Back in 1993, when I had barely been teaching in my own high school English classroom for a month, I had an epiphany. I looked around my classroom of ninth graders and realized, consciously, that they were not all going to become high school English teachers. As epiphanies go, I admit that does not sound exceptional, but it was actually foundational for the rest of my career in education. The reason for this was that I simultaneously realized that I was teaching English because of the lifelong qualitative relationship that I had with reading and writing in English. My father probably read “Oscar the Otter” to me every night for a month when I was four. As a young reader, I often wondered if I would ever have a friend as cool as Encyclopedia Brown’s sidekick, Sally Kimball. Later, I was positive that I found a lifelong friend in Charles Wallace Murray, and my copies of “A Wrinkle in Time” and “A Wind in the Door” were shortly falling apart from their spines. Bilbo Baggins’ fate trading riddles in the dark is still a matter of tense anticipation, and what I remember most about a bout of chickenpox was that it gave me an opportunity to read all three existing “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” books in one afternoon. Why was I a high school English teacher? Because of the transformative power of reading to develop relationships over distance and centuries, to teach about cultures and ideals, to illuminate human nature, to amuse and to challenge. I am a better person because of books, and I wanted students to discover similar experiences and to build skills that would allow them to both read and to write powerfully.
That most of my students would not seek the same path did not mean that they were incapable of such reading and writing, but it did mean that I could not ignore that they had their own reasons for being where they were, and that I had to allow them to find reasons for reading and writing that mattered to them. In other words: You cannot be an English teacher and aim your instruction at the students who most remind you of yourself.
Common Core English Standards, you really need to learn that lesson.
I have read the standards, many times. I have introduced them in foundations classes. I am now working with teacher candidates in an English language arts methods class with the standards used for planning. In this class, candidates not only are learning classroom methods for teaching English, but also they are learning the theoretical basis for adolescent literacy. I have told them that if they squeeze the standards really hard and shake them a lot, it is possible to get something other than close textual reading out of them.
Common Core English Standards, you are making me a liar.
It is not that the Common Core English Standards do not describe aspects of reading and interpretation. It is that they describe them from a single literary perspective, and then they backwards engineer them from high school all the way down to Kindergarten. But don’t take my word on it, let’s look at the Reading Literature Standards themselves.
The Reading Literature Standards are laid out by what they call “College and Career Readiness” anchor standards that are iterated in each grade level. Those ten anchor standards are organized in groups by Key Ideas and Details, Craft and Structure, Integration of Knowledge and Ideas, and Range of Reading and Text Complexity. For the purpose of this exercise, I am going to select one standard under each of these groups to present at different levels.
From the grade 11-12 Reading Literature Standards:
Key Ideas and Details:
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.1: Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain.
Craft and Structure:
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.5: Analyze how an author’s choices concerning how to structure specific parts of a text (e.g., the choice of where to begin or end a story, the choice to provide a comedic or tragic resolution) contribute to its overall structure and meaning as well as its aesthetic impact.
Integration of Knowledge and Ideas:
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.7: Analyze multiple interpretations of a story, drama, or poem (e.g., recorded or live production of a play or recorded novel or poetry), evaluating how each version interprets the source text. (Include at least one play by Shakespeare and one play by an American dramatist.)
Range of Reading and Text Complexity:
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.10: By the end of grade 11, read and comprehend literature, including stories, dramas, and poems, in the grades 11-CCR text complexity band proficiently, with scaffolding as needed at the high end of the range.
If you have graduated from a 4 year liberal arts college or university, odds are good that this sounds familiar regardless of your major. The selected standards in Reading Literature represent a description of the close textual reading you were required to do as part of your introductory English coursework, possibly taught by an enthusiast of the New Criticism school of literary analysis from the mid-twentieth century. For college bound students, this is not off the mark as far as a portion of their work with literature is concerned. However, reading the entirety of the reading literature standards demonstrates that close textual reading is pretty much ALL that they contain. Each of the anchor standard descriptors reiterates the anchors’ focus on the text — to the exclusion of the reader.
