Common Core Reading: The Struggle Over Struggle : NPR Ed With the Common Core State Standards' emphasis on "complex texts," some critics worry kids are being asked to struggle too much. We ask: How much is too much?

Common Core Reading: The Struggle Over Struggle

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This week we've been hearing about changes in America's classrooms brought on by the Common Core State Standards. One of the biggest and most controversial changes has to do with reading. That's because the Core Standards require kids to read more difficult texts than many are used to and that sparked a debate over how much kids should have to struggle in a classroom.

From the NPR Ed team, Cory Turner reports.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: To start, let's go back a few years to what many teachers were doing before the Core.

JENNIFER JUMP: I leveled everything. All of the books in my classroom were leveled. My students were leveled. They knew their level.

TURNER: Jennifer Jump used to teach third grade in Marshalltown, Iowa and by leveled, she means her students were assessed and assigned a label based on their reading skill.

JUMP: If they were in the library they knew where to go and they would find a red sticker with the letter J and so if you were a J, you read J all day long.

TURNER: The logic was the less kids get frustrated, the more they'll enjoy reading, but Jump has regrets.

JUMP: If you wanted to read a book about dinosaurs and it was a level M, I didn't ever say you can’t, but I really discouraged it because that wasn't your level.

TURNER: The problem with that, says Catherine Snow of the Harvard Graduate School of Education?

CATHERINE SNOW: If you're never teaching them complex stuff, they never learn complex stuff.

TURNER: And the Common Core Standards demand that kids learn complex stuff. To do that, many schools are using an old technique called close reading. That's where a teacher leads the class in a line by line exploration of a text. Every child is expected to contribute and some struggle is inevitable. Here's where the debate kicks in. Again, Catherine Snow.

SNOW: Close reading is a technique that's been widely recommended based on a dangerous delusion that if you just struggle harder, you will be able to understand and access the content of the text.

TURNER: See, reading is like swimming. Chucking a kid into the deep end without any help probably isn't going to teach him anything except to hate swimming, but no child ever learned to swim with his feet firmly planted on the bottom, either. The question is what's the right amount of struggle?

RACHAEL GABRIEL: Struggle isn't necessarily a good thing, but it's also not necessarily a bad thing. So if you like nuance, then you're right at home here.

TURNER: Rachael Gabriel teaches reading education at the University of Connecticut and Catherine Snow says it's important to understand why readers struggle.

SNOW: Kids spend a lot of time in school, I'm afraid, reading text - fluently even, reading them accurately - but at the end of the page, you say, what was that about and they don't actually know.

TURNER: One reason is a lack of background knowledge. Kids who know something about the subject of a text have an easier time reading it. In fact, Daniel Willingham, psychology professor at the University of Virginia, says this knowledge matters even more than reading skill.

DANIEL WILLINGHAM: Kids who, on standard reading tests, show themselves to be poor readers, when you give them a text that's on a topic that they happen to know a whole lot about, they suddenly look like terrific readers.

TURNER: Which brings us back to Jennifer Jump - she's gone from teaching in Iowa to Director of Elementary Literacy for Washington, D.C. public schools. Jump recently told an auditorium full of D.C. teachers not to underestimate their kids.

JUMP: Because we've all done it, where we've told kids darn near everything they needed to know and we want to stop telling them everything and let them - I love the D word we used over here - discover.

TURNER: For Jump, struggle is no longer a dirty word.

JUMP: So stand up for a moment and let's do it. What do we want kids to be able to do? Dig in deep.

TURNER: But how do you make sure all that digging deep into complex reading doesn't just lead to tears and frustration? Here's how - by using the best ideas from the Common Core and before because they're both right. I spoke with half a dozen literacy experts and they laid out a kind of classroom ideal for young readers that borrows from both sides. First, using complex texts can be a good thing, says Timothy Shanahan of the University of Illinois in Chicago, but not for early readers.

TIMOTHY SHANAHAN: There is a small amount of evidence and a lot of theory that suggests that when you're first starting out and learning to decode and how to sound out words and so on, more challenging text doesn't seem like a really good idea.

TURNER: Next, diving into a complex text with just a little background knowledge from a teacher or an easier text can really help kids without doing the hard work for them. Also, Mary Ehrenworth of the Columbia Teacher's College Reading and Writing Project says when doing a close reading with a tough piece of writing, the teacher has to be there scaffolding, asking questions.

MARY EHRENWORTH: And they do that in such a way that it makes those texts fascinating, that it makes kids think wow, I want to read those. There's amazing things to learn in these harder texts and I want to live the kind of life where I can be that reader.

TURNER: And this is where leveled reading comes in, too. The Core Standards don't say everything needs to be hard. Kids need variety, says psychology professor Daniel Willingham and lots of books they can read without struggle.

WILLINGHAM: A process that's going to end up in a virtuous cycle where the more you read, the more you see yourself as a reader. You're also picking up more background knowledge. You're picking up more vocabulary. All of these things sort of feed on one another.

TURNER: Let's go back to that reading as swimming analogy. It turns out learning requires both ends of the pool. Ideally, kids will reach a point where they can adjust glide under the divider and choose for themselves.

Cory Turner, NPR News, Washington.

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