At the Illinois Reading Council Conference: The Common Core Reading Standards

The annual conference of the Illinois Reading Council (IRC) is perhaps the largest gathering of people interested in teaching reading in the state. This year the conference met in Springfield, and I participated to present on a project I had done for the Learning Resource Alliance ( called “Parents and Children Reading Together.”

Springfield is the capitol of Illinois, with two capitol buildings; the old one, now a museum, and the current one. Yet, although the government buildings are there, and despite it’s population of 118,000, Springfield feels more like a town than a city. There’s a curious kind of energy vacuum, as if the dynamic power of the state is really four hours northwest in Chicago. Lincoln’s presence is still to be felt: his home is there (now a museum), there’s an Abraham Lincoln library, a model replica of the train that brought his body back for burial after he was killed (in a restored train station, itself a museum), and several statues.

The IRC was like a town coming to town, with hundreds of people filling the Lincoln Hotel Conference Center and spilling over into many rooms in the Hilton across the street, where I gave my presentation. I’ll write about “Parents and Children Reading Together” later. Here I’ll review a presentation entitled:

Literacy Strategies to Implement the “Common Core” Reading Standards

This presentation was by Dr. Roberta Sejnost, a teacher of teachers at Loyola University in Chicago and literacy consultant to the Kane County Regional Office of Education, west of Chicago. Sejnost’s presentation focused on the “common core” reading standards. The common core standards result from a collaboration among state educational programs to try to establish common goals and comparability across reading programs within and between states. My impression is that the state educational leaders got together to try to improve, redirect, or compensate for some of the problems of the “No Child Left Behind” law. More information about the common core standards is at:


The goal of the common core reading standards is to produce readers who, as Sejnost said, can “read like a detective and write like an investigative reporter.” “Lexile level” is a measure of reading complexity that is increasingly being used to select reading material by grade. Sejnost provided examples of a host of teaching methods with which teachers could support students achieving the common core standards. Graphic organizers, long used by educational therapists and tutors to help students with learning disabilities improve their writing, are included as methods to support both student reading comprehension and writing development within the common core framework. “Inquiry Circles” is a method that involves student-led small group projects to support understanding in depth; Sejnost recommended the text “Comprehension and Collaboration: Inquiry Circles in Action” (

The common core standards are optimistic and lofty. Students are expected to understand what they read and think critically about it. Teaching is seen to involve less lecturing and more active student learning, facilitated through lots of exercises of various kinds. One such exercise might be completing a “Critical Thinking Map,” basically a box on a page with sections for the student to complete, including:

•List the events, points, or steps that occurred in the section you read
•Summarize the main idea or message conveyed by the author in the section you read
•Present viewpoints or opinions you hold about the section you read
•What conclusions did you reach about the selection you read? Were the author’s conclusions valid or invalid? Explain.
•How is what you read in this section relevant to the world of today?

In the common core standards, good reading involves “not just telling about a character, but linking the telling to where in the story it says that.” And students should be able to answer questions not only directly from the text, but also questions whose answers are implied but not stated in the text. So both close reading and inference are goals of the common core standards.

The common core goal that appealed to me most was that children should learn to “read from different perspectives” within a text. For example, in a nonfiction piece about the creation of the intercontinental railroad, students would be able to see it from the point of view of the supporters of the railroad, as well as from the point of view of the buffalo. This is the kind of reading that is most like thinking into a teaching story, or a dream, in which all the characters and objects can have unexpected meaning.

Sejnost gave a great presentation. She knew her stuff up and down, presented it clearly and accessibly, and is obviously a seasoned veteran of many educational winds of change. I was impressed by some aspects of the common core standards, which certainly aim high in close reading and literal comprehension, but was also alarmed by some of the huge gaps in them. For example, if readers are supposed to “read like detectives and write like investigative reporters,” what about reading to absorb meaning and metaphor for later use in perceiving situations and relationships, and writing to create and discover meaning? As the states try to formulate a level playing field of expectations, while also aiming high, they seem to have ignored a great deal of the value in reading and writing .

The use of “lexiles”–language, or lexical, measuring of texts to determine appropriate grade level–seems to me to be both half-brained–because it focuses on literal language, the sort of processing characteristic of the left hemisphere, more or less ignoring the right hemisphere’s relational perception role–and an example of wishful thinking confused with reality; in this case, the wish to be able to precisely measure the reading level of a book through the application of quantitative methods. Lexiles quantify the reading level of a text according to categories like the average length of words and syntactic complexity of sentences, and you can miss a lot of meaning that way. Sejnost told us, for example, that according to lexical measurement, John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” would be a 2nd or 3rd grade reading level book! Such measurement is utterly blind to the meaning of the story, and to the level of experience needed by the reader to understand it. It’s something like evaluating text grade level by computer. This exemplifies the attitude that, “if it can’t be measured, especially by our current methods measurement, it either doesn’t exist, or doesn’t matter” which underlies so much of our thinking about human nature and education.

Another huge gap in the common core standards, it seems to me, is that they are entirely about active reading for details and meaning, but completely oblivious to the reading for passive absorption of narrative structure and meaning; which, it seems to me, is about half of the value of reading. In the common core standards, reading is very serious business, and reading for wonder, joy, and to be transported to another reality, has no place.

The common core standards seem to have another huge blind area, in that they don’t start with a working assessment of where the children are reading when they come into the class. Common core standards for each grade level assume that all children begin a class at more or less the same level; which is, of course, completely false. The common core standards belong to the tradition of “mastery learning” in education, which sees the goal of teaching as bringing students up to a level of mastery of the material. When it comes to teaching reading in the elementary, junior high or high school grades, which is what the common core standards aim for, most students will not achieve mastery learning, unless the bar is lowered so much as to make “mastery” meaningless. Along with the common core standards, or whatever measure we choose to reflect mastery of a subject, there needs to be an assessment of student progress from point A–say, when the school year begins–to point B–say, the end of the school year. Passing Dr. Sejnost on the sidewalk later on, as she was going into a restaurant for lunch, I thanked her for her presentation and remarked that it didn’t seem that the common core standards took note of where students were when they began the school year in their new grades. “Right,” she said.