Common Core Opens The Second Front In The Reading Wars

Our guest author today is Kathleen Porter-Magee, Bernard Lee Schwartz policy fellow and editor of the Common Core Watch blog at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Previously, Ms. Porter-Magee served as both a middle and high school teacher, as well as the curriculum and professional development director for a network of public charter schools.

Up until now, the Common Core ELA standards were considered path-breaking mostly because of their reach. This isn't the first time a group attempted to write “common” standards, but it is the first time they’ve gained such widespread traction.

Yet the Common Core standards are revolutionary for another, less talked about, reason: they define rigor in reading and literature classrooms more clearly and explicitly than nearly any of the state ELA standards they’ve replaced. Now, as the full impact of these expectations is starting to take hold, the decision to define rigor—and the way the CCSS define it—is fanning the flames of a debate that threatens to open up a whole new front in America’s long running “Reading Wars."

The first and most divisive front in the reading wars was the debate over the importance of phonics to early reading instruction. Thanks to the 2000 recommendations of the National Reading Panel and the 2001 “Reading First” portion of No Child Left Behind, the phonics camp has largely won the day in this battle. Now, while there remain curricula that may marginalize the importance of phonics and phonemic awareness, there are none that ignore it completely.

But the debate over phonics is limited to reading instruction in the early grades. There remain important divisions in how best to devise curricula and teach literature in the years that follow, and minimizing these divisions has been central to most standards-setting efforts. After all, the “grand compromise” of standards-driven reform has always been: states get to define what students should know and be able to do at each grade, but teachers are given the flexibility and autonomy to decide how to ensure all students reach those goals. And standards-setters have been loath to provide too much guidance to curriculum developers, particularly in ELA.

Common Core is no different. On page 6 of the Common Core ELA standards, it states:

The Standards define what all students are expected to know and be able to do, not how teachers should teach…
But, in an area like English Language Arts, where the content is ill-defined and where its substance changes, sometimes dramatically, from early elementary to high school, where is the fine line between the “what” and the “how” drawn?

Until now, state ELA standards have largely defined the “what” as the skills and behaviors great readers share. These expectations have therefore described only very broadly what students should be able to do, and they’ve only hinted at how teachers should define content and rigor at each grade level.

Of course, the result was that most state ELA standards were vague and virtually meaningless directives that led to the kind of low-level reading assessments and the basest “teaching to the test” that has plagued far too many classrooms for the past decade.

Enter the Common Core.

Like the state ELA standards that preceded them, the CCSS describe the skills and behaviors that great readers and writers exhibit at each grade level. But, in an effort to define the rigor more clearly than their predecessors, the Common Core specifies that the sophistication of what students read is as important as the skills they master from grade to grade. To that end, Standard 10 clearly asks that all students be exposed to and asked to analyze grade-appropriate texts, with scaffolding as necessary.

This seemingly innocuous directive—to read appropriately complex texts and to use scaffolding to help students who are struggling understand what they’ve read—is perhaps the most revolutionary element of the Common Core standards. For the first time, the standards guiding curriculum and instruction in 45 states clearly define what it means for an ELA curriculum to be aligned to the level of rigor necessary to prepare students for college and beyond.

But this clarity means picking sides. There have long been two very different schools of thought about the best way to organize curriculum and instruction in literature. On one side are those who believe that reading comprehension will improve if teachers assess students’ individual reading level and give them a bevy of “just right” books that will challenge them just enough to nudge them to read increasingly complex texts. Yes, teachers do provide some guidance and instruction, but that instruction is limited. Here, the book is leveled to meet the student where s/he is; the “heavy lifting” of reading is placed squarely on the students’ shoulders.

On the other side are those who believe that reading comprehension improves as domain-specific content knowledge deepens, and as students are exposed to increasingly complex literature and nonfiction texts. Here, the role of the teacher is more pronounced, and instruction is more explicit. The instruction, not the text, is scaffolded to meet the students where they are.

Until now, the vagueness of each state’s standards allowed teachers to decide where their instruction would fall, and to choose between programs like “Great Books” or “Junior Great Books”—which put the emphasis on reading and analyzing rich and complex literature—and programs like Teachers College Reading and Writing Workshop or Heinemann’s Fountas and Pinnell Leveled Literacy System—which put the emphasis on assessing students’ reading levels and assigning “just right” books for them to read.

