Today she posted a piece that commented on a recent article in The Reading Teacher. When I was employed by the public schools, I was a member of the International Reading Association, and that was my professional journal. The article in question refers to the current trend of teaching children "close reading." In terms of teaching jargon, I must admit this was a new one on me. But it refers to the way we teach students to read literature.
Let's be clear. This article was talking about teaching little kids in elementary school how to read children's books the same way college students read literature for English classes.
As a veteran reading specialist, I struggle with far more prosaic problems with children who are not good readers. For example, I am finding that the kids are not being taught the basics of word study. Phonics is another word for it, but phonics is only the tip of the iceberg. Word study addresses the patterns used in words, teaches children how to identify those patterns and then use them to break down unknown words. The kids with whom I work in an after-school program are given sheets of words printed in rectangles and those are sent home for them to use in homework assignments. The parents have no clue as to what to do with them. The teachers who have not taken the basic class in how to teach word study are likewise ignorant of their purpose.
Let me teach it to you. The rectangles are to be cut apart. The words are to be sorted into their word patterns. With enough repetition, the child will do that automatically, and then will have been taught how to apply that to unknown words encountered while reading. This is supposed to happen in the classroom with a teacher trained in this type of pedagogy.
But instead, the teachers are busy teaching the facts that will be on The Test. The teachers are busy passing out worksheets that drill the students on the information that will be on The Test. The teachers are practice testing items that will be on The Test. The teachers are administering benchmark tests that predict how the children will do on The Test.
And this, my friends, is what passes for education in this day and age. That great breeze is the dearly departed collective of reading research greats rolling in their graves: William Gray, Emmett Betts, Russell Stauffer, Edmund Henderson, Jeanne Chall. I can only guess at how they would tear this current trend to bits. These people were all about direct instruction in teaching young children the very basic building blocks of reading, based on the Piagetian concept of giving them only what they are capable of absorbing in their stages of development as little human beings.
But the Common Core people would have us teaching second and third graders things like author's purpose. These are kids for whom just getting at the words and working out the sentences are major victories. Teaching them how to pay attention to the text in order to understand it is as basic as it comes, and many of our children struggle with that. Many take it in stride and move quickly through the levels of reading. But I work with the ones who aren't at that point.
When you read for pleasure, friends, are you constantly asking yourself "what's the author's purpose?" I don't. I read all the time. I read all kinds of things. But I'm mostly reading fiction for the sheer joy of a great yarn being told in a terrific way that hits all my senses. Even in college, I dropped out of the English program because I wanted to write and I was sick of analyzing the work of others. I understood that it was what would help me be a better writer, but I feared losing my own voice.
Little kids don't have that capability because they do not have the life experiences that Common Core presumes them to have in order to explain what the author's purpose was. They do not have the developmental internal knowledge beyond what they, themselves, might be thinking about any given problem.
So, when we discussed why Marvin Redpost seemed to be going out of this way to get in trouble with his mother, they honestly had some difficulty figuring out that he was working for a delaying tactic that would keep him off a bicycle he hadn't yet learned to ride. He didn't want to be embarrassed in front of all his friends. And indeed, the friends were the ones who volunteered him for the daredevil mission of riding his new bike down Suicide Hill. They didn't have any skin in the deal, but he sure did.
My students were at varying degrees of what we call the decentering process. It's the point in a child's development when s/he can think beyond the self and be able to put her/himself into the position of another person and be able to project what that other person might be thinking or feeling. Its a huge step for some people and we all know plenty of self-absorbed types who never moved out of that stage!
But Common Core is saying that we have to teach these high school and college level comprehension techniques to little kids. And then they are tested on that stuff. They can barely understand Louis Sacher's fabulous character Marvin Redpost, yet they must be able to say what his purpose was in writing.
As a writer, I can tell you my only purpose is to tell a story. How it unfolds is how it unfolds. As a student, I used to say to Mrs. Harmon, "How do you know? What if all Emily Dickinson was doing was playing around with words? What if she had no conscious message? What if she was just amusing herself?"
But before a child can even get to the point of confounding her loving English teacher (Mrs. Harmon, was, for the record, the world's best and indulged me terrifically!), that child has to be able to read the words and know what they mean. That child has to be able to read standard English when all around them is spoken a dialect unintelligible to all but the local cognocenti. That child has a lot to overcome in the simple process of reading a third grade level chapter book, and the author's purpose can be boiled down to a very common denominator: writer's write because that is how they make a living. End of story.
You want to test that? I'd really like to read the validity and reliability of that one!