language arts is desperately needed, and will give students like the one I talked to at the symposium the tools to be prepared for college, career, and life--tools they currently lack. I know because I see these unprepared students in my college classroom.

About ten years ago, I started requiring the students in my general education English classes at the university where I teach (primarily freshmen and sophomores not majoring in English) to sign a "contract" during the first week of the class. They must agree, among other things, to obtain the required textbook and bring it to each class. It might seem odd that in a college class I would have to make such expectations so explicit. But in the past decade or so, I have found that students are seldom if ever held accountable for or even actually expected to read the assigned texts. Years of their so-called "reading" is spent "making connections" between themselves and text or the world and the text, but the foundational step of actually reading the words on the page is neglected often to the point that actually reading the assignment isn't necessary: Students become skilled at responding to leading questions that solicit merely their opinions or experiences. And they apparently get decent, or even excellent, grades for doing so.

Getting my college students to own and use a literary text hasn't been the only challenge. I have found that, increasingly, I have to teach students to read, actually read, the words on the page in order to be able to answer simple questions about the text. I have to train them to look down at the words rather than looking at me or up at the ceiling or into their hearts in order to comprehend the meaning of the language. I have to remind them to cite passages as evidence when they answer questions, something more and more of them are unaccustomed to doing. I have to exhort them to use dictionaries to look up words they don't know because the approach to "reading" they are so familiar with does not depend on knowing the meanings of words. Instead, they have been expected merely to offer "reader-response" answers to questions that prompt readers to react superficially to the text rather than to comprehend it. This subjective approach emphasizes loose, personal reactions to texts and interpretations that can not always be supported the text itself. So, for example, when I teach William Blake's poem, "The Tyger," many of my students are erroneously convinced, based on reader-response style impressions, that the tiger in the poem is a "symbol of evil" when nothing in the text offers such evidence. A colleague of mine recently had a class of students insist with no textual support that Samuel Becket's 1953 existential drama, Waiting for Godot, is about gay marriage. Even English majors, I'm finding, rely more and more on Spark Notes summaries because years of lively classroom debates about vague literary themes have overtaken attention to how authors create worlds through language.

It's not as though the students at my institution are an anomaly: My university enrolls high- and low-achieving students and plenty in between, resulting in a student body that closely reflects national averages. Plenty of figures confirm the validity of my own anecdotal evidence about reading. According to a report by ACT in 2008, only ten percent of 8th graders are on track for college readiness by the time they complete high school. The National Assessment of Educational Progress indicates that only 38% of 12th graders performed at or above the Proficient level in reading in 2009 (the latest year available for this measure). A 2011 report by Harvard's Program on Education, finds the overall rate of proficiency in reading for U. S. students to be 31%. This places the U. S. 17th among the nations, far from world leader status. (American higher education, on the other hand, continues to set the global standard.) K -12 teachers, meanwhile, vastly overestimate their students' learning and preparedness for college. As reported this week in the Chronicle of Higher Education,

while eighty-nine percent of high-school instructors in a just-released ACT survey described the students who had completed their courses as "well" or "very well" prepared for first-year, college-level work in their discipline, only about one-quarter of college faculty members said the same thing about their incoming students.

This is why as someone whose life centers on reading and who is witnessing firsthand the effects of unacceptably low reading proficiency rates, I applaud the reading standards adopted by the Common Core.

The language arts and literacy standards of the Common Core emphasize careful reading--the close reading of texts to ensure comprehension. These are exactly the skills most of my students lack upon entering college. This means that rather than teaching literature from the diluted reader-response approach so pervasive today, the emphasis will be first and foremost on understanding what the text actually says.

Reading comprehension skills are not unlike physical muscles: Exercise increases strength. Hence the Common Core reading standards also emphasize the quality and complexity of texts that students read. Instead of a steady diet of watery kiddie lit, the Common Core requires students to grapple with a wide variety of content-rich, high quality texts from across a variety of cultures, eras, and genres. Such texts model for students higher, yet reasonably attainable, models of thinking and writing, better preparing them for career and college. A student will develop more reading comprehension skills during one 50-minute period spent examining one paragraph from the Declaration of Independence than a week of classroom time spent discussing rad themes in the latest young-adult novel.

Many teachers themselves have not been taught to teach this way; indeed many of them have not been taught to read this way themselves. (I know this because these teachers have been in my classroom.) But the Common Core Standards for reading include sample questions particularly to address this gap: The questions are designed for the teachers to use to cultivate the students' deep-reading skills.

Not surprisingly, some teachers are resistant. They themselves were taught using the old practices--the practices that have dominated the academy for the past few decades, and that have sacrificed reading comprehension to the politicized responses to literature. One teacher recently complained in a post on The Washington Post's website that the CCSS exemplar "narrowed any discussion to obvious facts and ideas" contained in the Gettysburg Address. But it is misguided to think that much in such a rich and complex a text would be "obvious" to a high school student; this view may perhaps stem from the teacher's own superficial reading. Paying attention to a rich text, no matter how simple the questions seem, always opens up insight. Even examining how the meaning of the word "dedicate" unfolds in the Address ( look again: do you notice he uses it six times?) gives students access to the movement of Lincoln's thought. The Common Core might seem tough-minded and heavy-handed to some, but when the freight train is dangling precariously off the cliff, it takes ingenuity and muscle to begin to set it aright.

The frustration teachers feel at the constantly changing standards is understandable, as is the sentiment of one teacher that his profession " no longer exists": when restrictions pile on top of one another, it seems that there is little freedom for the teacher to exercise his or her own judgment and expertise. Yet, the fact is that the freedom to teach literary texts was appropriated long ago by politicized special interest groups who would rather interpret Shakespeare, Milton, and Twain using the agenda du jour rather than actually read and understand first what Shakespeare, Milton, and Twain are saying. Invisible ideological tails have been wagging the dog of daily classroom instruction for so long that we don't even know what the freedom to read looks like.

The Common Core standards in reading restore freedom, the freedom of students to be able to read and comprehend a text on their own upon leaving the classroom because they have gained the skills to do so without the mediation of a teacher-facilitator. The Common Core standards in reading are designed empower students to read, and to read well, the very foundation of success for college, career, and life.

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Karen Swallow Prior is professor of English at Liberty University. She is the author of Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me and a contributing writer for Christianity Today

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