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.

What to Do When It Snows?


Read!!! Read books about snow!  Here is a list of books about snow with something for everyone.  Make a snowman, and then make some hot cocoa and share a picture book or read a story aloud together. Some books in the list are for beginning readers and some are for strong readers. Older children who are strong readers may enjoy reading the chapter books by themselves.

Snow, by Uri Shulevitz (read aloud)

Big Snow, by Jonathan Bean  (read aloud)

Tracks in the Snow, by Wong Herbert Yee (read aloud)

The Snow Bear, by Miriam Moss (read aloud) 

Snow, by P.D. Eastman and Roy McKie (beginning reader, mid to late 1st grade)

Charlie the Ranch Dog: Charlie’s Snow Day, by Ree Drummond (mid to late 1st grade)

Splat the Cat: Blow, Snow, Blow, by Rob Scotton (beginning reader, mid to late 1st grade)

Curious George in the Snow, by Margret Rey

There Was a Cold Lady Who Swallowed Some Snow! by Lucille Colandro

Fancy Nancy: There’s No Day Like a Snow Day, by Jane O’Connor

Let It Snow, by Maryann Cocca-Leffler (read aloud, picture book, poetry)

The Story of Snow: The Science of Winter’s Wonder, by Mark Cassino (nonfiction, science)

The Secret Life of a Snowflake, An Up-Close Look at the Art and Science of Snowflakes, by Kenneth Libbrecht (nonfiction, science, photography) 

Animals in Winter, by Henriettta Bancroft (animals, science)

Oliver and Amanda and the Big Snow, by Jean Van Leeuwen (chapter book, 2nd to 3rd grade)

The Big Snow, by Berta Hader (3rd grade)

The Mystery in the Snow (The Boxcar Children, #32), by Gertrude Chandler Warner (3rd -5th grade)

Little House in the Big Woods, by Laura Ingalls Wilder (strong readers)

Snow Treasure, by Marie McSwigan (strong readers above 3rd grade)  

Snow Dog, by Jim Kjelgaard (strong readers above 3rd grade)


The Brain – Processing Patterns and Learning to Read

SnipBlog77Our brains are programmed to perceive patterns.  Many people enjoy puzzles, whether they are jigsaw puzzles or manipulative puzzles or Sudoku puzzles. They all involve patterns. Art often uses patterns. Architecture and landscaping often follow patterns and they are more pleasing to the eye when certain patterns are followed to achieve visual balance.

Math follows patterns.  Many children who are poor readers do very well in math (except for reading the word problems) because math follows a pattern and if they understand the pattern, it makes sense. Algebra students soon find out that if they do not follow the correct pattern—the order of operations, they will not get the correct answer.

Reading involves patterns also, although many people who teach reading do not understand the patterns as well as we would like. Students who are very good in math enjoy the logic and sequence of math. What about the logic and sequencing of reading instruction? How does pattern perception in the brain affect learning to read?

The brain recognizes patterns.  When children understand the spelling patterns contained in words, it makes sense and they will remember what they learn. If we teach phonics, reading, and spelling together logically and sequentially, one piece of the pattern at a time, students will understand it and they will learn to read well.  But if we teach reading randomly by picking up a book and just pointing out words, many students will not learn to read well.  Reading does not make sense to many kids when presented randomly.  Just as we do not expect students to multiply before they know how to add, we should not expect students to learn to read without teaching it step-by-step, in a logical pattern.

How can reading be taught in a sequential pattern? First, teach some letters and the sounds they make, such as: a, t, s, c, f.  Build on that by making words with those letters such as: cat, fat sat. Then teach students to blend the sounds of the letters to pronounce the words.  Take it a step further, and teach a sight word like “A,” and make a sentence with your new words like this: “A fat cat sat.”

This kind of reading instruction is presented in a logical sequential pattern and it makes sense to students. It is easy to remember because all of the instruction is related.  Instead of teaching separate phonics lessons and handwriting practice with letters and words that are unrelated to the stories a child is reading, use the same letters and sounds students are learning in phonics lessons to sound out words, teach spelling, and to read stories. The same path in the brain is now being used for phonics, reading, and spelling so it will be a stronger pathway.

Each new lesson should add to and build on the previous lesson. This type of instruction makes learning to read easy and fun, just like putting a puzzle together. It makes sense. When we teach students to read by helping them build logical step-by-step patterns in their brains, they become strong successful readers.