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Teachers Debate Value of 'Close Reading'

Those of you who read here about the "close reading" exercise conducted by the Aspen Institute recently will be interested in a debate raging on the English Companion Ning. Teachers are debating, with no small degree of intensity, whether this key tenet of the common standards is a good thing. (Registration is required to read the conversations, but it's free.)

A quick recap: I went to a retreat of chief academic officers in Tampa last month, hosted by the Aspen Institute, and reported that they walked through a "close reading" exercise with one of the English teachers who helped shape the common standards. Read my blog post, and then story to catch up on that.

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute's Kathleen Porter-Magee picked up on this and blogged about it (see here and here). And this picked up heat and rolled onto the English Companion Ning, where teachers are now arguing about the merits—and dangers—of an approach to literacy instruction that is heavy on "close reading" of text.

Some teachers are defending the new standards. Some are feeling suspicious that the standards writers, who took pains to say in the standards themselves that no one was telling teachers how to teach, are now doing exactly that. Some are questioning the bona fides of David Coleman, one of the lead writers of the English/language arts standards, who has been advancing the close-reading idea in appearances around the country but lacks classroom-teacher credentials. When I checked this morning, that thread had logged 180 comments. (Another thread about the common core, called, "Time for the gloves to come off"—yikes!—has more than 50.)

What's interesting—of many interesting things—in the thread about close reading is how it plays out the division in the ELA community about the common standards' approach to literacy instruction. There are echoes in there of what the International Reading Association's Rich Long said in my story: that the close-reading approach dispenses inappropriately with what the field knows about the value of students' background knowledge in reading. There are also echoes of broad disagreements about the standards in general, as reflected in the National Council of Teachers of English's position on them (we don't oppose or favor them, but will support teachers and students as they are implemented).

The debates among ELA teachers about the legitimacy of the standards' literacy approach bear close watching as nearly every state in the country starts work to implement it.

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