Common Core and Reading Assignments—What Are We Missing Here?

SnipBlog99What a concept! Some teachers assign books to their students that they can actually read instead of assigning them to read books that are far above their reading ability! Is this surprising? Is it a bad thing? Are policy-makers suggesting that students should be assigned to read books at an instructional level that they cannot read because those students are in a grade based on their age?

The Thomas B Fordham Institute published a report on October 22, 2013 titled, “Common Core in the Schools: A First Look at Reading Assignments.” Here is a quote from the press release:

The CCSS emphasize the centrality of texts in the English language arts curriculum. Yet the majority of teachers still report that their lessons are dominated by skills and are more likely to try to fit texts to skills…Indeed, an astonishing 73 percent of elementary school teachers and 56 percent of middle school teachers place greater emphasis on reading skills than the text…

The Common Core asks teachers to assign texts that provide language complexity appropriate to the grade level, but significant proportions of teachers—particularly in the elementary grades—are still assigning texts based on students’ present reading prowess. Specifically, the majority of elementary teachers (64 percent) make substantial efforts to match students with books that presumably align with their instructional reading levels…This means that many youngsters are not yet working with appropriately complex language in their schoolbooks.

It appears that because students need to be learning complex language, they had better be reading complex words. That is all fine and good if the student is a strong reader and can actually read those complex words. But many students are not strong readers due to poor instruction and through no fault of their own.  What are we to do?  Start where the student is, not where you want him to be.

Let’s say you go out to the mountains and you are just learning how to ski, so you can barely stay standing up on your skis. Your instructor takes you out to the bunny slope and gives you some tips on how to fall safely (because you are going to fall!) and how to point your ski tips and whatever else they teach a beginner. But the resort owner comes out and tells the instructor that you need to be practicing the giant slalom because that is what skiers should be doing at your age.  Wonder how well that’s going to work?

What are we to do? Start where the student is, not where you want him to be. You cannot start where you want them to be if they have not learned the skills needed to function at that skill level and expect them to be successful. That is a recipe for creating dropouts.

If students are reading at a first grade level, then they need to begin at that level and be taught the skills that will allow them to quickly improve their ability.  We have programs available that will do exactly that—but we aren’t using them nearly enough and our students are paying a high price.

We can teach students the complex language in higher level books—but we can’t expect them to read those texts on their own until we have taught the reading skills that they need to do so. We should not discourage struggling readers—we must start where the student is. We know that students learn much of their extensive vocabulary from reading a lot of books—but students who cannot read well have been left behind.

Instead of insisting that we force difficult or impossible reading assignments on our struggling readers, we need to put a much greater effort into first teaching students to read well. We need to think in terms of teaching students to read well by the end of first grade rather than by the end of third grade. But if that is not where they are—what are we to do? Start where the student is, not where you want him to be!



See the Thomas B Fordham Institute report  “Common Core in the Schools: A First Look at Reading Assignments” here:               

Sound Bytes Reading helps struggling readers learn the basic skills they need to become strong and independent readers.

Sound Bytes Reading: Top Ten Blogs in 2013—Part 1

SnipBlog691 – All Students Reading at Grade Level by the End of Third Grade? 

The goal:  Every child reading on grade level by the end of third grade?  No!  The goal should be:  Every child reading on grade level by the end of first grade!  With this goal in mind, we must  use effective research-based reading interventions as soon as we see children start to fail—before the end of first grade—and before they have fallen so far behind their peers that many of them will never catch up at all. Teach every child to read by the end of first grade!  Read more:

2 – Spelling for Beginning Readers – Part 2

This blog is part of a series on spelling.  It includes a game to help your children learn to spell.  Beginning readers often ask us how to spell words they want to write.  When students ask you to spell words, you can help them develop phonemic awareness by telling them the sound of each letter in the word as they write instead of telling them the names of the letters.  This is what phonics is about—learning to associate letters with speech sounds rather than learning words as a whole unit.  The more we use the sounds associated with the letters the more quickly students will remember them and use them when trying to spell words.  Read more:

3 – Spelling for Beginning Readers – Part 3

Spelling is an important part of learning to read.  Learning to spell helps students learn to read and reading phonetically can help students learn to spell.  If you give your beginning students word lists that have consistent spelling patterns, they will learn to spell much more quickly and they will not forget what they have learned.  Read the blog here:

Get the FREE Spelling Game for beginning readers here:

4 – Five Spelling Tips for Teaching Beginning Readers 

Our brains are designed to recognize patterns that make sense.  For beginning or struggling readers, learning that is based on consistent patterns will make reading and spelling new words much easier.  Here are five tips to help you teach spelling.  Read more:

5 – Should You Continue to Read Aloud to your School Age Children?

