There’s been a lot of talk recently about the Common Core State Standards and how important they are in creating a market for nonfiction writers. That’s nice for us, but I’m excited about this new approach to teaching way beyond its effects on my pocketbook. I’ve seen too many examples in my life of how our citizens don’t know how to read for information content and how to evaluate what they read.
My first exposure to this problem occurred when I worked as a teaching assistant in a basic zoology class while in graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley. More than once after an exam, a student who received an inferior grade would come to my office very discouraged. “I came to all the lectures and I read the text but I only got a C on the exam—what’s my problem?” I’d ask them about their reading techniques and it would turn out that they had no idea that there was more than one way to read. Of course they’d learned to read in school, but as has been the practice for decades, they learned by reading fiction, which requires a totally different reading style than nonfiction. You can ‘fast read’ fiction by skimming lightly over some sections and focusing on following the plot and the emotions of the characters. That kind of reading will get you nowhere if you are reading to learn.
Reading to learn requires a form of close reading in which you carefully follow the text with your thinking brain engaged at all times. Here are some questions to ask yourself as you read nonfiction text. Does this make sense to me? Am I “getting it” as I read, or do I need to reread this more carefully? Am I examining all the illustrations, reading the captions, and checking to see if I understand what the author is trying to convey? Do I stop frequently and review in my mind what I’ve just read to see if I’m absorbing the information?
This kind of focused, concentrated reading takes time, and people like me, who have always read a lot of informational nonfiction can have a hard time reading fiction. We become so accustomed to reading carefully, paying attention to every word, that it’s difficult to finish a novel in a reasonable amount of time. I, for one, haven’t learned how to flip an internal reading style switch, so a novel takes many hours to complete.
The other problem associated with learning to read through fictional texts is not learning how to evaluate what one reads critically. What kind of reading do adults need to master in order to be successful in the world? Nonfiction, not fiction! They read the paper, either on ‘paper’ or online; they have to be able to read all sorts of forms such as for income tax and contracts for work. They need to be able to spot propaganda-style writing and to recognize when they are only getting one side of the story. The internet has only made this skill more important than ever, since anyone can put up a snazzy looking website and fill it up with misleading nonsense or misinformation.
If a student plans to be part of society’s middle class, he or she also needs to be able to write coherently in order to apply to college, to apply for jobs, and to communicate within the work environment. I’ve spoken to many college teachers who need to devote vital time to teaching their students how to write when they are supposed to be teaching them economics, science, psychology, or some other academic subject. The CCSS are designed to improve students' writing skills, too.
We can hope that the application of the CCSS will help to alleviate these problems so that Americans will be able better to cope with the challenges of our complex new world in which communication has become even more important than in the past.