The first thing that happened to reading is writing. For most of our history, humans have been able to speak but not read. Writing is a human creation, the first information technology, as much an invention as the telephone or computer.
—Mark Seidenberg, Language at the Speed of Sight
A growing contingent of scholars argue that our “superpower” as a species is not so much our intelligence as our collective intelligence and our capacity for what’s called cumulative culture: that is, our ability to stockpile knowledge and pass it down from generation to generation, tinkering with it and improving it over time.
—Steve Stewart-Williams, “How Culture Makes Us Smarter”
The written word emerged from the fogs of the distant past in places as disparate as the hills of Oaxaca, the banks of the Huan River, and the dry yet fertile expanse between the Tigris and Euphrates. Some of this early transcription was record-keeping, the accounting of ownership, an empirical truth-telling that extended the reach of commerce. Yet there were also the words of the prophets and priests—the divinations, omens, prophecies, and revelations—and the words of the scholars and poets—the stories, laws, and myths. A reckoning with the enduring and the sacred. The Akkadian texts, the Vedas, the Avestas, the Torah and the commentaries that were made to explain them.
In such scripture, contradictory accounts, allegories, and the use of a more complex language not spoken on a daily basis presented challenges beyond the pragmatic literacy of record-keeping. Clearly, the word of the godhead cannot be so easily confined by the shallow tongue of humans, however divinely inspired. The act of understanding sacred texts has thus always been one of interpretation.
And from the start, there have been two broad approaches to interpretation: a literal interpretation, which sticks to what is most plainly evident in the text itself, and an inferential interpretation, which situates a text within a larger framework. These approaches can work together as a progression towards a fuller understanding, though they can also exist sometimes in opposition.
Scriptural Exegesis: the literal and the nonliteral meaning
Scholarly interpretation of scripture, termed exegesis, has a storied tradition, extending to formalized methods termed hermeneutics. Hermeneutics has since developed far beyond scripture into a theory of knowledge and understanding itself.
The early usage of “hermeneutics” places it within the boundaries of the sacred. A divine message must be received with implicit uncertainty regarding its truth. This ambiguity is an irrationality; it is a sort of madness that is inflicted upon the receiver of the message. Only one who possesses a rational method of interpretation (i.e., a hermeneutic) could determine the truth or falsity of the message. (Jean Grondin via Wikipedia)
Hermeneutics spans a wide gamut, from theology and philosophy, from Hillel to Heidegger, and also parallels the development of literary criticism, from Plato and Aristotle, from Russian Formalism to Reader-response Theory, with both threads leading, quite fascinatingly (if you follow edu stuff at all) to E.D. Hirsch, Jr., who argued that an objective interpretation of literary texts is possible (by adhering to the author’s intention). And this lineage extends all the way up to the Common Core Standards and its promotion of a particular form close reading.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s keep with the exegesis thing for a minute. I just said there’s literal interpretation and interpretation which goes beyond what is in the text, both approaches which often interweave.
A consistent exegetical procedure is evident in manuscripts in which the original Avestan and its zand coexist. The priestly scholars first translated the Avestan as literally as possible. In a second step, the priests then translated the Avestan idiomatically. In the final step, the idiomatic translation was complemented with explanations and commentaries, often of significant length, and occasionally with different authorities being cited.
Here’s how both Hebrew and Akkadian methods of exegesis try to resolve contradictions between the approaches:
…in order to clarify the interpretation of a text, it may be necessary to adopt a solution that goes beyond the immediate and literal sense of the text. Indeed, the tension between the literal sense of a text and the sense of the text in its larger context is a perpetual concern of Akkadian and Hebrew commentators alike. An awareness of this tension is reflected in commentaries that attach two interpretations to one phrase from the base text: the literal interpretation, which does not necessarily agree with the context, and a nonliteral interpretation that succeeds in reconciling the phrase with its larger context.
In the rigorous and rich Judaic traditions of textual interpretation, extensive commentaries have been developed, and the midrash of the Torah and the halakhah (Talmud) were formalized into hermeneutic rules. There was no distinction initially drawn between literal meaning, peshat, and inferential interpretation, derash, but over time the two terms became more distinguished from each other. In halakhic, or legal, interpretation, scholars had to not only attempt to reconcile tensions within a text itself, but further reconcile laws in relation to changing economic and cultural circumstances. In the attempt to resolve such problems, “scholars…first and above all sought to find the solutions in Scripture itself, by endeavoring to penetrate to its inner or ‘concealed’ content.” In the non-legal rabbinic midrash of the Torah, there was even more room for creative interpretation. Stories termed aggadah could be interpreted at both a literal and allegorical level. Some believe there are hidden layers of meaning that can only be unveiled to those properly trained to unlock them. In the tradition of Kabbalah, exegesis moves far beyond allegorical into the realm of the mysterious and mystical.
What is interesting is how extremely literal methods could be used to move into the realm of the occult. As an example, a hermeneutical method termed notarikon takes out a letter of a word to make the initial letter of another word, such that one word could become an entirely new sentence. Another method termed gematria assigns numerical values to words based on the letters, and then use the numbers to make esoteric inferences.
While such methods may seem bizarre at first glance, remember that scriptural exegesis assumes the premise that scripture is sacred in nature, and thus, without error. If you follow this premise all the way through, that means every single letter of every single word has a divine purpose and meaning, even when it is not immediately evident, and even when some verses or texts stand in seeming contradiction to others.
