Reading Proficiency & the Common Core

August 19, 2014 by Geoff Nixon

Changing Definition of Reading Proficiency

Reading proficiency for elementary age children in the US has long been measured in words read per minute. But proficient reading is much more than that. As identified in the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), students across all grade levels are now expected to read with comprehension and use critical thinking and abstract thinking in their reading practice.

Thinking and Reading

Consequently, “reading proficiency” actually refers to all of the thinking behind reading; what happens in our brains before, during, and post reading. The different ways in which we think critically about what we read is the skill now being measured. Proficient readers preview text, make predictions, activate prior knowledge (commonly referred to as schema), and even set a purpose for their reading (what am I trying to figure out?).

Proficient readers think beyond the text and the Common Core Standards support this practice from an early age. Readers are encouraged to make connections with other texts, themselves, and the world around them. Good readers don’t stop when the story is over or the book ends, either. They ask questions and respond to what they read, exercising their brains to think abstractly both during and post reading. Often readers take lessons or morals from what is read and then apply what is learned in a form of problem solving.

Think about adults as readers. We practice critical and abstract thinking when reading, without even realizing it. We read to evoke emotion, empathize, learn something new, achieve self-help, etc; all of which require the use of critical thinking skills.

The Common Core Standards require that students are now expected to think while reading, making connections, inferences and/or predictions from 1st grade.  While phonics, fluency, and decoding need to be practiced, so do the higher level skills which Common Core emphasizes. The brain needs to be trained to think critically and not just attempt to read words on a page.  This is a very new way of thinking about reading instruction for elementary age children.

Literacy & The Broader Curriculum

The Common Core State Standards are introducing another important aspect of literacy, used overseas but not so much in the USA until now.  It is the idea that the curriculums of all subjects should include the opportunity to improve literacy.  Instead of teachers feeding information to students in the classroom, they will include large amounts of “read to learn” content.  This approach of course takes longer, but it exposes students to a real value of reading, i.e., as a way of learning new material and new ideas.

While this will inevitably lift US reading proficiency levels over the long-term, it raises the near term risk of lost momentum in these subjects where reading skills are not good enough to handle the material.  It raises the stakes of getting to reading proficiency at an earlier age, by 4th grade when read to learn will start to appear throughout the curriculum.

New Reading Programs

This dramatic change in the thinking around reading proficiency in the USA will lead to a new wave of reading programs that have a  reading comprehension focus from an early age.

It should also lead to more aggressive reading interventions.  Programs and therapies based on word lists and other work arounds that help reading fluency but not reading proficiency are no longer good enough.  The new reading comprehension standards can only be achieved when decoding is automatic and efficient — anything less is not going to cut it.

Existing programs are adjusting to these new reading proficiency requirements.  One interesting development in this regard was the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) patent awarded to Scientific Learning for the development of a novel method for building critical thinking and vocabulary knowledge through the use of analogies in the Fast ForWord exercise, Gator Jam.

Our recent blog highlighted this news and expanded on the patent and  its significance in relation to the Common Core Standards. This game challenges the student to think analytically while reading, a skill that transfers to critical thinking for comprehension. This analytical thinking while reading technique exists in many other Fast ForWord exercises, at all age levels. For instance, Quail Mail in Fast ForWord Reading Level 1 uses a categorization task to teach reasoning and abstract thinking while reading. Twisted Pictures in Fast ForWord Reading Level 3 focuses on critical thinking through a comparing and contrasting task that requires matching similar sentences to a picture.

No doubt, the Common Core State Standards is taking reading in the US to a new level, requiring high level thinking and deep comprehension at a much earlier age than prior standards. This puts an emphasis on mastering reading decoding skills at a younger age and creates a demand for reading programs that can go beyond reading fluency. Our online reading program, Fast ForWord, as signaled by its recent patent win, is well placed to lead that movement.