If you are to take the Common Core at its word—that the sophistication of the text is equally as important as the skills students master—then it will be increasingly difficult for publishers of curricula that focus on matching books to readers, rather than scaffolding instruction to meet their needs, to claim alignment to the new standards. It’s a sweeping change that holds enormous promise in improving the quality of ELA curriculum in America’s classrooms.

This is also a debate that, until now, has mostly been waged in classrooms and among curriculum developers, outside of the scope of state standards and below the radar of the national press. But with the specific guidance in the Common Core state ELA standards, the critical question of how to define rigor in an ELA classroom now has 45 front lines in 45 states. And while some believe that, by wading into this debate, the Common Core has violated the principles of the “grand compromise” of standards-driven reform, others believe that this guidance gives these standards more clarity and purpose than teachers have had for years.

No one likes war, but this is an important fight that’s worth having. And it’s one that has been put off for too long.

- Kathleen Porter-Magee


After reading this piece, I was wondering why there is this great schism in the first place. Why cannot educators use BOTH approaches? I would think that, since both have merit, both should be used. On the one hand, using a Great Books approach does expose the children to classics of the literary canon. Because of their influence on our culture, it is important to have been exposed to these books to help make sense of where we are and how we got there. However, what if those books, even with scaffolding, are still too complex and sophisticated for some readers in a classroom? What if those books, even if they do understand them, do not connect with the students, thereby helping to turn students off to reading? Choosing books that are just right and have high student interest can help to spark student interest in reading, which in and of itself is an important goal (considering the number of people who are "readers" is ever diminishing). I would think that the best curriculum then is one that both gives students a chance to read some books that are where they are and other books that are more sophisticated. Ideally, the point would be to produce students who want to read.


As usual, Ms. Porter-Magee fails in one of the basic aspects of the Common Core expectations, citing evidence for her argument from the text.

Here's the typical form of reading standard 10 (it has many, many variations on the theme):

"By the end of year, read and comprehend informational texts, including history/social studies, science, and technical texts, in the grades 4–5 text complexity band proficiently, with scaffolding as needed at the high end of the range."

Let's apply standard four here ("Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone."). Why does standard 10 begin by specifying "By the end of...?"

It seems to me that "By the end of..." clearly indicates that the standards do not place any requirements on the complexity of texts used throughout the year. The goal is simply that students should be reading on grade level by the end of the year. Has that ever NOT been the goal of reading standards? Is there an example of state standards that do not call for students to read grade level texts by the end of the year?

If the standard as written means that students should be reading texts at grade level throughout the entire year, how would a standard that only requires students to read grade level at the end of the year be different?

I don't really have a dog in this hunt ideologically. It just annoys me to see such baldfaced misrepresentations of clearly written standards.


Actually, once again, Ms. Porter-Magee has the intent of the Common Core State Standards exactly right--no misrepresentation at all. Standard 10 in fact charts progress toward reading grade level complex text independently and proficiently; such progress for students can only be secured by repeated practice throughout the year.

Until the Common Core State Standards were adopted, other state standards were silent on the complexity of texts students were to be reading. Occasionally, individual state standards may have used the words "grade-appropriate" to describe this literacy skill or another but "grade-appropriateness" was never defined so teachers were left to define it for themselves and more often than not, it meant providing students with as Porter-Magee states "a bevy of 'just right' books that will challenge them just enough to nudge them to read increasingly complex texts."

We are surprised by the confusion especially given how Appendices A and B elucidate the Standards and leave no doubt that the level at which kids read must be raised--dramatically. Appendix A cites the research that shows more than half our students are graduating high school reading woefully below college and career readiness levels which is crippling to their postsecondary hopes and dreams. Appendix A not only defines the levels at which students should be reading but anchors those levels in texts representative of those required in typical first-year credit-bearing college courses and in workforce training programs. In order to match the Standards' text complexity grade bands, various quantitative measures have had to adjust upward their trajectory of reading comprehension development through the grades to ensure that all students will be reading at college and career readiness levels by no later than the end of high school. Appendix B follows by providing a host of sample texts from across the curriculum that meet the new criteria for quality and complexity. Obviously, these are not sample texts for only end of the year reading!