As mentioned, these standards then move down to Kindergarten, largely describing simpler tasks for less experienced readers. From 6th grade:
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.6.1: Cite textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.6.5: Analyze how a particular sentence, chapter, scene, or stanza fits into the overall structure of a text and contributes to the development of the theme, setting, or plot.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.6.7: Compare and contrast the experience of reading a story, drama, or poem to listening to or viewing an audio, video, or live version of the text, including contrasting what they “see” and “hear” when reading the text to what they perceive when they listen or watch.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.6.10: By the end of the year, read and comprehend literature, including stories, dramas, and poems, in the grades 6-8 text complexity band proficiently, with scaffolding as needed at the high end of the range.
From 3rd grade:
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.3.1: Ask and answer questions to demonstrate understanding of a text, referring explicitly to the text as the basis for the answers.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.3.5: Refer to parts of stories, dramas, and poems when writing or speaking about a text, using terms such as chapter, scene, and stanza; describe how each successive part builds on earlier sections.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.3.7: Explain how specific aspects of a text’s illustrations contribute to what is conveyed by the words in a story (e.g., create mood, emphasize aspects of a character or setting)
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.3.10: By the end of the year, read and comprehend literature, including stories, dramas, and poetry, at the high end of the grades 2-3 text complexity band independently and proficiently.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.K.1: With prompting and support, ask and answer questions about key details in a text.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.K.5: Recognize common types of texts (e.g., storybooks, poems).
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.K.7: With prompting and support, describe the relationship between illustrations and the story in which they appear (e.g., what moment in a story an illustration depicts).
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.K.10: Actively engage in group reading activities with purpose and understanding.
So what is wrong with this? It represents a very specific purpose of reading literature, a purpose that does not serve the reasons why all children read, not even all children destined to become college English majors, and it is backwards engineered to grade levels when students cannot be expected to have full fluency. What Common Core does is take reading literature and purpose it entirely to close textual reading, which is a tool of literary criticism, especially for the New Criticism school of analysis. In New Criticism, the text is treated as self-contained, and it is the job of the reader to investigate it as an object to be understood via the structure of the text and without reference to external resources such as history, culture, psychology or the experiences of the reader.
This stands in stark opposition to Reader Response criticism where the role of the reader in creating meaning not only cannot be set aside, but also is absolutely essential for the words on the page to have any meaning whatsoever. Louise Rosenblatt informed this school of thought by demonstrating that the process of reading is best understood as a transaction between the text and the individual readers who approach the task of reading it:
The transaction involving a reader and a printed text thus can be viewed as an event occurring at a particular time in a particular environment at a particular moment in the life history of the reader. The transaction will involve not only the past experience but also the present state and present interests or preoccupations of the reader. It stresses the possibility that printed marks on a page will become different linguistic symbols by virtue of transactions with different readers….
Does not the transactional point of view suggest that we should pay more attention to the experiential framework of any reading transaction? Is it not extraordinary that major social upheavals seem to have been required to disclose the fact that schools have consistently attempted to teach reading without looking at the language and life experience, the cognitive habits, that the child brought to the text? And should not this same concern be brought to bear on more than the problem of the language or dialect that the child brings? Should not a similar concern for reading as an event in a particular cultural and life situation be recognized as pertinent to all reading, for all children at all phases of their development as readers, from the simplest to the most sophisticated levels? (pp. 15-16)
Reader Response does not deny that there is a text with a structure that readers must encounter in order to make meaning, but it also recognizes the robust and essential elements brought by each individual reader in the meaning making process. Instead of the text containing a single meaning to be derived by close textual analysis, the text is brought to many different meanings because of the histories, cultures, dispositions and experiences of the multitude of readers who transact with that text.
At this point, some advocates of the Common Core standards may protest that the Reading Literature standards are not trying to shoehorn all readers into New Criticism, and that with the tools of close textual reading, students and teachers could possibly engage in any number of reading experiences incorporating social, cultural, historical, psychological and personal knowledge. To some degree, it is upon this that I have been hanging my promise to my own students that you can shake a social reading out of the CCSS if you just shake hard enough. The problem is that I am not really convinced of that myself. To begin with, even when the standards suggest some form of reading that is connected to something other than the text, it circles right back to close textual analysis. From the third grade standards:
Recount stories, including fables, folktales, and myths from diverse cultures; determine the central message, lesson, or moral and explain how it is conveyed through key details in the text.
