In our first three posts in response to the New York Times’ “English Class in Common Core Era: ‘Tom Sawyer’ and Court Opinions,” we’ve talked about the pitfalls and potential of the informational text mandate and about the need for teachers to have freedom and time to prepare text pairings that work well for their curricula and students. We have one final and important point to make in relation to Kate Taylor’s excellent article: there is no one methodology for using informational text successfully in the classroom.
Because students need a variety of experiences with a ranges of texts types and because we want to use complex texts as often as we can, we think it’s important to offer excerpts (of various lengths and trimming when necessary) so that students can focus their attention on the key connections between the informational text and the anchor literary text (without unnecessary distractions from your instructional goals that can eat up precious class time).
We also think it’s important to foreground, with engaging and authentic kinds of questions, the key ideas and vocabulary that students will encounter in the informational text. This way, the students can build their language skills, including the use of context clues and dictionary skills, while also anticipating the ideas in the reading. These sorts of activities can be done in groups or as homework, and they can be accomplished quickly. With this background, students are more likely to approach the informational text with some confidence and persevere during the challenging reading moments.
Finally, we think multimedia texts – photos, video clips, songs – can also be terrific context and confidence builders, producing motivation and engagement in the students before they turn to the complex informational text.
We agree with literacy consultant Kim Yaris, however, when she describes her fifth-grade son’s tearful reaction to a nine-day, “painstakingly close reading” of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And we agree with Pimentel that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a “valuable” text, worth studying both for its content and the academic vocabulary it contains.
But if students are going home crying after nine days of reading it, then the lesson is not working and the exercise threatens, as Yaris says, to “Kill the love of reading.”
Close reading of a single text over the course of several days is a defining characteristic of the Common Core-aligned instruction espoused by Pimentel and her CCSS co-author David Coleman, and it isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But too much of anything, from close reading to chocolate, isn’t good.
Teachers need to have and use the freedom to decide when they want to lovingly linger in detailed analysis of a text, to uncover with their students all of the meanings that can be uncovered in it through close, careful attention.
But every reading exercise should not follow this pattern. Remember, the goal is to produce confident, competent readers who can make sense out of the range of texts out there in the world. Some texts and reading occasions may require nine days of careful close analysis; most will not.
Just as the informational text mandate promises to offer teachers’ autonomy in their classrooms as they create meaningful, authentic text pairings to engage their students, let’s remember that teachers need to have the freedom and the confidence to decide how to use informational texts in their classroom. There is no one methodology for every text, for every teacher, and for every student!