Common Core’s Focus On ‘Close Reading’ Stirs Worries

What if English and language arts teachers completely changed their approach to focus solely on the texts that students are reading? This was the topic of discussion among chief academic officers from 14 urban school districts last month. It represents a major shift in the Common Core State Standards, which now emphasize "close reading" of complex texts. Instead of teachers providing explanations and background information before students read, the focus is on the text itself. Students analyze the words and structure of the text to find information and evidence. Through questions and class exercises, teachers guide students in a search for answers and deeper understanding.

However, implementing this approach requires significant changes in how teachers teach, how districts select texts, how student knowledge is assessed, and how teachers are evaluated. The chief academic officers who participated in a leadership-network meeting facilitated by the Aspen Institute expressed both support and concerns about this approach. They praised the concept but worried about providing the necessary professional development for their teachers. The Aspen Institute requested that district leaders not be quoted by name to allow for open and honest discussion.

During the meeting, the chief academic officers had the opportunity to observe a close reading lesson led by David Pook, a teacher from New Hampshire who helped shape the English/language arts standards. The lesson focused on an excerpt from Russell Freedman’s book, "The Voice That Challenged a Nation," about Marian Anderson’s historic recital in 1939. The students were asked to read the passage silently, without any background information provided by the teacher. They were given word definitions in the margin and explored "text dependent" questions that helped them understand the passage’s meaning and structure. The answers to these questions were found within the passage itself, encouraging students to make inferences and follow the arguments.

One of the main points of the lesson was that teachers cannot answer these questions for their students. Instead, they must guide students back to the passage to find the answers. This represents a significant change for teachers, who may initially think they already ask these types of questions. However, the focus is on the specific words used by the author, not just what happened next. This requires teachers to refrain from quickly providing answers and instead develop new types of questions that encourage students to return to the text for understanding.

The goal of this approach, according to Mr. Pook, is to help students become independent learners by developing their vocabulary, understanding a text’s structure, and building arguments based on evidence within the text. This process will require significant professional development for teachers to shift their teaching practices and encourage students to engage critically with challenging texts.

However, with all these changes, there are concerns about whether it may be too much too soon. Teachers will need support and training to adapt their instructional methods, districts will need to carefully select appropriate texts, and assessments and teacher evaluations will need to align with this new approach. Despite these challenges, the potential benefits of revolutionizing instruction to prioritize close reading are promising.

Curriculum Materials

A group of individuals responsible for drafting the common standards have developed "publisher’s criteria" for mathematics and English/language arts, with the intention of providing guidance to publishers in the creation of curriculum materials that align with the goals of the common standards. In addition to this, various states, districts, and organizations are also in the process of creating their own materials. While many of these will be made freely available, most are still a work in progress, and there is currently no centralized location to access them all.

Furthermore, numerous private groups have been promoting professional development opportunities for the common standards, despite some proponents of the common core expressing doubts about the effectiveness of quick, superficial training sessions. Several districts, like those within the Aspen network, are beginning to develop their own professional development modules. However, officials from larger districts are concerned about ensuring that thousands of teachers truly comprehend the fundamental changes outlined in the standards. They are also worried about providing district support to help teachers design lesson plans and other instructional materials.

During a break in a meeting, a group of chief academic officers gathered to brainstorm potential approaches to professional development in a large district. They recognized that a "train the trainer" model may result in a loss of effectiveness as the training gets further removed from the original trainers. However, they also acknowledged the immense challenge of freeing hundreds of teachers simultaneously to attend sessions with experts.


  • codyyoung

    Cody Young is an educational blogger. Cody is currently a student at the University of Utah pursuing a degree in communications. Cody has a passion for writing and sharing knowledge with others.



Cody Young is an educational blogger. Cody is currently a student at the University of Utah pursuing a degree in communications. Cody has a passion for writing and sharing knowledge with others.

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