When the Common Core Standards were released, “close reading” was a nebulous term that left many not only seeking to better understand what it was and how it served children, but also wondering what it looked like in the classroom. Because discussions of the Common Core Standards placed such emphasis on close reading and most educators felt they knew so little about it, they scrambled to learn what they could. For many, this exploration began with this EngageNY video of David Coleman discussing how to closely read Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” In this video, Coleman discusses the importance of allowing the text to set the reading agenda and suggests a protocol for reading closely that involves asking students to read a short text with little to no scaffolding, followed by a teacher read aloud of the same selection, followed by a discussion anchored by text-based questions prepared by the teacher in advance.
At the beginning of this video, David Coleman clearly states that this protocol is “one model of instruction in alignment with the core standards of literacy. There can and should be several others.” However, in spite of Coleman’s words of caution, many understand it as the way to teach children to read closely and carefully, which inadvertently has elevated something that began as an instructional suggestion to instructional canon.
This relatively recent development makes us think a lot about some of the rules that govern how we approach literacy instruction that include things such as:
- Children should read books at their level.
- Always pre-teach new vocabulary and difficult-to-decode words.
- Be sure to fill in gaps in background knowledge prior to reading.
While these ideas are rooted in important research about how children become increasingly proficient readers, we have to look closely at the ways in which we implement them and continually ask, “How are these rules serving children?”
For example, we have visited countless classrooms honoring the matching books to reader rule. The classroom libraries are leveled and students only pick from the bin containing books “on their level.” However, when we ask, “how is this serving children?” we worry that this practice might do more harm than good as we repeatedly encounter children who shy away from reading challenges because “that book isn’t on my level.” Like David Coleman’s approach to teaching children to read closely and carefully, matching books to readers is a well-intended idea. There are many situations when it will serve an important role in helping to improve children’s reading skills, however, when it stops serving children, we can’t soldier on “just because.” Just because David Coleman or some other notable figure popularized a way of teaching children to read or write. We must remember that in education, we are always trying to outgrow our best ideas and that over time, even the best ideas evolve.