Reading books that are above your children’s reading level will help to increase their vocabulary. Even though they can read for themselves, older children enjoy having longer stories read aloud to them.  Get the book list and read more here:

Next week: Part 2

Reading Aloud Can Help Develop Your Child’s Vocabulary

In the article, Vocabulary Instruction Failing U.S. Students, published on January 24 of this year, a Michigan State University study takes a look at kindergarten reading curricula and concludes that students are not learning enough vocabulary words and that not enough attention is paid to make sure students understand the meanings of words. You can read the article here:

This is interesting because vocabulary acquisition really begins at home.  Children first learn words from their parents or other caregivers.  I have written about the importance of reading aloud to children because that is one of the best ways you can introduce children to new words.  Children also learn vocabulary from listening to parents and other adults talk.  They do not gain extensive vocabulary from watching TV or playing computer games.

Children should spend time doing things that will help them develop a broader vocabulary, encourage their creativity, and help them increase their focus and attention span so they will do well when formal instruction begins.  Time spent talking and doing things with adults is well spent.  Even very young children can use their expanded vocabulary to describe things.  A 2-year-old that I know recently looked up at the sky and exclaimed to his dad, “Birds.” His dad asked him, “How do you know those are birds?” and he answered, “Wings.”

The study found that common words are what is more likely to be taught to students. Try to use alternate words to describe things.  Once your child has learned a simple word like “little” to describe something, teach her words like “tiny,” “small,” “miniature,” and “minute.”

Why is vocabulary so important?

“Low vocabulary scores were associated with low reading comprehension scores…Wright said low-income children may start school with 10,000 fewer words than other students and are then exposed to reading programs that teach as few as two vocabulary words per week. She said more than 10 vocabulary words should be taught every week – not just in reading class but across all subject areas including math, science and social studies.”

Parents, be proactive in helping your children learn new words.  Don’t wait until your child is in school. Use lots of big, descriptive words when you talk to your children.  Nonfiction picture books are great tools for developing vocabulary. Talk to your child about the pictures and use lots of different descriptive words so your child will learn lots of new words to name and describe things.

Having a large vocabulary also helps students when they begin to learn to read. The more words they have heard and understand, the more words they will recognize when they are learning to sound out words. Recognizing words quickly and knowing what they mean makes reading easier and more enjoyable.

5 Reasons Why It’s Important to Read Aloud to Your Children

Do we really need to read aloud to our kids? Why should we read aloud to our young children? How does reading aloud to our children when they are preschoolers, benefit them later on when it is time to learn to read?  Are there long-lasting benefits that make the effort worthwhile?Here are five things kids can learn when parents regularly read books aloud to their children:

1.  About Books—Books have a front and a back cover, some books have interesting pictures, books have pages in them, the pages are read from left to right and top to bottom, and usually there are words on the pages in books.

2.  ABC’s are Important—Letters make words, words make sentences, and sentences tell a story.

3.  Vocabulary—Children who are read to will hear and learn many new words, so children who are read to will develop a larger vocabulary than children who are not read to. A larger vocabulary can help children recognize words when they are learning to read.

4.  Auditory Development and Imagination—Children who are often read to learn to listen and they learn to visualize the story in their minds. They learn to sit reasonably still and pay attention while listening to a story (age appropriately of course). They begin to gain phonemic awareness if they listen to rhyming stories or poems. When parents discuss the stories they read with their children, children also learn to think about what they have heard.

5.  Print Awareness—Parents often will move a finger along under the words as they read a story aloud to a preschooler, which helps the child become more aware that the print stands for meaningful words.  Children will often then begin to recognize words in the environment around them (such as “stop” or “exit” signs, and names of restaurants and stores).

These five things may not seem to be significant, but they are useful when students are ready to learn to read.  Children who have been read to are more likely to have an easier time learning to read in school.

This is not to say that children who have been read to will never have difficulty learning to read—because there are many children whose parents have done all of this and they have done it very well, and their children still have difficulty learning to read. Children also must be given good reading instruction, but given proper instruction, those who have regularly been read to have a head start compared to those who have not had this valuable learning experience.

Read a story to your child today!

Getting Ready to Read – Five Great Pre-School Activities

1.  Give board books to your baby.  Talk about the pictures.  Read simple rhyming stories aloud (helps develop phonemic awareness).

