Memo: From Common Core to Students-It’s Not About You!

February 22, 2012 — 8 Comments

NEWLY EDITED 12/29/12:
I hate Reader Response Theory, one that considers readers’ reactions to literature as vital to interpreting the meaning of the text.

I hate how Reader Response Theory has been abused by standardized testing. Two most annoying questions for me in the Connecticut standardized testing for reading (CAPT-Response to Literature) are reader response based questions to a short story prompt:

  • CAPT #1:What are your thoughts and questions about the story? You might reflect upon the characters, their problems, the title, or other ideas in the story.
  • CAPT #4: How successful was the author in creating a good piece of literature?  Use examples from the story to explain your thinking.

After 10 years of teaching with this standardized test, I can recognize how many of my students struggle with these questions. Many lack the critical training gained from extensive reading experiences in order  to judge the quality of a text. Combine this lack of reader experience with the see-saw quality of the text on the exam year to year.  Since classic short stories such as those by Saki, Anton Chekhov, Kate Chopin, Stephen Crane, and Jack London, to name a few, are considered too difficult for independent reading by 3rd quarter 10th grade students, more contemporary selections have been used on the exam. For example, these stories in the past years have included Amanda and the Wounded Birds by Colby Rodowsky, Catch the Moon by Judith Ortiz Cofer, and a story written by Jourdan U Playing for Berlinsky published in Teen Ink. While some stories are well-written, many lack the complexity and depth that would generate thoughtful responses to a prompt that asks about “good literature.”  My students are in the uncomfortable position of defending an average quality story as good; the prompt promotes intellectual dishonesty.

So, I use a formula. I teach my students how to answer the first question by having them list their intellectual (What did you think?) and emotional (What did you feel?) reactions to the story. I have them respond by listing any predictions or questions they have about the text, and I have them summarize the plot in two short sentences. The formula is necessary because the students have only 10-15 minutes to answer this in a full page handwritten before moving to another question. The emphasis is one that is reader’s response; what does the reader think of the story rather than what did the author mean?

I teach how to answer the evaluation question much in the same way. Students measure the story against a pre-prepared set of three criteria; they judge a story’s plot, character(s) and language in order to evaluate what they determine is the quality of the story. Again, this set of criteria is developed by the student according to reader response theory, and again there is little consideration to author intent.

The newly adopted Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in Language Arts is designed differently. The  focus is back on the text; what the reader thinks is out of favor. For example, in three of the ten standards, 10th grade students are required to:

  • Analyze how complex characters (e.g., those with multiple or conflicting motivations) develop over the course of a text, interact with other characters, and advance the plot or develop the theme;
  • Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze in detail its development over the course of the text, including how it emerges and is shaped and refined by specific details; provide an objective summary of the text;
  • Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.

Please note, there is nothing in the language of the standards that asks what the student thinks or feels about the text.

In an article titled, “How Will Reading Instruction Change When Aligned to the Common Core?” on The Thomas B. Fordham Institute website (1/27/2012), Kathleen Porter-Magee  discusses the shift from the student centered response to the CCSS  “challenges to help students (and teachers) understand that reading is not about them.”

Porter-Magee  describes how David Coleman, one of the architects of the CCSS ELA standards, is promoting the close reading of texts, sometimes over extended periods of several days. The article notes that currently, “teachers often shift students’ attention away from the text too quickly by asking them what they think of what they’re reading, or how it makes them feel. Or by asking them to make personal connections to the story.” Coleman states that, “Common Core challenges us to help students (and teachers) understand that reading is not about them.” Instead, he advocates the practice of close reading, a practice that  “challenges our overemphasis on personal narrative and personal opinion in writing classrooms.”

In addition to the movement away from reader response criticism, the CCSS will be upgrading the complexity of the texts. Porter-Magee notes that,

“Of course, there’s only value in lingering on texts for so long if they’re worthy of the time—and that is why the Common Core asks students to read texts that are sufficiently complex and grade-appropriate. Yes, such texts may often push students—perhaps even to their frustration level. That is why it’s essential for teachers to craft the kinds of text-dependent questions that will help them break down the text, that will draw their attention to some of the most critical elements, and that will push them to understand (and later analyze) the author’s words.”

In other words, the quality of the texts will be substantively different than the texts used in the past on the Response to Literature section of the CAPT. This should make the response about the quality of text more authentic; a genuine complex text can be analyzed as “good literature.” How the more complex text will be used in testing, however, remains to be seen. A student trained in close reading will require more time with a complex text in generating a response.

I confess, the movement away from reader response is a move I applaud. A student’s response to a complex text is not as important in for the CCSS as what the text says or what the author intended, evidence will supplant opinion.

However, I am very aware that the momentum of the every swing of the educational pendulum brings an equal and opposite reaction. Swish! Out with reader response. Swoop! In with close reading of complex texts. Students,this swing is not about you.

8 responses to Memo: From Common Core to Students-It’s Not About You!