Both Appendices (as well as the Publishers' Criteria for the Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts and Literacy) make it abundantly clear that reaching the new, higher levels of reading requires regular, repeated practice with complex texts throughout the year. It would be foolhardy to interpret Standard 10 as students reading at "just right" low levels all year long and suddenly being expected to read at levels at which they have not ever practiced and practiced a lot.

Susan Pimentel and David Coleman, lead writers of the Common Core State Standards


"and leave no doubt that the level at which students read MUST be raised"....
anyone who believes that you can "command" an increase in a child's reading level has spent little or no time teaching children. Yes April, the good school does both. It challenges students with common, challenging readings like the classics and then makes time for choice and some leveled reading as well. That is how children learn to love books and read for pleasure.
But the 'reformers' love the wars, and thus use terms like 'picking sides', and 'battles' and 'wars' and 'fight'. The idea that they may not have all the answers never enters their minds. April, if you are a teacher, use both.


I am sorry Ms. Pimentel, but I cannot base my interpretation of the text on the pre-reading instruction of my teacher but I must limit it to evidence from the actual text.

Nor can I know the true intent of the author. There is only the text to me.

If standard 10 is meant to dictate the complexity of text read throughout the year, why does the standard not, in fact, call for that? What does the phrase "By the end of the year..." mean in this context?

Why do Common Core advocates never argue from the standards themselves, only the appendices? Why can't you cite from the primary text, only the commentaries?

Your argument that previous state standards simply left "grade appropriateness" up to teachers ignores the reality that in each state students are subject to state reading assessments which are leveled by the state. These are not based on "just so" texts or teacher discretion.

So even if it is not explicitly laid out in a state's enumerated standards (as it is not done in CC either) each state has for a decade or more already been assessing all students in grade 3-8 and once in high school on their reading of grade level texts. In most cases, this is near the end of the year. In practice, not different than what the CC calls for.


As a fourth grade teacher who has used the Reading Workshop approach to teach reading I found this article frustrating and misleading, especially in its depiction of a workshop approach to teaching reading. I failed to see the similarity of what I have been doing for seven years during Reader’s Workshop with what the author describes. I only hope, someone who is more of an expert in Reader’s Workshop would respond to this article, but until then, I’ll have a go:

• The author’s contention that in a workshop approach to reading “instruction is limited” is disturbingly off base. While the “chalk and talk” portion of the workshop is limited to 10 – 20 minutes, instruction occurs all throughout the hour and twenty minutes of literacy instruction – large group, small group, partner and individual instruction is an integral and highly important part of the workshop. It is the time when the most intense instruction occurs.
• The author’s contention that instruction in a workshop approach to reading is not “scaffolded to the reader” may be true for middle and high school (I confess I do not know) but it is way off base from the world of elementary education. If this was true I could save myself considerable planning time by eliminating my daily small groups and one-on-one support groups to work on individual skills needed for specific readers. My district would also be able to save quite a bit on the cost of reading support practitioners who work with the lowest quartile of students.
• The author sets up a premise that a workshop approach does not involve quality literature. A competent teacher of reading assures that the books read in class are quality, whether in a workshop approach or an “everybody reads the class book” approach. There are many, many books that are just not good enough for my classroom library. It is my job to assure that students are reading quality in my classroom, if there are teachers who are not able to determine a quality book, they should not have been hired to teach reading - using any pedagogical approach.
• In a workshop students do the “heavy lifting” (here is where I agree with the author, at least I think I do) In Reader’s Workshop students must READ -- they do not have the book read to them because they are being scaffolded up the wazzoo. If a student’s reading time is mainly dedicated to vocabulary lessons, or lectures on book analysis or, they are sitting with a teacher because they need a paragraph-by-paragraph scaffolding to just get though half a chapter, they are not READING. Sad to say, but the 35 minutes of Reader’s Workshop that is provided for independent reading every day is generally the only time that many students in my district read. Certainly the author is familiar with the work the Richard Allington (a pioneer of reading research) who has shown that the major factor of learning to read is time spent on – surprise!! – actually reading!
• My last big concern about this article is that it presents reading pedagogy as a dichotomy. Reading is taught via a “class book approach” or reading is taught with a workshop approach but in truth, both methods are often combined, at least at the elementary level. Teachers often use chapter books that can be read a various levels of depth for a whole class, group or partnership experience, within a workshop framework. (This dichotomous choice “red herring” was also used to inflate the phonics/whole language debate – but let’s save that for another day.)