2.  Get a library card. Read books to your toddler every day. Talk about the story (increases vocabulary).  Some favorites:

    • Are You My Mother?
    • The King, the Mice, and the Cheese
    • Go, Dog, Go
    • The Best Nest
    • Hop on Pop

3.  Give your preschoolers games to play with that will help them develop mental and motor skills (not those noisy electronic games that do everything for them).  Some suggestions:

    • Matching pictures (teaches children to pay attention to details, differences).
    • Matching shapes or colors or numbers.
    • String large beads on a shoelace—only when your child is old enough to keep the beads out of her mouth (helps develop eye-hand co-ordination).
    • Simple puzzles—wooden puzzles are more durable for younger children (teaches sequencing).
    • Wood Blocks and/or Legos or Lego Duplos (for building, counting, adding, sorting, following directions, etc.).
    • Fat crayons and blank paper (small motor development).

4.  Play games with words and numbers (vocabulary development, listening and thinking skills, following directions).

    • Example:  “I’m thinking of something that is in the kitchen.  You can eat it.  It is red. It has sort of a round shape. It grows on a tree. It can fit in my hand. What is it?  (An apple.)  Give more clues if they can’t guess the object.
    • Example:  Give your child a few wood blocks (5 or 10) in a basket.  Say: “Take two blocks out of the basket.  Now, take out one more.  Count them. How many blocks are outside of the basket?  How many are left inside the basket?”

5.  Give your child balls in various sizes. Roll a ball back and forth with your toddler. Play catch, or kick a ball back and forth with your preschooler (co-ordination, co-operation, sharing).

Read, talk, and play together often.  You are developing your child’s vocabulary, phonemic awareness, listening skills, thinking skills, observation skills, small motor skills, and the ability to follow directions and co-operate with others.  This is valuable training for when your child is ready to begin reading and writing in school.

Learning to Talk / Learning to Read – Part 1

How does learning to talk relate to learning to read?  Some people believe that children learn to speak in whole words from the beginning; therefore, beginning readers should learn to read words as a whole unit rather than learning letter-sounds first and then blending them into words. They also believe learning to read should be as natural as learning to talk. As we will see, if the premise is false, it leads to a wrong conclusion.

When an infant is very young, she spends a lot of time listening to the sounds around her.  Her first method of communication is to cry when she needs food or attention.  Humans have a built-in capacity to imitate others and they learn very quickly.  Babies observe the faces of the people around them and soon begin to communicate by smiling, frowning, or pouting as well as by crying.

While listening to others talk, infants soon discover that they can make speech sounds too. They practice what they hear by babbling—by imitating the speech sounds that surround them. The first pre-words we hear in the speech efforts of a baby are often something like ma-ma, da-da, pa-pa, or ba-ba. As babies become more skilled in imitating speech sounds, they begin to use parts of a word to get what they want: “wa-wa” might mean, I want water, or “ba-ba” might mean bottle. Still later, they begin to use single words to communicate—words like “no,” “mine,” “cookie,” or “doggy.”

Before long, toddlers begin to put words together to make simple sentences, sometimes getting the grammar wrong, but just as often getting it right. The more language they hear, the more information they have to draw from.  The more you interact with them, the more opportunity they have to practice speech sounds. Often you will overhear a mother talking to her toddler. The toddler will point and say, “fish” and the mother will say, “Yes, that’s a big, orange fish.” She is adding to her child’s vocabulary. This is why talking to your baby or toddler is so important. He is learning language from you.

Talk to your children. Describe things using rich, descriptive vocabulary words. Encourage your children to talk to you by asking them questions. This will help your children develop a larger vocabulary, which will be very useful to them when it is time to learn how to read.

In part two we will discuss how beginning readers learn to read, and why they do not learn to read as easily and naturally as they learn to talk.

Is Vocabulary Instruction Important for Beginning Readers?

When children first begin reading instruction they should be learning to decode easy words that they already understand. A good reading program will begin with simple reading texts so that beginning readers will be successful. The program should then gradually build the difficulty of the reading material as students become more skillful.

All students will encounter words that they do not know when they are reading. This is why it is important to include vocabulary instruction in a good reading program.  If students do not understand the words they are reading, they will not have good comprehension of the meaning of the text.  Teachers must give their students appropriate reading vocabulary instruction.

