Today I attended an informative session called "Leveling Up to the Common Core" given by Dr. Tim Shanahan. As one of the authors of the Common Core Literacy Standards, Dr. Shanahan's words have credibility. Happy to say, I found the session very affirming of my own work and beliefs. Also, he helped me to understand something that I really need to understand, and that is what reading instruction looks like on the elementary level.
    Dr. Shanahan's assertion is that the demands of the Common Core require us to work with students on text that is at their "frustration level." This is a controversial notion, as many of the teachers present found it not only counterintuiutive, but in opposition to the Fountas & Pinnell philosophy of leveled texts. "Match the student to the text" has been a sacred mantra, replacing the use of basals. Even I know that the war between basals and leveled texts has been bitter and bloody. Now that leveled text has won the day, here comes a new day and its name is Common Core. Dr. Shanahan stresses, and I agree, that along with truly challenging text must come excellent and detailed instruction on how to comprehend it. He advocates everything I've long believed in: effective text-based vocabulary instruction and syntactical analysis. Of course, to accomplish either of these, the teacher has to be knowledeable about vocabulary (more than just definitions) and the language of syntax, aka grammar. Good luck with that.
     One of the highlights of today's talk was Dr. Shanahan's four suggestions about what NOT to do when the text is too difficult for students to read, even when they try. The first: Do NOT automatically hand the student easier reading just so he or she will get the information. Doing so will never make that student a better reader. Second: Do NOT read aloud to the student just so he or she will get the information. Doing so will never make that student a better reader. Third: Do NOT resort to simply explaining the information to the student just so he or she will get the information. Doing so will never make that student a better reader. And fourth: Do NOT ignore the fact that some students in the class have either given up or are just not comprehending. Doing so will never make those students better readers. Teach students to access the information by reading it.
       Tempering these things-not-to-do, Dr. Shanahan offers these clarifications: It is helpful to provide easier versions of informational text or stories if you are doing so as a "stair step" so that they will have sufficient background to then go on to read the targeted text. It is helpful to have students read aloud to each other in small groups, or for the teacher to read aloud a little of the text to get the right voicing and pacing. It is helpful to provide graphic organizers, even if partially completed, or to pre-teach key vocabulary.
     In short, the whole thing (by thing, I mean the independent, instructional, frustration level paradigm that we have been used to for decades) is ramped up, but reading should not just be assigned. Students cannot be expected to understand challenging text all on their own. That is what teachers are for. Intervene. Get all up in it. Get up close and personal with the unfamiliar vocabulary and the dense sentences.
     And that is what I learned from Dr. Tim Shanahan today. Definitely worth the two-hour, traffic-ridden drive and leaving the house in the pre-dawn darkness.