    I don’t think a Reader Response Theory approach works for a standardized test either. It’s counter-intuitive. I imagine that when Louise Rosenblatt wrote her book, and when Robert Probst developed his prompts, they didn’t have standardized testing in mind. Instead, they wanted fruitful classroom discussion which begins with personally connecting to the text and the fellow readers. So the state came along and, wanting to use good classroom practice as a means to develop an assessment, decided to standardize and measure these questions and responses–but in written form.. But really, let’s call a spade a spade. They must have really wanted a New Criticism type approach–what is the text saying and how do you know. In some ways, it will be better. In some others, it’s back to where we started. (At least I won’t have to read about Amanda’s wounded birds anymore.)


    I’m not even sure how I discovered you in the blog universe, but gosh I love this piece. I do not pretend to be versed in reading theory – I’ve always left that to individuals like yourself, more or less – but, yeah, I have always been so perplexed when instructed to FORMALLY inquire how students feel about a text. Of course I care if students “like” a work, how it did or did not affect them, because that suggests their level of interest, and the higher a student’s interest level, the more we can delve into a text or topic without it feeling like a trip to the dentist, but as an intellectual exercise? I don’t actually mind the “do you think it qualifies as good literature” question, because I do think such a prompt can generate close inspection and serious thought and argument, but, yes, that does demand some serious prior literary exposure and sophisticated analysis, and even then it becomes an intensely subjective matter. “Good” by what standard? I suppose there are elements of Common Core that I find disturbing, but, I guess, not this. Great post.


      Thanks! The “good literature” standard has been a problem…particularly with the stories they have assigned for the prompt…to be fair, licensing agreements for contemporary quality literature were probably a problem as well. I am not sure authors want to be associated with testing. I will have a post about the “disturbing” elements of the Common Core…namely the close reading examples being circulated in the Northeast (ex: David Coleman)…some ideas are great as theory, but when they get put into the classroom?? Well, student engagement will be tested in the crucible of the classroom.


    I think it’s an oversimplification of reader response theory to boil it down to “How do you feel?” and then dismiss it as inferior to thinking. Yes, literature IS about you, the reader. Literature is created to make an emotional impact on the reader — to make us angry about injustice, to make us wonder and be inspired by nobility of character or curious about what makes us tick, to feel empathy for people in other places and times and so help us broaden our understanding of human nature. And in fact this is what provokes thinking, including the analysis of how the author achieved that emotional impact (or why he or she failed to, or wanted to), or a Socratic shared inquiry into what impact we think the author did want us to have. Starting with our strong reaction and then stepping back to reflect (often through discussion) on where it came from, within the text and within the reader, is much more consistent with the nature of literature, which is not created to put readers through standardized tests and the frankly standardized thinking that arises when we try to combine literature with testing, and narrow it down to a couple of questions that divorce the intellect from the experience as a reader.

    Starting with student responses also helps us notice– and helps students notice for themselves — where they have complex reactions (mixed feelings point to the ambiguities and contradictions in a text), simple confusion, (misreading) or preexisting bias. Note that reader response was never intended to be limited to a one-time gut reaction, but a point of departure, a springboard into so-called “higher” thinking and feeling, including comparing our reactions with those of others and synthesizing them into a richer interpretation of the text.

    I can imagine the classroom of the future under CCSS when reading has been turned into a drill and the joy of reading and caring about reading is squashed. At that point the quality of thinking will actually decline, because no top-down bureaucratic program can force a kid to think or to want to think; teachers can only entice and inspire and guide students to think by capturing their attention, their engagement. There is no formula for that, but starting with, “What’s your reaction? Feelings, thoughts, connections?” is a good place to start.


      You make some great points in defense of Reader Response Theory in the classroom (for discussion, Socratic inquiry). I guess I was not entirely clear that my problems with “how do you feel” is how oversimplified Reader Response has become in (CT) state testing and that my belief is that this water-down, formulaic approach does not work for standardized testing (or for teaching for this kind of standardized teaching). Your statement “Note that reader response was never intended to be limited to a one-time gut reaction, but a point of departure, a springboard into so-called “higher” thinking and feeling, including comparing our reactions with those of others and synthesizing them into a richer interpretation of the text” is not entirely dissimilar.I do not think that Reader Response can ever the classroom entirely; students will continue to make their own connections and interpretations, regardless, because the meaning of a text exists in the space between the pages and the readers. The CCSS is designed to make the students look for evidence in the text. But, as you point out, that approach can also become equally ineffective if it becomes as you say, “turned into a drill and the joy of reading and caring about reading is squashed.”
      Thank you for such a thoughtful response and for taking the time to be so clear about your concerns. I really enjoyed reading your position.


    I use reader response theory as a jumping off place for students, and I let them know about the process. I tell them directly that what they feel matters…as a beginning place. Then I used Louise Rosenblatt’s criteria for a valid reading (what they say must be in the text and must not be contradicted) as a way to help them see the difference between their affective response and their intellectual one. Then I can teach the test, I can teach them to respond personally and emotionally, but I can also be assured that they can tell the important difference between those things too.


      Your strategy makes use of the “best ideas” of Rosenblatt. My gripe with the Reader Response Theory is in its misuse….particularly in the Connecticut state test CAPT. I want the intellectual connection rather than the emotional response; the CAPT asks for the reverse.
      Thank you for responding and providing another way to consider Reader Response.

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