Common Core’s emphasis on “close” reading a disservice students

Recently, my husband and I were invited over to a friend’s house for dinner.  They had prepared an unbelievable spread, and when it came time for dessert, they offered not one, but two choices—ice cream or cake.  Without blinking an eye, my husband declared, “Both please.”  We all laughed out loud, acknowledging the universally accepted truth that one is only allowed a single dessert, while he proceeded to enjoy both a scoop and a slice.  As I watched my husband savor both, I couldn’t help but think that a philosophy of “both please” could be something I could get on board with.  It might not be a philosophy to help American waistlines, but it’s certainly a philosophy that might push our debates about the Common Core English Language Arts into new, more fruitful directions.

I started thinking about this after participating in a teen book club here in D.C.  This year, I’ve had the pleasure of working with PEN/Faulkner to facilitate a book club for teen mothers at Cardozo High School.  We meet together at lunch, read a book, and we discuss it.  I have to admit that on my first day I was a little nervous.  It was a curious emotion because I’ve spent years teaching English doing just what I was about to do, read books with teenagers.  However, there was something different about this experience.  Our time together wasn’t influenced by grades, test scores, or college admissions.  Instead, it was just about reading for fun, discussing what interested you in a book.

The second we opened up the book, it felt different.  Students laughed out loud at parts, asked questions about what was going on, and when it came time to discuss were eager to share what they thought.  We never talked about metaphors, allusions, or the theme of the book—we just talked about whatever interested us.  As the weeks went on, I couldn’t wait for the book clubs, and I wasn’t the only one.  After each session, girls would share that they don’t read any of their books for English class, but that they loved this one.  In fact, girls who had to miss a session asked for copies of the chapter they missed to be left behind so they could catch up.  As I sat through the book clubs, I couldn’t help but wonder—why doesn’t every high school English class feel like this?  Are we, as English teachers, alienating children from the joy of reading?

I wonder if in our altruistic desire to be rigorous, preparing students for the challenges beyond high school, we have forgotten that reading is something you should enjoy.  It should be something that you can connect to your own experiences.  It should be something that teaches you a little bit about how to live life.  It should be something you engage with, ask questions of, and test your own experiences against.  Sometimes it seems that in some of our moves to improve reading and writing comprehension we’ve deformed reading and writing into solely a process of dissection, searching for metaphors and symbols, parsing apart the text with a fine tuned scalpel.

This is something we have to be exceptionally wary of with the implementation of the Common Core. The Common Core explicitly commands teachers to do close readings of text.  Such close readings focus on the text itself, and often call on instructors to slow down reading of a text, going piece by piece, often re-reading and analyzing portions of text.  A researcher at Thomas B. Fordham Institute recently crafted a set of guidelines for English teachers based on the close reading approach (often referred to as New Criticism literary theory) embraced by the Common Core.  The author makes suggestions such as devoting more time to a text so it can be read and re-read and focusing predominately on text-centered questions (versus questions that ask for personal connections to the text).

Now, as a former English teacher myself, I want to make clear that I in no way aim to argue that we should not approach some texts with a New Criticism/close reading approach.  In fact, when reading a complex text, it is often very necessary.  However, I worry that with Common Core implementation, English departments will begin to solely honor close reading as the only way to read a text, spending lots of time on a few texts, dissecting the text for literary concepts such as metaphors, rhetorical devices, and symbolism, and in the process turning some kids off to reading.  Close reading certainly has a place in one’s reading world, but it shouldn’t be the only exposure kids get to reading in their classes.

We’ve got to make room in our English curriculums (and I would argue in all disciplines) for reading for fun.  In the English world, we call this reading for fluency in that the reading is quick and for enjoyment versus for analysis, the mode honored in close reading.  One doesn’t stop to analyze the text, slice and dice it, highlighting the assertions, similes, and anadiplosis.  One zooms through the pages, laughing with the author, enjoying the plot, pulling over a friend to talk about if the main character should have done X or Y.  This is what we did in my book club, and it works to turn kids on to reading.

As districts start implementing the Common Core, I hope that English departments, like my husband, will say “both please.”   Yes to close reading, and yes to reading for fun.  While our debates in the education world seem to quickly swing from one side of the pendulum to another, the sweet spot might indeed not be on the fringes but in the middle.  Let’s have them analyze the symbols in Lord of the Flies, but why not also bring in some contemporary young adult literature for kids to read?  There’s no reason that they are mutually exclusive, but with Common Core and its battery of high stakes tests solely valuing close reading, it’s up to forward thinking school boards, school leaders, educators, and parents to demand both in the classroom.  –Allison Gulamhussein

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