Skip to main content
Common Core reading: A balancing act
MONDAY, NOVEMBER 24, 2014 10:00 AM

The Common Core State Standards have promoted new and more challenging approaches to teaching reading in schools. In the past, students may have read a text and applied the information to their personal experiences. Now, students learning under Common Core-aligned curricula must use a strategy called close reading. In this practice, students read a passage in a book or article, then analyze the language to make inferences about what the author meant. Close reading is intended to be careful and isolated. While the practice does help students learn to analyze word choice and think critically, some educators believe reading instruction should contain more of a balance between close reading and broader instructional methods.

The structure of a close-reading lesson
A close-reading lesson contains several criteria: Students must read the passage for comprehension, reread it to assess the author's words and avoid using prior knowledge of the topic while analyzing. The last part is so students can learn to back up any claims they make with evidence from the author's words rather than from their own experiences. However, it is this portion of close reading that educators struggle to accept.

The problem with close reading
In a piece for Real Clear Education, Daniel Willingham, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, notes that detaching oneself from prior knowledge is not only difficult, it's detrimental. If students have background knowledge about Socrates, let's say, and they read a passage about the philosopher, they are coming at it from a unique perspective. Pretending not to know what they do is nearly impossible. What's more, Willingham argues that authors often assume their audience has some kind of background knowledge. It's why Shakespeare referenced mythology in his plays - the audience at the time they were written was well-versed in it, and their prior knowledge enriched their viewing of his plays. According to Willingham, ignoring background information may prevent students from fully grasping a text, despite analyzing the writer's words.

Willingham suggests that close reading should omit the unnatural approach of boxing in a text and attempting to analyze it solely on the author's language. Instead, students should be free to call upon prior knowledge as they read and reread in class. 

Balancing close reading and other methods
Perhaps by changing the close reading approach, students will be able to apply information they already know. Or educators could maintain close reading as it is, but allow students to use other reading methods as well. For instance, they might read a larger passage and analyze the author's writing alongside reference materials.