Describe characters in a story (e.g., their traits, motivations, or feelings) and explain how their actions contribute to the sequence of events
Looking at these, I get somewhat hopeful. RL3.2 states that students will recall some rich literature such as fables, folktales and myths which could become a great basis for comparing current and past societies, understanding the concept of a the heroic figure and how it relates to the child’s life. But the standard quickly segues right back to picking out “key details in the text” in service of determining “the central message, lesson, or moral.” (emphasis added) Similarly, RL3.3 begins with some hope that students might develop personal relationships with the characters in the story and use those character traits to better understand themselves. Then the standard immediately purposes their understanding to “explain how their actions contribute to the sequence of events.” In Common Core, all literary roads lead to close textual analysis. The reader is a bit player.
This shouldn’t come entirely as a surprise. After all, one of the key players in the creation of the English Language Arts standards is David Coleman, current president of the College Board, philosophy graduate from Yale and Rhodes Scholar in English literature at Oxford University. He is, plainly, a man of great intelligence and of sincere interest in the classical liberal arts. What he is not, however, is a person with even the slightest credentials in literacy acquisition, elementary literacy or adolescent literacy. As a student of classical philosophy and literature, he is no doubt quite familiar with literary criticism, but to infuse common standards in the English Language Arts with tools for literary criticism to the exclusion of all other ways to interact with texts all the way down to Kindergarten is a thoroughly strangled view of the role literature plays in the classroom. This seems entirely unproblematic to Mr. Coleman, and while I have not read his thesis from Oxford, I have little reason to doubt that he is an enthusiast of New Criticism and other formalist schools of thought. When presenting on the Common Core standards, Mr. Coleman derided what he described as a heavy emphasis on personal writing in most school curricula, thus:
When you add together the structure of the standards with the heavy testing regimen that have been tied to them and actual career consequences for teachers tied to those exams that were simultaneously put in place with the adoption of the CCSS, I find it hard to believe that very many teachers, on their own, are going to be able to use these standards to promote children’s love of literature from any social or experiential angle. There is also extremely limited room for states to maneuver around the standards, as Mercedes Schneider reminds us here because the Memorandum of Understanding that states signed before adopting the CCSS only allows 15% of states standards to differ
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.
Did anyone have anything better for children before Common Core? That’s difficult to answer because while states have been held to progress in examinations since the No Child Left Behind act of 2001, this is the first time that nearly nationwide assessments are going to be aligned with a single set of standards. However, it is possible to speak about how states with standards different from Common Core did on nationally administered assessments prior to this endeavor. For example, Massachusetts has long been recognized as a high performing state on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). In 2009, when Common Core was still twinkling in its authors’ eyes, Massachusetts’ 4th grade NAEP reading scores were higher than any other state in the nation. At the time, Massachusetts was still using its own English Language Arts framework, adopted in 2001. I would like to draw attention to Standard 9: Making Connections:
Students will deepen their understanding of a literary or non-literary work by relating it to its contemporary context or historical background.
By including supplementary reading selections that provide relevant historical and artistic background, teachers deepen students’ understanding of individual literary works and broaden their capacity to connect literature to other manifestations of the creative impulse.
The standard is then extrapolated forward, requiring that students examine works as related to the life and experiences of the author and in relationship to key concepts, ideas and controversies that existed in the society that produced the work itself. Examinations such as these are fruitful grounds for personal experiences and comparisons of current society and events as well. This is similar to principles articulated by the National Council of Teachers of English and the International Reading Association (NCTE/IRA) in the standards for the English Language Arts that they released in the 1990s. Standards 1-3, in particular, articulate a broad vision of what reading is for and how readers go about doing it:
- Students read a wide range of print and non-print texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.
- Students read a wide range of literature from many periods in many genres to build an understanding of the many dimensions (e.g., philosophical, ethical, aesthetic) of human experience.
- Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).
Neither of these documents rules out close textual reading, nor do they dismiss the need for students to develop skills in creating sophisticated analyses using the tools of text. Common Core, however, provides no explicit space for any other kind of reading or analysis, and it appears entirely uninformed by any framework of reading as a process that includes the reader in any capacity other than as faithful seeker of the text’s internally constructed meaning. Readers who want to understand society and history via the text? Readers who want to explore their own humanity across space and time with characters who live and breathe after centuries? Readers who want to enjoy the feelings of a work of art without picking it apart into its component parts?
People don’t give a shit about what you feel or what you think.