In Christian Biblical exegesis, scholars also approached interpretation from various angles, some of them in opposition and others within a progression:
… whereas some have argued that the interpretation must always be literal, or as literal as possible (since “God always means what he says”), others have treated it as self-evident that words of divine origin must always have some profounder “spiritual” meaning than that which lies on the surface, and this meaning will yield itself up only to those who apply the appropriate rules of figurative exegesis similarly developed hermeneutics based on literal, allegorical, moral, and anagogical interpretations. (Britannica.com entry)
There’s even a Latin rhyme that encapsulates the four methods, or quadriga, of figurative Biblical exegesis:
Litera gesta docet, Quid credas allegoria,
Moralis quid agas, Quo tendas anagogia.
The rhyme roughly translated:
The literal teaches what God and our ancestors did,
The allegory is where our faith and belief is hid,
The moral meaning gives us the rule of daily life,
The anagogy shows us where we end our strife.
A Talmudic scholar, Rashi, provides an instructive example of moving between different levels of interpretation:
Rashi’s Bible commentary illustrates vividly the coexistence and, to some extent, the successful reconciliation of the two basic methods of interpretation: the literal and the nonliteral. Rashi seeks the literal meaning, deftly using rules of grammar and syntax and carefully analyzing both text and context, but does not hesitate to mount Midrashic explanations, utilizing allegory, parable, and symbolism, upon the underlying literal interpretation. (Britannica.com entry)
In Islamic exegesis, or tafsir, the classical Arabic language itself is central to the task of interpretation through intensive study of rhetoric, etymology, morphology, syntax, and metaphor. The verses, or ayah, of the Qur’an can be delineated into “those that are clear and unambiguous (muhkam) and those that are allegorical (mutashabeh).” It is said that the Qur’an is revealed through seven different forms of recitation, or arhuf. Yet there is debate about what the meaning of arhuf even is. Here is a hadith that elucidates the difficulty in pinning down that meaning:
From ʿAbdallâh Ibn Masʿūd: The Messenger of Allah said: “The Quran was sent down in seven ahruf. Each of these ahruf has an outward aspect (zahr) and an inward aspect (batn); each of the ahruf has a border, and each border has a lookout.”
What is common in all scriptural exegesis is the belief that the text is divinely inspired in origin, and thus, worthy of intense scrutiny to unfurl that revelatory meaning, down to the deconstruction and reconstruction of letters, morphemes, and syntax, as well as righteous attempts to ensure that any contradictions within and between sacred texts are resolved.
The truth is, truth and meaning in the written word can be a slippery thing, subject to abstraction and contradiction. Herein lies its power—the power to reveal or to deceive, both sacred and dangerous. While the word of a prophet or god requires painstaking exegesis to unspool into moral or legal guidance, poets and storytellers can craft and bend language at will to elicit desired reactions from their audience.
Literary Criticism: the significance of a text and its context
Plato feared this deceptive power. He even went so far as to advise that poets should be banned from his ideal republic. In The Republic, written in 360 BCE, Plato argued that poetry is a mere imitation of nature, and thus, inferior. Yet in this shallow deception lay great power, for the poet, through the use of melody, rhythm, and other “ingenious devices,” could take advantage of the irrational “weakness of the human mind. . . having an effect upon us like magic.”
Plato instead argued for the supremacy of the rational “arts of measuring and numbering and weighing.” While he did have an appreciation for poetry, he believed that the primary function of art should be to serve a moral purpose. Anything else was not only frivolous, but dangerous.
Yet a decade later, in Poetics, Aristotle offered an alternative vision of the power of poetry. While he acknowledges that poetry is an imitation of reality, he argues that the most potent of the dramatic arts, tragedy, “imitated noble actions, and the actions of good men,” thus providing the virtuous guidance that Plato found so lacking.
Aristotle examined the “ingenious devices” of poetry closely and provided a clear description of effective literary techniques such as character, plot, and diction, while introducing concepts like catharsis and mimesis that are still applied in literary study today. He also argued that poetry serves a different function than the more quantifiable arts of the specific and the particular, and that it serves an even higher purpose:
…it is not the function of the poet to relate what has happened, but what may happen,—what is possible according to the law of probability or necessity. The poet and the historian differ not by writing in verse or in prose. . . The true difference is that one relates what has happened, the other what may happen. Poetry, therefore, is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular.
Aristotle also tackled problems of interpretation. He suggests a number of issues and solutions, but the following one especially stood out to me due to later literary debates about whether a text should be studied based solely on what is within the text, or with consideration of an author’s intent and biography:
Things that sound contradictory should be examined by the same rules as in dialectical refutation whether the same thing is meant, in the same relation, and in the same sense. We should therefore solve the question by reference to what the poet says himself, or to what is tacitly assumed by a person of intelligence.
What’s fascinating is that this tension between Plato and Aristotle’s stances on poetry can be seen resounding in centuries of literary criticism since. As the Encyclopaedia Britannica puts it: “Although almost all of the criticism ever written dates from the 20th century, questions first posed by Plato and Aristotle are still of prime concern, and every critic who has attempted to justify the social value of literature has had to come to terms with the opposing argument made by Plato in The Republic.”
In the Medieval period, Plato’s staunch focus on the service of art for moral good is echoed in the largely unimaginative and depressing body of artwork produced by the Western world. The truly exciting action was taking place, instead, in the scholarly exegesis of biblical texts.
But in 1440, hermeneutics moved beyond its role of merely explaining the “true” meaning of the Bible. An Italian humanist and literary curmudgeon, Lorenzo Valla, proved that a document used by the papacy to claim that emperor Constantine the Great had transferred authority of Rome to the Pope was a forgery by using evidence solely within the text itself. How did he do this? As a scholar of Latin grammar and rhetoric, he explained that the crude Latin used by its anonymous author did not match the form of Latin used in the time of Constantine.
