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March 12, 2021

Literacy and CCSS: Removing the Stigma from the Struggle

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) have raised the bar significantly for our students. For this blog I want to focus on CCSS Anchor Standard 10, as it demonstrates one way in particular that these standards have raised the bar. Standard 10 establishes a staircase of text complexity, and expects that by the end of each year students (beyond the primary grades) are reading on grade level texts independently and proficiently. (This is in response to research by ACT that shows the ability to read complex texts is what separates students who are college ready from those who are not.)

The authors of the CCSS call for all students to spend more time reading complex texts, even if they fall at a student’s “frustration” level. This has generated controversy because much of the literacy research and practice of the past 30 years has been focused on making reading easier for kids, by doing things like simplifying texts or matching students with texts that they can read independently. The idea of struggling in literacy has traditionally had a negative connotation, with readers who struggle being renamed as “striving” readers in recent years.

Is Struggle So Bad?

Literacy experts such as Tim Shanahan have recently begun to question the wisdom behind reducing opportunity for readers to struggle with complex texts. While it’s definitely possible to find a text that is simply too hard for a student, research indicates we’ve been going overboard. Before seeing what students can do with these texts, we have identified many as “frustration” level and off limits. We’ve been telling them what complex texts mean instead of helping them figure it out for themselves.

An unintended consequence of the graphic organizers, scaffolding and support we have given students is that when it’s time for them to tackle a complex text on their own, they may shut down. Of course, students need plenty of opportunities to read at their independent level to experience success and build fluency, but they also need regular opportunities to struggle productively with complex texts.

You’ve probably heard of close reading, a strategy where students figure out a high-quality text by focusing in on the author’s craft and structure. Close reading is an example of how students can struggle productively with complex texts. Though there are many approaches, close reading always requires multiple reads of a short, high-quality text, and ample opportunities for discussion.

3 Steps to Doing a Close Reading

1. What the text says: A typical sequence of close reading instruction begins with minimal pre-reading. Students do the first reading on their own to get a basic understanding of what the text says. They annotate what they think is important or what they find confusing in the text and then discuss with peers. It’s important that they should not expect to get everything the first time around.

2. How the text says it: Next, students read the text again, focusing on how the text says it; examining the author’s craft and structure to determine how the text works. This second reading may be accompanied by a teacher read aloud and think aloud targeting a related strategy. This is followed by a series of text-dependent questions.

3. What it all means: The third reading accompanies a discussion of what it all means. Students revisit the text to determine lessons or insights about the human condition, evaluate the arguments presented in the text, or make connections to other texts. Finally, they write a response, supported with textual evidence. This in-depth engagement with complex text as part of close reading will help students meet the CCSS.

See it in action. These Teaching Channel videos show close reading in action. Close-reading is a process, more than a strategy and these videos represent various ways you might consider entering that process.

Analyzing Texts: Text Talk Time
Reading Like a Historian: Corroboration
Literary Analysis through Interactive Stations
Arguing the Pros and Cons of Teen Driving
The Significance of the Frontier in American History

Redefining Struggle

Instructional strategies alone are not enough. If our students are to meet the CCSS, we must foster the growth mindset that will help them see struggle as a natural part of learning, not as a lack of intelligence. We must remove the stigma from struggle in our literacy classrooms and give our students more opportunities to struggle productively with complex text. 


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