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.

Top 10 Board Books for Toddlers

Babies and young toddlers enjoy books, but the pages are easily torn. Fortunately, there are many wonderful “sturdy” board books with thick cardboard pages that are easy for little fingers to turn without tearing them.

Young children have a short attention span, so when you read to them—or talk to them about the pictures—they may not be able to sit and pay attention long enough to finish a book.  Let your child be your guide to how long you spend with a book.  If he/she loses focus, stop reading and come back to the book later.

Not all books need to be “read” to a child.  Many of them can be used to teach your toddler colors and counting or to talk to your child about things in the world around us. It is difficult to narrow down to a short list, but here are my favorites, plus, I’ve included a set of sturdy and colorful animal flash cards by author Eric Carle that your children will enjoy.

1.  Go, Dog. Go!   (P.D. Eastman)
2.  Big Dog…Little Dog   (P.D. Eastman)
3.  Good Night, Little Rabbit   (J.P. Miller)
4.  Babies   (Gyo Fujikawa)
5.  The Very Hungry Caterpillar   (Eric Carle)
6.  The Best Mouse Cookie   (Laura Numeroff)
7.  I’ll Teach My Dog a Lot of Words   (Michael Frith)
8.  Cars and Trucks from A to Z   (Richard Scarry)
9.  Color Book   (Richard Scarry)
10. Tails (Matthew Van Fleet)
Plus: Animal Flash Cards   (Eric Carle)

This website shows you how to make your own sturdy books:

Spelling for Beginning Readers – Part 1

Many people tell me they never learned to spell well.  Others know immediately if they see a misspelled word—it just seems to jump out at them.   Why are some people able to spell well and not others?  Are reading and spelling connected—and if so—should that affect how we teach both subjects?

Reading is a process of decoding.  That means that when we read, we look at a series of symbols on the page and use a set sound-symbol code to help us decipher each word.  So this symbol, h, by itself, is always going to make the sound /h/.  But if we add s to the h like this, sh, it is going to make a different sound (as in cash).  If we add a t to the sh, like this, tch, it makes yet another sound (as in catch).  When we learn the written code, we use it to decode words and find out what was written on the page.

Spelling is the process of encoding.  It is the opposite of reading, which is decoding.  When we write we use symbols that represent the sounds in our language.  We connect these sound-symbols to make words.  We need to be able to do this reasonably well if we want to communicate in writing.  In order to learn to spell and read well we have to be able to encode and to decode.  This is why phonemic awareness and phonics are important skills when learning to read and to spell.

How should spelling be taught to beginning readers? Does it matter how we teach it?  Is there a way to make spelling easier to learn? Which of these spelling lists would be easier for a beginner to learn?

Pre-Writing Skills for Preschoolers – Drawing Stick People

Reading is an essential skill.  It opens doors to so many learning opportunities. Writing and spelling are a big part of reading, but children cannot automatically spell or write well just because they know how to read.  Parents can help by introducing preschoolers to activities that can help prepare them for reading, spelling and writing.

Last week we talked about how learning to draw geometric shapes can strengthen young children’s small motor control. Drawing lines, triangles, and circles is good practice to help prepare for the time when children will need to learn how to write the letters of the alphabet.  For many children, learning to draw is more engaging than copying letters of the alphabet.  They will learn some of the same skills while drawing pictures that they will need to write letter symbols later on. So why not make it fun?

This week, I am posting another drawing activity for your children that will help them continue to develop the small motor dexterity that they need before they begin to practice handwriting. Learning to draw may also help increase a child’s attention span if it is something he takes an interest in doing.