During the Renaissance, the recovery of classical literary texts spurred a flowering of literary criticism. At the same time that Aristotle’s Poetics was translated into Latin and regained a new audience, hermeneutics shifted into a fully Aristotelian appreciation for the beauty of well-crafted art. In his Defence of Poesie, Sir Philip Sidney, echoing Aristotle, argued that the poet was superior to the historian:
So then the best of the Historian is subject to the Poet, for whatsoever action or faction, whatsoever counsaile, pollicie, or warre, strategeme, the Historian is bound to recite, that may the Poet if hee list with his imitation make his owne; bewtifying it both for further teaching, and more delighting as it please him: having all from Dante his heven to his hell, under the authority of his pen. (Renascence Edition)
This new concern with the subjective mind of the author and the reader themselves, rather than on rigid methods, became a growing focus throughout the decline of Neoclassicism and into the Romantic era, during which “The poet was credited with the godlike power that Plato had feared in him.”
This isn’t to say that Biblical exegesis faded away. Instead, new methods were developed that focused on reframing the Bible within a broader context.
The rationalist Enlightenment led hermeneutists, especially Protestant exegetists, to view Scriptural texts as secular classical texts. They interpreted Scripture as responses to historical or social forces so that, for example, apparent contradictions and difficult passages in the New Testament might be clarified by comparing their possible meanings with contemporary Christian practices. (Wikipedia entry)
This takes us into the 20th century, where a renewed formalism led to methods that refocused on interpretation of the text itself, without reference to anything else. In France, Gustave Lanson, a literary critic, promoted a pedagogical method in French universities termed l’explication de texte, in which a text’s structure, style, and literary devices are objectively examined. In Russia, a Formalist method “attempted a scientific description of literature (especially poetry) as a special use of language with observable features.” Russian Formalism stood in sharp contrast to Plato’s argument that poetry was a mere imitation of reality; the stance of Formalism is that “words were not simply stand-ins for objects but objects themselves.” Meanwhile, in Britain and the United States academia, New Criticism became the dominant form of literary interpretation, in which the author’s intent and a reader’s responses were viewed as largely irrelevant distractions. Similar to Russian Formalism, New Criticism took the stance that “everything that is needed to understand a work is present within it.”
Scholars of New Criticism even coined terminology to make it explicit that an author’s background or intent or a reader’s personal and emotional responses were invalid methods of interpretation. They termed these “The Intentional Fallacy” and “The Affective Fallacy,” respectively.
This discounting of the author’s intent and biography and of a reader’s responses both generated opposing schools of literary criticism in the latter half of the 20th century. New Historicism focuses on the social, cultural, and philosophical contexts within which an author wrote, to the point that the text and author seemed to have been almost inevitably created by their context, rather than vice versa:
In its tendency to see society as consisting of texts relating to other texts, with no ‘fixed’ literary value above and beyond the way specific cultures read them in specific situations, New Historicism is a form of postmodernism applied to interpretive history. (Wikipedia entry)
Reader-response theory, on the other hand, “argues that a text has no meaning before a reader experiences—reads—it.” This approach rejects the grounds for objectivity in the interpretation of texts, suggesting instead that meaning arises out of personal reactions and the particular context that a reader is situated within.
Other forms of criticism that drew heavily upon wider contexts beyond the text itself also became more widespread in the late 20th century, such as sociological, psychoanalytic, Marxist, feminist, or post-Structuralist criticism. Increasingly, criticism was viewed as a subjective and highly specialized academic endeavor.
Into this fray stepped E.D. Hirsch, Jr. with a book titled Validity in Interpretation, in which he argued that an objective interpretation of a text was possible, in contrast to the positions of New Historicism or Reader-response theory. However, he also took issue with the stance of New Criticism that authorial intent was a distraction from the text itself. Instead, Hirsch argued that determining authorial intent was the basis for a valid, more objective interpretation. He drew a distinction between the meaning of a text and its significance. The meaning, an understanding as determined by authorial intent, is something that is stable and does not change, while a text’s significance changes in accordance with new explanations and connections to new contexts. In his own words:
Meaning is that which is represented by a text; it is what the author meant by his use of a particular sign sequence; it is what the signs represent. Significance, on the other hand, names a relationship between that meaning and a person, or a conception, or a situation, or indeed anything imaginable. … Significance always implies a relationship, and one constant, unchanging pole of that relationship is what the text means (Validity in Interpretation).
Meaning . . . may be conceived as a self-identified schema whose boundaries are determined by an originating speech event, while significance may be conceived as a relationship drawn between that self-identified meaning and something, anything, else (“Meaning and Significance Reinterpreted”).
This distinction stood out to me because it seemed analogous to one made by Christine Counsell about two main types of knowledge in school curriculum. She distinguishes between substantive knowledge and disciplinary knowledge. Substantive knowledge is knowledge that is relatively stable and can be taught as established fact, while disciplinary knowledge engages students in the use of tools and pathways of inquiry fundamental to the discipline, and which is always evolving.
I find both of these distinctions, between meaning and significance, and substantive and disciplinary knowledge, to be useful, as they allow us to see that there are some forms of understanding that are more static than others, and also that the interpretation of a text is always situated within a wider context, and that interpretations will shift in accordance with that context.
