Friday, July 12, 2013

What Constitutes Rigorous Reading?

At the gym yesterday, I climbed resolutely onto the treadmill and set the speed for 3.2 MPH. Next to me on the right a young woman was jogging on her treadmill at a speed at least twice mine. On my left an older gentleman with some physical limitations was walking at a considerably slower pace than mine, but he was clearly working hard to keep moving. We all smiled and nodded at each other in silent acknowledgement that we were each getting a rigorous workout. The rigor was determined by our relative physical conditions (in my case 66 years-old with two recently replaced knees and seriously under tall for my weight), our ages and our goals for the exercise. Three treadmills, three different workouts, three definitions of rigor.

The term rigor is splashed all over the Common Core State Standards. I have a visceral reaction against the term because it seems to suggest that instruction over the past 40 years or so lacked rigor – a suggestion that as a lifelong reading teacher I find offensive. For a wonderful take on why the word rigor is the wrong word in this context check out Joanne Yatvin’s essay here.  My greatest fear is that teachers and administrators will mistake rigor to mean that kids should be reading harder texts. My fear is intensified when I see sample reading lessons in CCSS approved websites like, that ask children to read texts that are well above their likely reading level.

Just as the rigor of a workout does not reside in the treadmill, the rigor of reading does not reside in the text. In their important book, Notice and Note: Strategies for Close Reading (2013), Beers and Probst say it best: “rigor is not an attribute of text, but a characteristic of the behavior with that text (p.20, emphasis mine).”  As Goldilocks discovered about furniture, texts can be too soft, too hard or “just right.” A text that is too difficult for a child to read it is not rigorous, it is just hard. If I had to run on the treadmill like the young woman next to me, I would soon give up, because the workout is too hard. Likewise when children are faced with text that is too difficult, they will disengage.

And that brings me to my next point.  Any definition of rigor in reading must begin with engagement. As Beers and Probst (2013) again point out, “The essence of rigor is engagement and commitment (pg. 23).”  Without engagement, there is no commitment; without commitment, there is no rigor.
So, to insure rigor, we must ensure engagement and commitment. To ensure engagement and commitment we must be sure that students encounter texts that are both accessible and interesting.

This very often will mean different texts for different students, but it could also mean the same text for a group of students or even the whole class. The key will be the kind of scaffolding provided by the teacher. If a text is particularly challenging, the teacher might choose to read the text aloud. Many rich, I daresay rigorous, discussions can come from a group of engaged students guided to deeper comprehension through a teacher led read aloud. Sometimes the scaffolding will involve a richer pre-reading activity that prepares the students for some of the bumps they may encounter on the road to understanding the text. Sometimes the scaffolding will include text dependent questions that guide the students to greater understanding. Sometimes the scaffolding will be well constructed small group discussions that help students help each other learn.

I think it is useful for the literacy teacher to think of the CCSS call for rigor as a call for deep comprehension of text. Deep comprehension calls for students to be able to answer three basic questions:

            What does the author say in the text? (literal understanding of text)
            How does the author communicate that message? (rhetorical devices, figurative language)
            Why does this text matter? (thematic relevance, both personal and universal)

Armed with these three questions, the teacher can guide the students to deep comprehension of text and a developmentally appropriate rigorous literacy workout.

So under the CCSS it is important to remember that differentiation still matters, having students read text at appropriate levels still matters and having students have many different encounters with text – small group, independent and large group - still matters.

In a future post, I will explore the standard on text complexity and what that should mean for teachers.