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'Dramatic' Increase in Reading Needed for Common Core, Guides Say

A set of new guides to the Common Core State Standards offers a solution, of sorts, to a brewing controversy about the balance of fiction and nonfiction in U.S. classrooms. "Informational text" doesn't have to displace fiction, the guides say, if the overall amount of reading students do increases "dramatically."

The "action guides" are meant to help counselors and school principals put the common standards into practice. Issued by Achieve, College Summit, and the two groups that represent elementary- and secondary-level principals, the guides include a primer on the standards, talking points, and an array of tips.

But in exploring the instructional shifts in the standards, they also offer common-core advocates' answer to teachers who are worried that assigning a much heftier chunk of nonfiction will force them to drop cherished parts of their literary canon.

"A shift to more informational text does not mean an abandonment of nonfiction or literature," the guides say. "Because literacy is now a shared responsibility among all teachers, reading should dramatically increase in all content areas. While English teachers may use more informational text, students may actually read more literature not less."

The booklets also downplay the immensity of the shift to nonfiction for older students, choosing not to repeat the part of the shift that has sparked the strongest reaction: that 70 percent of what students read in high school should be informational text. All three guides—even the one for high school principals—mention only the elementary-level balance: fifty-fifty.

"Balancing informational and literary text [in grades preK-5], students read a true balance of informational and literary texts," the guides say. "Elementary school classrooms are, therefore, places where students access the world—science, social studies, the arts, and literature—through text. At least 50 percent of what students read is informational."

The booklets also make note of how much schools have to do in order to be up to the challenge of cross-disciplinary literacy envisioned by the common standards. Principals have a crucial role to play in helping teachers of social studies, science, and other subjects learn how to teach the literacy skills specific to their disciplines, they say.

"From a practical standpoint, middle schools and high schools currently lack the capacity to integrate literacy instruction in the content areas. Even if teachers are receptive to the idea of incorporating literacy into their daily instruction, they lack the training and resources needed to deliver that instruction. The result is the need for building principals to begin immediately to start building teacher capacity, which begins with addressing common misconceptions about literacy instruction."

Another important challenge in implementing the standards, according to the booklets, lies in the daily practice of "leveling" texts, or matching texts to readers based on their skill level. Because the common standards expect students to read at their grade level—rather than at their reading skill level—learning to match texts to readers becomes a new ballgame that will require "additional training in evaluating the appropriateness of the material for their students," the guides say.

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