Monday, February 25, 2013

"Read Option" & the Common Core's Informational Text Issue

**The following is reprinted from publication in the Denver Post.

Since Tim Tebow's departure, the "read-option" hasn't been at issue in Denver. However, it's set to rise again, this time in Colorado's classrooms.

With recent news about Common Core standards, change is coming to schools, and reading is no longer "an option." Strangely, this isn't without controversy. Common Core's recommendation on informational texts has created a brouhaha. The Washington Post even declared the end of literature in schools after Common Core "mandated" 70 percent of student reading should be informational texts. Teachers now fret about exchanging "The Great Gatsby" for instructional manuals.

But that's simply not true. Most troublesome is that critics can't even "read" the standards. Common Core hasn't mandated that 70 percent of reading in English classes is non-fiction. It recommended teaching non-fiction beginning at the elementary level and increasing until 70 percent of high school reading is non-fiction.

This makes sense because English classes account for one-fifth of high school schedules. Thus, 80 percent of a student's daily load is not literature, but it should include reading. Students in math, science, social studies, health and arts classes should read informational texts. English classes are where literature remains the content. The challenge is for content-area teachers to realize that the "critical thinking" they allegedly teach now means "critical thinking" about "informational text."

Committing to literacy can literally turn around schools. It's not enough to simply focus on proficiency by third grade as Colorado's READ Act stipulates. Literacy needs cultivation at all levels. Tom Fair, an English teacher at Cherry Creek High School, asserts "we have long under-served non-fiction at the high school level."All content teachers assert critical thinking is one of the primary skills they develop. Of course, literacy instruction is simply teaching kids to "think critically" about a text. Thus, if we're going to have education reform, it has to start with reading.

The average low-income child enters kindergarten knowing as many as 5,000 fewer words than middle- and upper-income children. A child who finishes fourth grade not reading at grade level will never catch up with his peers. According to the National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP), 44 percent of high school students are "dys-fluent" in reading grade-level, familiar text. They are not illiterate, but they can't truly read. They are "fake readers." Their eyes skim the words, but they don't truly comprehend them.

School reform will never succeed until all reformers and teachers accept literacy as the fundamental skill in accessing information. With Common Core assessing literacy in social studies and science, literacy must finally be unbound from the English classroom. For years, content-area literacy has been part of the ACT, though few paid attention. ACT reading tests have always had sections on social studies and science. Students read dense content-area passages and answers questions in limited time. Without regular literacy instruction in this content, students stand little chance of success. 

Reading is a learning skill, not an English skill. If a student is only getting one hour of literacy instruction, he will never truly become educated.  Teachers from kindergarten to graduate school need to stop assigning reading and start teaching it instead. If the new Common Core standards on literacy promote this, students will benefit.

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