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.

Reading for Pleasure


How many students spend any significant amount of time reading for pleasure?  How many students spend a great deal of time playing computer games?  Are our children experiencing the joys of reading for fun—or do they read only what they are forced to read in order to get their schoolwork done?

Some schools have created a “Reading for Pleasure” elective course which has proven to be very popular.  This shows that kids ARE interested in reading for pleasure, but they may not be interested in reading and analyzing the traditional books that are assigned in English/Language Arts courses.

We know that students first need the tools to decode words quickly and automatically. Only then will they will be able to think about and enjoy what they are reading.  Reading books also expands students’ vocabulary acquisition.

Once students can read well, we can help them learn how to choose books that will be entertaining or educational or both.  You might even consider reading the same book your child is reading so that you can discuss the stories together.

Step 1:   Teach students how to decode phonetically.  This requires a strong phonetic reading program for beginners or an effective phonetic reading intervention for struggling readers.  Chose a program (such as Sound Bytes Reading) that includes decodable stories  that match the phonics instruction so your student will get plenty of reading practice at her instructional level. Once students are strong readers, they can go on to the next step.  If an older student is a struggling reader, you might consider reading interesting books aloud to him/her so that   he/she will have the benefit of the exposure to enriched vocabulary while he/she is still learning how to read.

Step 2:  Find out what your students are interested in and then provide books on those subjects.  My kids loved reading DK Eyewitness books which have a lot of interesting pictures as well as text. You can find many interesting fiction or nonfiction books at various reading levels at your public library.

Step 3:  Broaden your students’ horizons by pairing fiction with nonfiction books.  So if your child is interested in dogs and reads at about a 3rd grade level, he could read “A Boy in the Doghouse” paired with the DK Eyewitness book, “Dogs.” At a 4th-5th grade level, a child might enjoy reading “Henry Huggins.”

At the high school level, look for nonfiction biographies to pair up with students’ history lessons.  Reading “A Long Way Gone” or “First They Killed My Father” will educate students about the difficulties faced by real people who have lived in war-torn countries. This kind of paired reading can lead to some very interesting discussions and a much broader view of the world we live in.