The crucial point, then, is that any text has an envisioning historical and cultural context and that the context of a text is itself not simply textual—not something that can be played out solely and wholly in the textual domain. This context of the texts that concern us constrains and limits the viable interpretations that these texts are able to bear. The process of deconstruction—of interpretatively dissolving any and every text into a plurality of supposedly merit-equivalent construction—can and should be offset by the process of reconstruction which calls for viewing texts within their larger contexts. After all, texts inevitably have a setting—historical, cultural, authorial—on which their actual meaning is critically dependent (Nicholas Rescher, as quoted by a Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on hermeneutics)
Another important aspect of E.D. Hirsch’s analysis is that it represents a convergence between literary criticism and the discipline of hermeneutics, which had been developing along largely separate tracks. Hermeneutics sprung originally out of the study of scripture, then developed into philosophical explorations of epistemology, while literary criticism clung more closely to aesthetics and classical literature.
Before we move from the topic of hermeneutics and of the relationship of a text to wider context, I think it’s important to touch on the concept of the hermeneutic circle, which very much relates to the movement between literal and nonliteral in scriptural exegesis, as well as the interpretation of the meaning and significance of a piece of literature.
The hermeneutic circle refers to the recursive movement between part and whole, whether within a text itself, in connection between texts, in connection between a text and something else, or even more broadly, in the relationship between an individual and the world he or she inhabits. We will see this circle in action in our next section on close reading.
One other fascinating thing to note about E.D. Hirsch, Jr., which can help us transition into our next section on primary and secondary public education: he has become known more widely known for his promotion of cultural literacy, the idea that literacy is founded on background knowledge relevant to a culture, and that therefore a shared body of core knowledge and vocabulary should be taught explicitly in each grade. He founded an organization, Core Knowledge, which developed K-8 curricular materials to address this need. This was a contentious idea when first introduced in the late 1980s, and continues to generate debate today.
The Common Core Enters Stage Left
Ever since the exhortation of the Common Core ELA standards for students to “read closely” and “cite evidence,” close reading has been a thing in K-12 education.
Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.
As you will see, debates about close reading closely echo the ancestry of the textual exegesis, hermeneutics, and literary criticism that preceded them.
Advocates and developers of the Common Core, such as David Coleman and Sue Pimental, promoted a form of close reading in which analysis is confined to the text itself, similar to the approach of Formalism, l’explication de texte, and New Criticism. This approach could be viewed as an explicit reaction to a trend in K-12 classrooms of providing only easily accessible texts and questions and too much background context prior to reading, most especially to those students who already struggled with reading. This seemed to ill prepare graduating students for college-level tasks oriented around highly complex academic texts, nor for the reading of technical texts required for advancement in many careers.
The solution proffered by the standards was to engage students in reading increasingly complex texts throughout the span of their education, and to ensure questions were “text-dependent,” rather than answerable without any evidence.
However, there was a backlash against this form of close reading.
For example, Nancy Boyles wrote in ASCD that asking students only text-dependent questions doesn’t explicitly prepare students for engaging independently in their own close reading practices. She recommends asking four generic questions that students can apply independently to any text.
“The final, most compelling reason I don’t care for the Student Achievement Partners [text-dependent] questions is that although they teach the reading—the content of the text—there’s no attempt to teach the reader strategies by which that reader can pursue meaning independently. . . Teaching is about transfer. The goal is for students to take what they learn from the study of one text and apply it to the next text they read.”
Educators Kylene Beers and Robert Probst further argued in Notice & Note: Strategies for Close Reading that it is essential to support students in making personal connections to texts because meaning and engagement are created via the interaction between a text and its reader, a view similar to Reader-Response Theory:
“Meaning is created not purely and simply from the words on the page, but from the transaction with those words that takes place in the reader’s mind. . . Close reading, then, should not imply that we ignore the reader’s experience and attend closely to the text and nothing else. It should imply that we bring the text and the reader close together. To ignore either element in the transaction, to deny the presence of the reader or neglect the contribution of the text, is to make reading impossible. If we understand close reading this way, when the reader is brought into the text we have the opportunity for relevance, engagement, and rigor.”
Another knock against confining a close reading solely to what is within a text is that a reader may miss the wider social or historical context that a text is situated within. As the Odegaard Writing and Research Center at the University of Washington puts it:
“Remember that every writer is in conversation: with other writers, with history, with the forces of her culture, with the events of his time. It is helpful, for example, to read Karl Marx or Sigmund Freud with some knowledge of their moment in history. Virginia Woolf and Simone de Beauvoir were responding to writers and events in their cultures, too. When you understand the context of a work, you can better see the forces that moved the author to write that work.”
Kate Roberts and Christopher Lehman, in Falling In Love With Close Reading, suggest that you can have your cake and eat it, too.
“Instead of seeing this as a debate between two opposing sides, we believe there is a way to achieve both goals–to teach students to read more analytically, while also valuing their lives and experiences. In fact, in this book we argue that by learning to read more closely, our lives and experience grow richer as well.”
This made me think of a related conversation regarding critical thinking skills. In “What REALLY Works: Optimizing Classroom Discussions to Promote Comprehension and Critical-Analytic Thinking,” P. Karen Murphy et al. lay out two broad approaches to text-based inquiry in the classroom: an expressive approach, which taps into a student’s personal experience and emotion, and an efferent approach, which is a more objective attempt to acquire and obtain information. P. Karen Murphy et al. argue that it is not one or the other, but rather both working in tandem, that can best develop critical-analytic thinking:
We propose that the solution lies not in either an efferent or an expressive approach to text and other content, but in pedagogical approaches such as small-group, classroom discussions that value knowledge-seeking, in concert with lived-through experience, to promote critical-analytic thinking.
