Common Core instructions won’t make grade

A reporter for The Martinsburg Journal quotes Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin as saying, “It’s really important that teachers are taught how to teach reading. I think it is so important for those children in the third grade to be able to read at grade level-that’s No. 1 with me.”

It is, indeed, No. 1 with especially those of us trained by the late Jeanne Chall. That is why it’s very unfortunate that the reading standards in K-5 in Common Core do not seem to be designed to accomplish that goal. Indeed, its failures in grades K-5 are almost as bad as its failures in grades 6-12. That is why Gov. Tomblin should be supporting the adoption of a set of K-12 ELA standards that were designed to produce good readers by Grade 3.

What are some of the problems in Common Core’s approach to reading instruction in K-5? Among them, not one of the objectives on phonics and word analysis skills in grades K-3 expects students to apply these skills both in context and independent context to ensure mastery of decoding skills. Only in grades 4 and 5 are students expected to read accurately unfamiliar words “in context and out of context.” The placement of this standard at only grades 4 and 5 badly misinforms West Virginia teachers in the primary grades.

In addition, while the standards ask for reading to understand and use information through the grades, they do not clearly distinguish modes of organization (e.g. chronology) from structural (or textual) elements of an expository text (e.g., introduction, conclusion), do not progressively develop informational reading skills from grade to grade, and omit such important concepts as topic sentences for paragraph development.

Worse yet, although the vocabulary standards highlight specific figures of speech and rhetorical devices, they do not teach use of glossaries for discipline-specific terms, or words that must be taught (e.g., foreign words used in written English that do not appear in an English language dictionary). Common Core leans heavily and incorrectly in many cases on use of context to determine the meaning of unknown words. Use of context is not the way to learn the meaning of discipline-specific words like rate, table, and force when their technical meaning is intended.

If Gov. Tomblin really wants first-rate instruction in reading in West Virginia schools, he would do well to ask his state board of education to adopt the old Massachusetts standards for English Language Arts that put Bay State students at the top on NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) state tests in Grade 4 and Grade 8 in reading from 2005 on, and to adopt the reading licensure test that it developed in 2002 to make sure future elementary teachers were trained in evidence-based reading methods coursework. So far, four other states (Connecticut, Wisconsin, North Carolina and New Hampshire) have adopted that licensure test in the hope that it will make the education schools teach the right stuff.

There are many things Gov. Tomblin can do to make sure beginning reading is taught better in West Virginia schools than it has been. But Common Core has the wrong answers and leads West Virginia backward.

Sandra Stotsky is former senior commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.