It is also vitally important that ELL (English Language Learners) students are given specific definitions of the vocabulary words they will encounter while reading. While students are learning to speak the English language, they do not yet have an extensive vocabulary. We need to be aware that ELL’s may not ask about words they do not know the meanings of, and this will greatly limit their comprehension. Proactive instruction in vocabulary is essential for these students.

What can parents do?  A child who has been talked to frequently and exposed to advanced vocabulary at home, in particular from listening to and interacting with adults,  and one who has been read aloud to frequently, will have a larger listening and speaking vocabulary than one who has not had this exposure.  A child who has had much exposure to television and less exposure to books and adult conversation, will have a lower level of vocabulary acquisition. This information is well documented.*

Make sure you have books in your home. Read to your children. Talk about the stories you read to them.  Talk to your children many times every day and don’t be afraid to use big words.  Make sure they have plenty of exposure to appropriate adult conversation and limit their television viewing.  Statistically, children who start school with larger vocabularies tend to become better readers.

You can improve your children’s chances to become successful readers by talking with them often and reading aloud to them every day.

*Work Cited:

Teaching Beginning Reading – Reading Comprehension

What is reading comprehension? Reading comprehension means that students comprehend or understand the meaning of what they are reading.  This is why we read in the first place—so that we can learn about something from someone who is not physically present—through the medium of print.

 How do we teach reading comprehension?  When teaching beginning readers, if we try to teach reading comprehension first, we may not be totally successful in our efforts. We need to make sure our beginning readers have learned to decode words through explicit, systematic phonics instruction and are able to blend letter-sounds into words easily. We need to be sure beginning readers have also had appropriate vocabulary instruction so they will understand the words they are decoding. Then, instruction in reading comprehension will be much more effective.

Comprehension involves thinking about what we are reading, questioning it, judging the merits of it, understanding it, accepting or rejecting it, and comparing it to any prior knowledge we have about it.

Some reading comprehension strategies may include:

  • Thinking – Do I understand what I just read?
  • Comparing to Prior Knowledge – What do I already know about this?
  • Predicting – What might happen next?
  • Asking Questions – Why did that happen?
  • Summarizing – What happened? What was the main idea?


Reading comprehension begins before children learn to read, while listening to stories that are read to them.  We can enhance comprehension by talking to children about what happened in a story, whether they liked it or not and why, and what they might do differently.  As beginning readers begin to learn to decode and learn to read for themselves, we should continue to monitor their understanding by talking with them about what they read.

When teaching struggling readers—as with beginning readers—we must make sure they have been given enough phonics instruction to be able to decode words well, are given appropriate vocabulary instruction so they will understand the meanings of the words they are reading, have sufficient opportunity for repeated reading practice to gain fluency, and then provide targeted instruction in reading comprehension strategies.

Teaching Reading – Fluency Instruction for Beginning Readers

What is fluency? Fluency is one of the five main components in a good reading program.  If you speak a language fluently, you are able to speak it easily and without effort, and your speech flows smoothly.  You do not have to stop and think about each word you want to say.  Likewise, if you read fluently, you are able to move from word to word, from sentence to sentence, and from paragraph to paragraph easily and with little effort, just like you do when you are speaking your native language.

Can we teach students to read fluently? Yes, we can. If students have a solid phonics foundation, they will be able to decode words easily because they will quickly recognize the letter-sound patterns they have been taught. A student must be able to decode words easily to be able to read fluently.  But reading fluently involves more than having good phonics instruction and decoding words. It also includes expression, intonation, and proper speed while reading.

When a reader reads a passage aloud with expression, a listener will hear the excitement of the story in the voice of the reader. Intonation means the tone of the reader’s voice goes up and down—and there will be a different vocal sound at the end of a statement than at the end of a question. Students may learn intonation intuitively if parents have been reading aloud to them frequently.  This is one reason why reading aloud to children is so important.

We can teach proper intonation to beginning readers who do not know how to do this. The fluency instruction in a good reading program will direct teachers to teach students how to use proper intonation by demonstrating it for them and asking them to follow the model.

Reading material should not be above the decoding level or the speaking and listening vocabulary level of beginning readers if they are to become fluent readers. A reading selection should not have many words that beginning readers do not understand. It is very important that we include vocabulary instruction when teaching beginning readers, struggling readers, and ELL students. A vocabulary level that is too advanced in a reading selection reduces both fluency and comprehension.

Fluent reading also requires practice reading aloud. This is why repeated reading of the same material is helpful. When re-reading stories, the student is able to put less effort into decoding the words and more effort into having smooth and expressive reading.

Fluent reading leads to better comprehension!