If we agree with P. Karen Murphy et al., then we end up with a model something like this:
All of that said, however, it must be acknowledged that state ELA assessments ask students to answer efferent text-dependent questions about a written passage in complete isolation from any wider context. A student’s personal opinion and experience, as well as the author’s biography, plays no role in the analysis students are asked to conduct. So students will need to have some level of practice with this form of close reading, whatever one believes that textual interaction should ideally be, so long as the coin of the realm is test scores.
So what is close reading, then, exactly? Here’s a few definitions to complicate your understanding:
—“A Close Look at Close Reading” by Beth Burke
—“A Close Look at Close Reading” by LEAF (WestEd)
—“Close Reading” by Odegaard Writing & Research Center
—“Implementing the Common Core State Standards: A Primer on Close Reading of Text” by Sheil Brown and Lee Kappes
—Falling In Love With Close Reading by Christopher Lehman and Kate Roberts
—Notice and Note: Strategies for Close Reading by Kylene Beers and Robert Probst
—Reading Nonfiction by Kylene Beers and Robert Probst
—“Close Reading of a Literary Passage” by Dr. Kip Wheeler
There is a multiplicity of sources providing a methodology and form for close reading. Here’s just a snapshot of the different sources I’ve reviewed in my own research on the topic in preparation for a professional development series:
- A Close Look at Close Reading: Teaching Students to Analyze Complex Texts (K-5) by Diane Lapp, Barbara Moss, Maria Grant, and Kelley Johnson
- A Close Look at Close Reading: Teaching Students to Analyze Complex Texts (6-12) by Barbara Moss, Diane Lapp, Barbara Moss, Maria Grant, and Kelley Johnson
- Falling In Love With Close Reading by Christopher Lehman and Kate Roberts
- Closing in On Close Reading by Nancy Boyles
- Notice and Note: Strategies for Close Reading by Kylene Beers and Robert Probst
- Reading Nonfiction by Kylene Beers and Robert Probst
- Close Reading Resources from Amplify
- A Close Look at Close Reading by Beth Burke
- IFL Patterned Method of Reading, writing, and speaking by University of Pittsburgh’s Institute for Learning
- A Close Look at Close Reading by LEAF (WestEd)
- Close Reading Poetry by University Writing Center
- Close Reading Literature by University Writing Center
- Close Reading of a Literary Passage by Dr. Kip Wheeler
- Close Reading by Odegaard Writing & Research Center
- Wit & Wisdom’s Content Framing Questions
- Wit & Wisdom’s Visual Arts close reading
- Guiding Principles for the Arts L-12 by David Coleman
There are some essential components to a close reading process that become evident from these different approaches:
- It is performed with a short text or short snippet of a longer text
- There is a specific focus and purpose to reading that particular text
- There are multiple reads, through which the meaning discovered in a particular portion becomes extended across or beyond that text
- A system of annotation is applied
- Textual understanding and interpretation typically moves from literal to inferential (though in the case of French l’explication de texte, analysis is maintained at the literal, more objective level of summary) based on patterns identified in initial observations
- The end product is a written response or discussion
OK. So there it is. I’m pretty sure there’s a lot more to say on any and all of these things, but writing this has already taken way too much of my very limited time these days. I mean seriously, I’ve spent over a month writing this.
What have I learned? I don’t know if I can concisely articulate it, but it seems to me that textual interpretation, in any form you can name, whether scriptural exegesis or close reading, is most fruitful when it is viewed in a more flexible, rather than rigid, manner. That is, whatever stance and method one adopts, one recognizes there will be limitations based on that stance and method. Furthermore, it seems to me that methods which are able to accommodate and balance both literal and nonliteral meanings, and bear significance that is both objective and subjective, while acknowledging both the text itself and its relationship to a broader context, will be the most compelling.
But maybe that’s just me. What do you think?
I spent some time this summer drafting a policy proposal for the P2Tomorrow competition, mostly as an exercise to sharpen my own thinking around issues I’ve seen with literacy. Thanks to some great feedback from some very smart people (if you are reading this and you are one of them: thank you!), I am proud of the final result. I didn’t win, but I don’t feel so bad about that since the winners are a truly diverse and amazing collection of ideas (see the list of winners and their ideas here).
So I’m sharing my proposal with you. Please share if you find these ideas useful.
Supporting the Development of Clear and Coherent Literacy Instruction in Schools
The Problem with Literacy: It’s Not Just ELA
Is literacy a subject, or a whole school endeavor?
While defining “literacy” is tricky, especially in a rapidly changing society, most would include in their definition the ability to read and think critically and to communicate effectively. Such literacy is not developed haphazardly nor solely within one subject. It requires a school to work cohesively across classrooms to develop shared expectations, content, and practices.
Yet states label Grade 3-8 literacy assessments as “English Language Arts,” and accountability thus falls primarily on the shoulders of one content area: the ELA department. In effect, ELA is reduced to the practice of generic and shallow reading and writing skills as preparation for state assessments. Results on both national (NAEP) and international (PISA) scores for reading have flatlined for two decades. One reason is that most students receive only scattered exposure to the academic language and conceptual understandings gained from a school-wide engagement in a coherent set of literacy practices.
Though the Common Core Standards attempted to address this disconnect through promotion of literacy standards for ELA and History/Social Studies, Science, & Technical Subjects, a misconception remains in the field that the recommendation for a “balance between informational and literary reading” should be solely driven by ELA, rather than across those other content areas. This has led some educators to believe literature should now rarely be taught, a misreading reinforced by state ELA assessments skewed towards nonfiction passages.
