Common Core and reading

December 5th, 2012

Earlier this week, Lyndsey Layton wrote in the Washington Post about many English teachers’ concerns “that they will have to replace the dog-eared novels they love with historical documents and nonfiction texts” to align with the Common Core State Standards. These Standards, which have been adopted in 46 states so far, require that nonfiction texts comprise half of all reading assignments for elementary school students and 70 percent of reading assignments for students in grade 12.  

However, as English teachers struggle to decide which fictional texts to remove from their curricula, David Coleman, the chief architect of the Standards, emphasizes that though the Standards do increase the amount of nonfiction for students, that increase is to be balanced across all subjects, not just in Language Arts classes. “Teachers in social studies, science and math should require more reading,” Layton paraphrases Coleman as saying, “which would allow English teachers to continue to assign literature.” 

Social studies teachers, for example, could have students read the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” while math students could read Euclid’s “Elements” from 300 B.C.

The standards explicitly say that Shakespeare and classic American literature should be taught, said Coleman, who became president of the College Board in November. “It does really concern me that these facts are not as clear as they should be,” he said.

The specifics are spelled out in a footnote on page 5 of the 66-page standards.

In practice, the burden of teaching the nonfiction texts is falling to English teachers, said Mark Bauerlein, an English professor at Emory University: “You have chemistry teachers, history teachers saying, ‘We’re not going to teach reading and writing, we have to teach our subject matter. That’s what you English teachers do.’ ”

As teachers in Social Studies and Language Arts classes redesign their reading lists for use with the Common Core State Standards, we’d like to point out that many fictional texts can be strengthened by having students read a related nonfiction text with it (and vice versa). For example, in our Meaning of America curriculum, students and teachers pair reading Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” with the Declaration of Independence to consider the concept of American individualism. Mark Twain’s story “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg” is combined with a chapter on “The Principal Source of Belief among Democratic Nations” from Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America to help students understand the power of public opinion in an age of equality and individualism. 

Finally, writing this morning at the Washington Post’s “The Answer Sheet” blog, Valerie Strauss provides a list of all Common Core reading “exemplar” texts for high school classes. As Strauss notes, “The fiction category is divided into stories, poetry and drama, and the nonfiction category, or  ‘informational texts’ offers suggested reading in English, History/Social Studies, and Science/ Mathematics/Technical Subjects. (The K-11 exemplars are contained in Appendix B to the standards; there are none listed for 12th grade.) You can find the actual Common Core standards here.” 

Take a look at the exemplar text list here

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