Common Core turns students into literary critics. Does it turn them into lifelong readers?

In discussing reading, a UGA professor says: "Most educational policymakers are shockingly dim on these roles of reading in the human experience, reducing it instead to a means for testing and sorting."  (Melanie Bell / The Palm Beach Post)

In discussing reading, a UGA professor says: “Most educational policymakers are shockingly dim on these roles of reading in the human experience, reducing it instead to a means for testing and sorting.” (Melanie Bell / The Palm Beach Post)

In this interesting essay, University of Georgia professor Peter Smagorinsky talks about what reading means to the reader, as expressed by students in Mexico. He says current education policy treats reading as a way to test and sort students rather than inspire and connect them.

Smagorinsky echoes a growing concern among English teachers about the emphasis in Common Core on “close textual reading.” The framers of Common Core State Standards felt English class had strayed too far into “What does this book mean to me”” and “How do I feel about it?” and weren’t figuring out what the author was actually saying. So, students are now being asked to concentrate on what the text says so they can understand and analyze the content, arguments and contradictions. Rather than reading for self-exploration, they are reading for information and analysis.

Common Core critic and professor Sandra Stotsky explains why this approach may not meet its goal:

I am in no way suggesting that the ELA standards writers deliberately sought to make a worse conceptual mess of the secondary English curriculum than it now is and to damage the other subjects to boot. They were acting from good intentions. I believe that they truly believe that adequate college-level reading and writing comes from informational reading in K-12 and that more informational reading instruction in K-12 will make more students ready for college. Their approach, however, is based on a misunderstanding of the causes of the educational problem they sought to remedy through Common Core’s standards—the number of high school graduates who need remedial coursework in reading and writing as college freshmen and the equally large number of students who fail to graduate from high school and go on to a post-secondary educational institution.

The architects of Common Core assume that the major cause of this educational problem is the failure of our public schools to teach low-performing students in K-12 adequately or sufficiently how to read complex texts before they graduate from high school. That is, their English teachers have given them too heavy a diet of literary works and teachers in other subjects have deliberately or unwittingly not taught them how to read complex texts in these other subjects. This assumption doesn’t hold up. High school teachers will readily tell you that low-performing students have not been assigned complex textbooks or literary texts because, generally speaking, they can’t read them and, in fact, don’t read much of anything with academic content. As a result, they have not acquired the content knowledge and the vocabulary needed for reading complex textbooks in any subject.

For those interested, I recommend this essay by English teacher Daniel Katz, who writes, “If children in classrooms using the CCSS English standards learn to love reading on a deeply personal and affective level and develop a life long relationship with reading as a means of self exploration, it will be in spite of those standards, not because of them.”

With that background, here is Smagorinsky’s column.

By Peter Smagorinsky

This year I’m working with the University of Guadalajara in Mexico to help develop a literacy education program. On a trip earlier this fall, I had the opportunity to listen to panels of primary school students, early teens, and older teens talk about why they loved reading. Their audience included both adults and their classmates from school.

Although the three age groups had increasingly sophisticated understandings of the benefits of reading, they also tended to touch on a common set of points that would be quite useful for policymakers to grasp. For the most part, when talking about books they loved, they talked about narratives, primarily novels. Although our information-oriented educational policies consider literature to be a frivolous distraction from learning about facts, facts, facts, for these young readers, fictional narratives stirred their souls and generated a passionate approach to reading.

Reading, to these young experts, is a highly personal experience. When asked what they loved and learned through reading novels, they often referred to how the characters and situations paralleled their own life experiences. Drawing deeply on their personal experiences in response to what the characters go through in literature is a central aspect of a powerful reading experience.

Doing so allows them not only inform their understanding of the stories, it allows them a more sophisticated understanding of their own lives. They both see themselves more clearly, and see others more wisely. Rather than “reading like a detective within the four corners of the text,” as in the U.S. Common Core State Standards, they read like inquirers who find the literature to be both portal to other worlds and a template through which to understand their own lives.

Reading, they revealed, is also a very emotional experience for them. When one girl was asked why she loved a particular novel, she said that she loved it because she loved the person who had given it to her. The book was both good literature on its own merits, and a bond with a special person.

She thus felt a deep connection to the book as an extension of a personal relationship that mattered to her, which in turn contributed to the quality of the relationship that provided her with the book. I do not recall ever hearing the word “love” in policy discussions surrounding literacy, which tends to be treated as a set of technical skills.

Students also referred to the ways in which their imaginations were stirred by their reading. Imagination, in educational policy, is trivial and distracting from the serious work of technical analysis. Yet the youth on the panels told of how books allow them to travel around the world and become acquainted with places and people who are distant from their own lives, while still allowing them to reflect on how they live in Guadalajara. This reading is not simply an escape, but an imaginative journey that involves life lessons, the consideration of life possibilities, and the freedom that follows from unmooring the mind from its current material trappings.

Although reading is often thought of a solitary activity, it was clear their love of reading had a strong social dimension. The students in attendance were eager to ask the panelists which books they loved, why they loved them, how they related to the characters, what they learned from reading, and other questions. The panelists were excited to talk about their reading interests with their classmates, and encouraged them to do the same with their friends.