This narrowing of the curriculum has been widely recognized since 2001. ESSA sought to rectify this by redefining what is meant by a “well-rounded education,” and including more subjects beyond the “core academic subjects” of the original ESEA legislation. ESSA also allows Title II funding to be used to help teachers “integrate comprehensive literacy instruction in a well-rounded education.”
Yet thus far states have been largely unable to clarify what it means to teach literacy coherently and effectively at the ground-level. Some school leaders and teachers continue to remain misinformed about the key shifts of their own state standards, and confusion about the meaning of literacy and its relationship to ELA and other subjects has led to a wide variety of pedagogical approaches and curricula of variable quality, complicated by layers of often contradictory state and district policies and initiatives.
A growing recognition of the importance of curriculum and the need for more effective resources is promising, but solutions must go far beyond the evaluation and adoption of higher quality curriculum. A school may adopt standards-aligned, high quality curriculum for various subjects but remain completely incoherent. What is needed are consistent and ongoing processes for collaborative planning and reflection on curriculum and literacy practices across a school.
What State and District Leaders Can Do
How can state and district leaders support school teams in developing, reflecting on, and sustaining processes that will promote literacy coherently across a school?
There are four moves that policy leaders can make:
- Redefine literacy
- Clarify expectations for school-wide processes for collaborative planning and reflection on literacy content and practices
- Create a process for surveying educators and the wider public on what texts should be selected for literacy assessments, and publish that list in advance of each school year
- Promote team — rather than individual — accountability for results on literacy assessments
Step 1 We have to begin with a redefinition of what we mean by literacy.
The ESEA, since updated under NCLB and ESSA, requires states to assess “reading or language arts” annually in grades 3-8. Despite ESSA’s expansion on a “well-rounded education,” states continue to narrowly label their assessments as subject-specific ELA (46 out of 50, according to my count). Only 6 states mention the word “literacy” in their assessment title.
It may seem like a small thing, but relabeling state assessments as literacy assessments, rather than ELA, would send a clear signal that literacy is not confined to a single subject. This could initiate a state-wide dialogue about what literacy means as a whole school endeavor.
Step 2 As a part of that dialogue, expectations should be developed for what school-level processes will support the development of shared, high-quality literacy content and practices. As a model, the International Baccalaureate standards for curriculum provide guidance for the collaboration and discussion expected between all teachers within a school. By establishing clear criteria for ongoing school-based reflection and curriculum alignment, state and district leaders can promote the idea that curriculum is dynamic and constantly in development, rather than a static item that is purchased and put in place.
Step 3 To further foster an innovative school-wide focus on literacy improvement, the state could engage multiple stakeholders in the cross-curricular selection of texts that would be on assessments the following year. By involving educators and the wider public in this process in partnership with the assessment vendor, greater focus, clarity, and transparency for what is taught and assessed would be cultivated. Furthermore, this could help level the playing field for students that need more exposure to the academic vocabulary and background knowledge required for comprehension of the selected texts and topics.
Step 4 Accountability for literacy assessments could then shift from resting solely on ELA departments to include other subjects, resisting the narrowing of curriculum that is so pervasive. One state, Louisiana, has already taken a bold step towards this by piloting assessments that blend social studies and ELA, and which assesses books that kids have actually studied, rather than random passages.
Such measures signal to schools that teaching literacy is the responsibility of a team, and can do much to counteract the prevailing headwinds of narrow and shallow test prep.
What could we expect as a result of these moves?
Let’s consider a school representative of our current situation.
MS 900 is a public middle school in an urban district. The school has an alternating schedule for reading and writing, using two separate and unaligned ELA curriculum. The ELA teachers complain about the complexity of the writing program and the lack of professional development. Students complain about boring instruction. Grade-level ELA and math teams meet two times per week, and the social studies and science teams meet once per week. According to the state’s teacher evaluation system and testing data, the instructional quality varies widely across the school, with a few effective teachers, two highly effective teachers, and the rest developing.
Step 1 At a district meeting, the MS 900 staff learned about a new state initiative where the expectation would be that a whole school should work together to teach literacy, and that tests will reflect this. The administrators and teachers considered how schedules would need to change to provide opportunities for cross-curricular teams to meet regularly to discuss and plan for this new conception of literacy.
Step 2 Grade-level teams at MS 900 were rescheduled to meet 3 times a week, and each departmental team 1 time a week. The school’s support organization introduced protocols for teams to share and discuss the content and practices currently used across different classrooms. Grade-level teams also examined student work and discussed common approaches to targeting student literacy needs. Meanwhile, the ELA department determined that reading literature and writing narratives and poetry had been too long neglected, and discussed with their grade-level teams how strategies for reading and writing informational texts could be shared across the grade. The SS and science departments highlighted strategies specific to their subjects, while sharing topics and themes that could be developed across the the grade. The teachers who had more effective practices began to be recognized by their colleagues for their expertise, and other teachers requested to visit their classrooms to learn.
Step 3 When the new state survey for text selection opened up in the next year, both grade-level and departmental teams discussed which texts and topics were critical for meeting state standards, for teaching their students about the world, and for providing texts and topics that were relevant and engaging. Each team came to a consensus and submitted their selections. When the state published the texts, teachers were excited to see some of their choices reflected on the list, as well as to be introduced to new literary and nonfiction texts they hadn’t read yet but that were highly rated. Teams began planning how they would incorporate study of the selected texts into their shared curriculum.