I certainly hope that the advent of the common core does not lead to the so-called “battle” the author envisions. In elementary school such a "war" would certainly lead to a frustrating and time wasting, Pyrrhic Victory.


What seems to have escaped Ms. Porter-Magee is that the NCLB focus on phonics in the early grades produced no improvement in actual reading! It was this failure that led Congress to end funding for the Reading First component of NCLB (that and the corruption of NCLB by profit mongers as established by the US Inspector General's reports). So now we do have lots of teachers in lots of schools wasting the time of their students doing unneeded phonemic awareness drills and lots of low level phonics worksheets. Instead they might consider actually teaching children to read. But first, they, like Ms. Porter-Magee, will have to realize that they are wasting time that could be better spent.

The CCSS is a "no research base" reform plan placed on schools by governors in 45 states.I would have preferred that the governors had supported at least some research on use of the CCSS. If only to see if there were no positive effects, or negative effects, on achievement when schools implemented the CCSS. Someone might have researched how much professional development of what sorts was needed to support teachers using the CCSS as the benchmark for their teaching. Someone might also have placed Ms. Pimentel and Mr. Coleman in some urban high schools and put their daily instruction up on a live feed to the internet. This so everyone could watch as they had 10th graders with a 6th grade reading level read those old texts written by dead white males. Someone might even have tested whether any good could come from giving all students complex and on or above grade level texts as their curriculum materials.

The evidence we have, the evidence being ignored by Ms. Pimentel, Mr. Coleman, and Ms. Porter-Magee is quite consistent. Children develop reading proficiency by reading many texts accurately, fluently, and with strong understanding. Children don't develop reading proficiencies when they are given texts they cannot read accurately, nor read them fluently, nor read them with understanding.

In the end we can look at the reading results of the school systems in Boston and New York City (both cities that largely ignored NCLB mandates and focused instead on using leveled reading plans) and compare the results with those of Dallas, Miami, or Los Angeles (city school systems that bought into the focus on phonics mandates).

Time will tell but I hope that this attempt to "raise the bar" works out better for kids than most previous attempts. Time will tell.


I find the “either/or” argument offered by the essayist difficult to accept.

Why must issues of the best instruction for students always be a matter of “picking sides?”

There exists a strong and compelling body of evidence that reading achievement is associated with volume of reading. The more one reads the better reader he or she becomes. In order to read a lot students need to be able read materials that they can read easily and on their own. (Vair’s recent analysis of American students’ performance on international studies of reading achievement demonstrated that certain subgroups of American students outperform every country save one. Certainly these high performing readers can and do read widely materials that they find readable and personally interesting.) Reading widely requires that readers read texts that they find personally interesting and that are within their own ability to read independently. Imagine if students are required constantly to read materials that are overly complex when compared with their current level of reading achievement (i.e. frustration level). I have no doubt that they will read less (certainly they will read such material at a lower reading rate and this will translate into less reading), find reading frustrating, and avoid further reading. How many of us adults continue to engage in tasks that we find constantly frustrating?

At the same time I do realize that there is an expectation that students need to be responsible for materials that are assigned for their grade level. If students are challenged by the complexity of the text, they need appropriate levels of support (scaffolding) before, during, and after the reading. Appropriate scaffolding is indeed necessary. But the unanswered question becomes what type of scaffolding and how much time and effort must be given to such scaffolding? The time taken by the scaffolding, as well as the slower reading speed exhibited by lower achievement students, will logically result in less reading and conceivably lower gains in reading achievement. The opportunity cost of having students read overly complex texts can be great.

I think that students need to read widely texts at their own reading level. They also need to read deeply more complex texts. Simply stating that teachers need to provide more scaffolding, however, does not provide sufficient guidance. Just what sort of scaffolding is most appropriate for these students? I’m not sure we know. (In the same way that mandating phonemic awareness instruction in NCLB resulted in some bizarre ways of teaching phonemic awareness even for students who did not need such instruction, mandating scaffolding will - without appropriate knowledge and guidance -- likely manifest itself is many odd and counterproductive ways.) What scares me is that with the new standards we are engaging in a huge experiment without a good sense of the outcomes (negative as well as positive) and upon which hang the future of a generation of students.