Reading, they maintained, serves as a key part of their relationships with their peers. In contrast, reading is often considered in educational policy to be a solitary and competitive act, with students’ reading scores used to rank and sort them. These young people would undoubtedly find that a strange way to treat something that they love discussing with their friends.

Ultimately, what I learned from these young experts is the role reading played in their meaning-laden development through life. Reading for them is a highly personal experience that has a strongly social orientation. Their immersion in a literary society helped them to appreciate stories as valuable texts to engage with. The young experts I listened to in Guadalajara were products of a reading context that helped them to see literary reading as a valuable activity, one they hoped their peers would take up with passion.

Reading also contributes to how they develop as people. The youth in Guadalajara gave example after example of how they had changed through the act of reading and through the related social experiences that enriched their reading. Their knowledge of new possibilities grew; their relationships were supported and strengthened; they imagined ways they might live their lives: In other words, reading to them was a critical means of developing into the type of person they hoped to become.

Most educational policymakers are shockingly dim on these roles of reading in the human experience, reducing it instead to a means for testing and sorting. I hope these kids eventually become educators and parents who know what reading is about and why people do it. The world would be a better place if we listened to them more, and punished them less, for their passion for reading and imagining what their lives hold for themselves and others.


Reader Comments 11



Michael McIntyre

These two approaches to reading are each valid.  As in most things educational, a balance must be found between the two.  The problem is that the all-important test at the end of the rainbow is decidedly slanted towards the one approach -- and thus most instruction has shifted toward that model.  Yes, the Stephanie Harvey "schema" approach may have left some teachers feeling unfulfilled in the analysis department. But, it did engage students and offer a vehicle for student choice -- both key elements in improving a reader's comprehension and his or her likelihood of remaining a reader.  Just see what Nancie Atwell says about true engagement in _The Reading Zone_ or what Terri Lesesne says about it in _Naked Reading._   Don't get me wrong -- there are teachers out there who are successfully balancing the two approaches.  Just check out what Penny Kittle is doing. Lucy Culkins and the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project (Units of Study) embrace a vision to "help young people become avid and skilled readers, inquirers, and writers."  The balance is attainable, but it will take time to prepare most teachers to tackle both ends -- rather than just preparing kids for the types of questions they'll see on the dreaded end-of-course test. 


Amen! I fell in love with history through the Little House on the Prairie series. It took me to a time and place I never could have experienced, through the eyes of someone who lived it. It was engaging, fascinating, and educational all at once. I cannot tell you how sad reading instruction has become, focused as it is on highlighting, citing, and explaining text. If kids don't learn to love to read, they won't read, no matter how good they are at analyzing what they read.


Mexico? They don't have the important subjects, like football, basketball and shoes.


@Starik Yes, Mexico.  Does your mental model of Mexico disallow reading and comprehending the reality Prof. Smagorinsky here tells in standard English?


I agree with this.  With CCGPS, with NCLB, with Reading First! we have made reading as sterile and boring as possible.  Folks, the Bush's "Texas Miracle" was a fraud!  And so much of our education policy from then has been shown to be detrimental to the development of reading, both for pleasure and for information.

Do students need to learn to read informational text?  Absolutely.  Some of us prefer it!  But learning to appreciate and connect individually with text is an important skill as well.

We have thrown the baby out with the bathwater. I have seen how Reading First! virtually KILLED the love of reading for about 10 years' worth of students, and they came out poorer readers because of it.  Of course, FOB made a ton of money...


Testing and sorting, as Smagorinsky so characteristically denigrates the necessary process of assessment, isn't going away.

Despite the fear and loathing of Smago's union buddies.



We must try not to perceive in simple dichotomies. One can support the expansive and excellent thoughts in Dr. Smagorinsky's essay, above, regarding developing a thirst for reading and, also, support a degree of precision testing that will be used to refine instruction in the classroom.



“Testing and sorting, as … the necessary process of assessment, isn't going away.”

Please, help me and perhaps other puzzled readers here understand why testing and sorting compose the necessary process of assessment.  Can you help us puzzle out that thinking?


I'll bet you're no slower than the rest of us to see your child's achievement test scores. And how well the school itself did.


"I do not recall ever hearing the word 'love' in policy discussions surrounding literacy, which tends to be treated as a set of technical skills."


The love of learning lasts a lifetime and begins with reading.  That love spills over into all of the arts, i.e. visual arts, film, stage, music, and the cultivation of that learning informs how we relate to others in the world.  Through reading we not only are aware of the present but also of the past and we can, therefore, project with some degree of accuracy into the future.

Discernment also comes with reading.  Most  of the readers of this blog know that I have become a student of Thomas Jefferson in my retirement years.  This past week, in the library, I checked out a book by an author named O'Connor which was his fictional impression of the relationship between Jefferson and Sally Hemings.  I only had to read a few pages to become figuratively nauseous in reading that book.  I turned it back into the library the next day.  The literary standards were poor, imo, and I simply could not read what so offended my learned sensibilities.  The same sensibilities now apply to film and all of the arts, as well as to relationships.  Reading is the foundation upon which higher consciousness depends. Our world's survival will depend upon it, in my opinion.