Step 4 After two years of this process, when the state introduced new accountability measures for schools based on literacy results that bear shared weighting by ELA, social studies, and science teachers, MS 900 teachers felt prepared for the challenge, and were even eager to view the results and item analysis so they could figure out how they could work together to improve their students’ literacy abilities. Imagine that.
1 Cambridge Assessment (2013) “What is literacy? An investigation into definitions of English as a subject and the relationship between English, literacy and ‘being literate’: A Research Report Commissioned by Cambridge Assessment.” http://www.cambridgeassessment.org.uk/Images/130433-what-is-literacy-an-investigation-into-definitions-of-english-as-a-subject-and-the-relationship-between-english-literacy-and-being-literate-.pdf
2 Wexler, N. (2018) “Why American Students Haven’t Gotten Better at Reading in 20 Years.” The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2018/04/-american-students-reading/557915/
Serino, L. (2017) “What international assessment scores reveal about American education.” Brookings Institution, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/brown-center-chalkboard/2017/04/07/what-international-assessment-scores-reveal-about-american-education/
3 Shanahan, T. (2013) “You Want Me to Read What?!” Educational Leadership, ASCD. http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/nov13/vol71/num03/You-Want-Me-to-Read-What%C2%A2!.aspx
4 King, K.V. and Zucker, S. (2005) “Curriculum Narrowing – Pearson Assessments.” 18 Aug. 2005, http://images.pearsonassessments.com/images/tmrs/tmrs_rg/CurriculumNarrowing.pdf
5 Workman, E. and Jones, S.D. (2016) “ESSA’s Well-Rounded Education.” Education Commission of the States. https://www.ecs.org/essas-well-rounded-education/
6 Kaufman, J., Lindsay, T., and V. Darleen Opfer. (2016) “Creating a Coherent System to Support Instruction Aligned with State Standards: Promising Practices of the Louisiana Department of Education.” The Rand Corporation, https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR1613.html
Kaufman, J. & Tsai, T. (2018). “School Supports for Teachers’ Implementation of State Standards Findings from the American School Leader Panel.” The Rand Corporation, https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR2318.html
7 Whitehurst, G.J. (2009) “Don’t forget curriculum.” Brookings Institution, https://www.brookings.edu/research/dont-forget-curriculum/
Chingos, M. M., & Whitehurst, G. J. (2012) “Choosing blindly: Instructional materials, teacher effectiveness, and the Common Core.” Brookings Institution, https://www.brookings.edu/research/choosing-blindly-instructional-materials-teacher-effectiveness-and-the-common-core/ Kane, T. J. (2016) “Never judge a book by its cover – use student achievement instead.” Brookings Institution, https://www.brookings.edu/research/never-judge-a-book-by-its-cover-use-student-achievement-instead/ Steiner, D. (2017) “Curriculum research: What we know and where we need to go.” StandardsWork, https://standardswork.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/sw-curriculum-research-report-fnl.pdf Chiefs for Change (2018) “Statement on the need for high-quality curriculum.” http://chiefsforchange.org/statement-on-the-need-for-high-quality-curricula/
8 International Baccalaureate (2014) “Programme standards and practices.” https://www.ibo.org/globalassets/publications/become-an-ib-school/programme-standards-and-practices-en.pdf
9 Louisiana Department of Education (2018) “Louisiana Essa Innovative Assessment Pilot First To Receive Federal Approval.” https://www.louisianabelieves.com/newsroom/news-releases/2018/07/27/louisiana-essa-innovative-assessment-pilot-first-to-receive-federal-approval.
In my last post, way back in August (things got busy!), we examined the problem of incoherency in literacy instruction, and I proposed the following hypothesis:
If a school comes to a clear understanding of what they teach, and can articulate why they are teaching it to parents, students, and the wider public, then this will ultimately result in improved academic outcomes for students due to the greater coherency and consistency in what is taught to students throughout the school.
So how can a school come to a clearer understanding of what they teach, how they will teach it, and a rationale and vision for literacy?
Define What You Want Kids to Know and Be Able to Do
A good place to start is for a school to define what knowledge and skills they believe children should walk out of their building equipped with when they graduate. And by define, I mean truly define discretely, not simply generate a set of feelgood statements like, “I want kids to be lifelong learners and passionate, independent readers who have 21st century learning skills. . .”
A hearty chunk of skills are already defined by state standards (which was already contentious enough of a process) but due to the decentralized nature of American schools, as well as a strong anti-intellectual current, there’s reluctance to define the content–in the form of topics or texts–that students should study.
And so here we are, like I said in my last post, in the situation wherein parents and the wider public have nary a clear what is actually taught in most public school classrooms.
I think that much of this is attributable to confusion between knowledge and skills. Some school officials, if challenged, will point to state standards and say, “There’s what we teach.” But standards are relatively abstract goals composed of various strands of skills wrapped together. They require significant work on the educator’s part to “unpack” in order to break them down into more concrete subskills and targets for learning.
But even then, you’ll still be missing a critical component of literacy.
Let me give you an example. Let’s say you’ve broken down the third grade Common Core reading literature standard which states, “Determine the main idea of a text and explain how it is supported by key details.” You’ve broken down the ability to meet this standard into a few subskills, such as, “I can distinguish between the important and unimportant details in a text” (look familiar? This is from my post on scaffolding a while back!).
That would be a typical “learning target” in a classroom. But there’s a key element missing: Which text? What details?
Because that’s really where the rubber hits the road. We pretend academic literacy can be developed from an isolated set of skills, but vocabulary and background knowledge are a critical component of literacy. And academic vocabulary and knowledge are built cumulatively from the study of related texts and topics over time.
