Tagged: stephen krashen

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The “What should children read?” debate continues

favicon There is a great debate happening in the world of reading instruction.

On one side, you have David Coleman, architect of the new Common Core State Standards, who believes that high school students should be reading mostly “informational texts,” — in other words, non-fiction.

Then on the other side, you have Stephen Krashen, opponent of the Common Core, who believes that students should be spending most of their time independently reading fictional texts.

In a recent piece in the New York Times, Sara Mosle, a middle school English teacher, weighs in on the debate. But instead of focusing on reading, Ms. Mosle argues that students should read more non-fiction to enhance their writing skills — that “careful reading can advance great writing.” (Check out Iserotope Extras for the article!)

Beginning with an anecdote about Malcolm Gladwell, who read 100 “Talk of the Town” articles in The New Yorker before attempting his own, Ms. Mosle notes that the best way to improve writing is by studying strong examples, which she says happens too infrequently in schools.

Ms. Mosle writes:

As an English teacher and writer who traffics in factual prose, I’m with Mr. Coleman. In my experience, students need more exposure to nonfiction, less to help with reading skills, but as a model for their own essays and expository writing.

In education-speak, these models are called “mentor texts” or “exemplars.” On this point, I agree with Ms. Mosle. Students improve their writing not just through direct instruction and practice but also through emulation and apprenticeship. That’s the kind of writing instruction English teacher Kelly Gallagher calls for in his latest book, Write Like This.

But as Ms. Mosle continues her argument, I begin to disagree. She advocates for “narrative non-fiction,” the genre that emerged from New Journalism and that has become famous over the past decade or so, thanks to Mr. Gladwell and This American Life host Ira Glass. Specifically, Ms. Mosle suggests that most English teachers are looking for “writing that tells a factual story, sometimes even a personal one, but also makes an argument and conveys information in vivid, effective ways.”

I’m not opposed to writing that is vivid. And I do not have a problem with self-expression. But let’s separate personal narratives from argumentative essays. When focusing on argument, let’s encourage students to choose precise evidence from text rather than from their personal lives.

My stance may seem rigid and my approach to writing instruction formulaic. But I worry that Ms. Mosle and other English teachers may confuse their students, particularly those practicing the basics of non-fiction. Before graduating to the advanced writing moves required for narrative non-fiction, there’s nothing wrong with mastering the basic argumentative essay structure first. favicon

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There must be more reading in schools

favicon Most high schools don’t include very much reading in their curriculum. Here are some of the reasons I’ve heard:

1. Students don’t read very well. We have to find different ways for students to access the content.

2. Students don’t like to read. In this Internet age, let’s use more technology.

3. There isn’t enough time. If we devoted our classes to reading, we wouldn’t be able to meet all the standards.

Although these claims have flaws, I won’t try to prove them wrong. After all, even if they’re true, they don’t help students become better readers. And I don’t think anyone would argue that reading is an unnecessary skill.

Most people think that the best way to get good at something is through practice. That’s what Malcolm Gladwell writes in Outliers: The Story of Success. And that’s what reading experts Stephen Krashen and Kelly Gallagher and Nancie Atwell all say.

But the problem is that young people are not reading very much at all. According to To Read or Not to Read, a 2011 study from the National Endowment for the Arts, 15- to 24-year-olds read an average of seven minutes per day.

You read that right: Seven minutes per day — vs. about 2 1/2 hours per day of television.

(When students tell me they’d prefer watching the movie over reading the book, I respond, “Of course you would. You’re good at watching TV. You’ve had so much practice.”)

So if young people aren’t reading, and practice is the best way to get better at something, that means that schools must aggressively increase the amount of reading that students do.

It’s not easy, but it must be done.

The first step is to encourage all teachers — not just English teachers — to include reading in their lesson plans every day. Reading is different in each discipline, and students need to know how reading a science text is different from reading a math problem.

The next step is for schools to commit to an independent reading program — and to make it a source of pride for the school community. Most schools rely on the English teachers to carry out independent reading, but it must be a school-wide effort. Students must choose books they like, have time to read them, and talk about what they’ve read.

(Amazing things can be done: Principal Ramón González of M.S. 223 in the Bronx spent $200,000 last year to purchase books students would like. He also hosts a principal’s book club.)

The final step is for English teachers to figure out how best to distribute the study of fiction, nonfiction, and independent reading in their classes and across the school. Right now, most English teachers teach novels, short stories, and poetry, which excludes the majority of text that people read. (No, I’m not making an argument here for Common Core.) There should be a shift away from fiction as the pretty-much-only genre in English classes.

But whatever happens, the key thing is that there just has to be much more reading. Educators like to talk about 21st century skills and how students need to learn how to collaborate and analyze various electronic media and be able to assess bias and credibility in sources. That is all true.

But to do that, students need to read a lot and learn how to read at a much higher level. And if that’s going to happen, high schools must make the teaching of reading a priority. favicon

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I still can’t get a good read on David Coleman

 David Coleman, architect of the Common Core standards, will become the president of the College Board in October.

I’ve been following Mr. Coleman for a while. Many English teachers are leery of him because of his emphasis on teaching nonfiction over fiction. They also don’t like that he believes in New Criticism, or close reading, over Reader Response. Finally, Coleman is controversial because he claims not to tell teachers what to do but has spent the last year traveling across the country and offering a way to teach Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

Now he will lead the College Board, the behemoth organization that administers the SAT and Advanced Placement tests.

In the New York Times article that I read, Coleman said he is interested in building solid curriculum that will prepare students for the high-stakes tests. It also sounds like he wants to level the playing field for students taking advanced placement courses. “The College Board should consider any student in an AP class a student in our care,” he said. “We need to find better ways to support their success.”

But some educators, including reading expert Stephen Krashen, are not having any of it. Here’s an excerpt from the article:

“There’s no reason on earth for common core standards and these tests that we’re wasting billions of dollars on,” said Stephen Krashen, an emeritus education professor at the University of Southern California. “The problem is poverty, poverty, poverty. Middle-class children who go to well-funded schools do very well, but even the best tests, the most inspiring teachers, won’t mean anything if the kids don’t have enough to eat.”

It’s weird. I still don’t have a good read on David Coleman. I mean, I think he means well, but he seems out of touch with teachers and students. On the other hand, I want to like Stephen Krashen, and I do — at least on the subject of reading. But his emphasis that poverty is the reason for all educational ills cannot be the answer, either.

One last thing: Coleman will make $750,000.