Knowledge vs. Skills
Knowledge and skills are not the same thing, and it’s important to be able to delineate them. They exist on different planes, but they share a point at which they converge.
Here’s a little graphic I came up with to demonstrate their convergence and differentiation:
Where lies the point of convergence between literacy knowledge and skills? It lies in the texts that students read.
Do the texts cumulatively build knowledge of key topics and themes? Or are they happenstance and scattered, dependent on the teacher?
This is why you’ll hear literacy experts talk about the importance of “text sets” that focus on key topics and themes. This is how academic vocabulary and knowledge is built.
Speaking of “experts,” I had an extended dialogue with an author and professional development facilitator who claimed that rather than two strands, like the one above, that there are in fact three strands, or “three dimensions” of learning: concepts, facts, and skills. She and I went back and forth about whether and how conceptual knowledge is distinguished from factual knowledge. Rather than refer me to research or other verified sources, she would just tell me that I needed to read her book. Color me skeptical.
Maybe she’s right, but I ain’t reading her book (unless she sends me a free copy. Then, maybe). But I figured I should put it out there in case you do find that distinction useful.
I’ll stop there for this already overlong post. There’s a heck of a lot more to dive into. But I’m hoping that even just drawing that line between knowledge and skills might help you to redefine how you talk about literacy in your school. Do your students have text sets available to them that build knowledge around key topics and themes that they can use to practice and apply key literacy skills more independently? Has your school defined key topics and themes?
Does the curriculum your school uses build knowledge around key topics and themes? Does it build it vertically across grades and horizontally across subjects? Or is it so heavily skills-based that it’s entirely unclear what texts are actually to be read?
Start there, and your school can begin to tackle the sticky problems of literacy at a much deeper level, and that approach can pay dividends in student learning over time.
Identifying the problem
Why aren’t many students graduating from our schools ready to perform the reading and writing tasks demanded of them by a college or career?
Answers to this will vary widely, of course. Based on my own experience working in NYC schools, I suspect that at the core of this problem lies incoherency, and beginning with this post, I’m going to try to persuade you that this is an issue, as well as provide some ideas on what schools can do about it. BTW I’m not the only one who suspects incoherency is at the core of our educational woes: researchers like Anthony Bryk have been making this case.
Read the vision and mission statements of most schools and you’ll see it for yourself in the vague, fluffy proclamations that bear little meaning to the content of what is actually taught.
What is taught in most schools? Who knows? Good luck finding data on curriculum being used. Despite the moniker of “public,” most public schools make little effort to transparently communicate what curriculum they purchase or develop and use from year to year.
There are a few charter networks that now publish most of their curriculum online. Kudos to Success Academy, Match, and Achievement First. Apparently KIPP will also start sharing their content. New York and Louisiana have at least made quality curriculum freely available, though it’s unclear how many of their schools employ it. (If I’m missing any schools, public, private, or otherwise that are doing this, please share in the comments so I can include them.)
Why we need to change how we approach literacy instruction
Every year schools examine state test results, then set targets for supporting their students’ literacy development. But they typically fail to consider the actual curriculum students receive in their classrooms each and every day—the texts they read and the writing tasks they are expected to perform—and whether that curriculum coherently and intentionally fosters and reinforces the skills and knowledge considered most essential to future student success (more on which skills and knowledge in a future post).
Or, they substitute one curricular program for another, ready to adopt the “next new thing” despite substantial time invested in adapting and tailoring a curriculum. Or, they adopt multiple curricular programs that don’t align, then expect teachers to be able to interpret, synthesize, and implement them with little support nor time for collaborative planning.
This is a significant problem I see in many of the schools I work with, which happen to be the schools in the Bronx struggling the most. There are schools using both EngageNY’s Expeditionary Learning curriculum for the “reading” period, and Teacher’s College Reading and Writing Project’s writing curriculum for the “writing” period. If you know anything about either curriculum, this is confounding, both from a teacher and a student standpoint. Students are receiving two unaligned approaches, most likely delivered poorly, and teachers are being asked to read through and understand and plan and implement two very dense and confusing narratives for every single lesson.
Teachers, for various reasons, but most especially due to nonsense like the aforementioned, choose to do their own thing, drawing lessons from test prep books or online sources willy nilly, without coming to a consensus as a department or school on what is most important to teach across grades and classrooms.
Gaining academic knowledge, language, and skills are not natural and require a structured and systematic core curriculum in order to ensure all students have plentiful opportunities to practice and master them at the level necessary to succeed in higher education or in a complex career. We know from decades of research on learning and cognition that in order to transfer an understanding of new concepts and skills into long-term memory and apply them in real-world contexts, students require repeated exposures to those concepts and skills, spaced out over time.
Yet in many schools, most especially those that serve disadvantaged communities, students are exposed to an incoherent mix of concepts and skills that ill prepare them for success in a competitive college or career.
The literacy department of a school should promote a coherent vision oriented around shared instructional concepts, practices, and content. By coming to a consensus on what is most essential for students to know and be able to do in reading, writing, speaking, and listening, then designing backwards from those targets, the ELA team can build a backbone of coherency that will support literacy development across grades and classrooms.
If a school comes to a clear understanding of what they teach, and can articulate why they are teaching it to parents, students, and the wider public, then this will ultimately result in improved academic outcomes for students due to the greater coherency and consistency in what is taught to students throughout the school.
In my next post or two, I’ll lay out some ideas and processes that can help an ELA team to do this work.