[This post is adapted from my recently-released book, Literacy and the Common Core: Recipes for Action (Jossey-Bass, 2014), and it appeared in slightly different form as a MiddleWeb Guest Article on July 20, 2014.]
In Reading without Limits, Maddie Witter advocates for reading instruction that includes a mixture of shared, guided, and choice/independent reading, and I support this approach. Identifying books for the latter two categories is fairly straightforward (albeit dependent on your budget): you need leveled, high-interest books. But how should we select the books that every student must read? While we want students to fall in love with reading through text choices that excite and interest them, we also need to cover some ground in each grade—skills and content—and ensure that students are adding to their background knowledge base. When selecting texts that everyone in the class will read—especially in high school—it’s important to expose students to certain classics so that they don’t arrive at college wondering who Shakespeare is. E.D. Hirsch has written extensively about the importance of building cultural literacy and its role in strengthening literacy, period. In this same vein, The Literacy Cookbook explains how prior knowledge drives the comprehension process. It’s a process of accumulation: Reading relies on and builds knowledge, which then improves comprehension, and more reading builds more knowledge and more comprehension.
Another factor that should influence selections is text complexity. The College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading speak to this issue very directly with Standard #10 (in the category of “Range of Reading and Level of Text Complexity”): “Read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently.” The standards at each grade level specify the grade level or band of text complexity at which students should be reading. For example, in grade 5, Reading Informational Text Standard #10 is “By the end of the year, read and comprehend informational texts, including history/social studies, science, and technical texts, at the high end of the grades 4–5 text complexity band independently and proficiently.”
The importance of pushing for text complexity cannot be overstated. Research (particularly by Jeanne Chall and Donald Hayes) has shown that the recent dumbing down of textbooks is correlated with a drop in SAT scores. Reflecting on Chall’s findings, Marilyn Jager Adams observes, “If students had neither practiced nor been instructed with reading materials as hard as the SAT passages, then one could hardly expect them to read the latter with competence and confidence.” Adams argues for vigilant use of rigorous reading materials, noting that “the challenge … lies in organizing our reading regimens in every subject and every class such that each text bootstraps the language and knowledge that will be needed for the next.” In other words, you shouldn’t start with the most rigorous texts, but you should organize instruction in ways that ensure your students tackle those rigorous texts in every grade. She recommends directly teaching key words and concepts, gradually building students’ knowledge base, and then increasing the depth and complexity of the texts.
Along with textual rigor, we must also consider cultural and gender-oriented relevance. In The Trouble with Boys, Peg Tyre notes that one reason boys struggle in school is that their elementary school teachers often select texts that boys consider “too girlie,” and when faced with such books “they decide they don’t like to read.” Indeed, as much as I love the Common Core Standards themselves, I am not wild about all of the suggestions in Appendix B for grade-level appropriate texts. For instance, the grade 4-5 list made me wonder, Does everyone really have to read Black Beauty? Really? Lucy Calkins, Mary Ehrenworth, and Christopher Lehman raise this same point in Pathways to the Common Core, noting the book’s “formal, archaic language” and adding that in the Common Core’s recommended reading list, “contemporary children’s literature clearly takes a backseat to classics.”
So, OK, even though some girls might love it, Black Beauty might not be for everybody. But how should you decide which texts to require in your curriculum and which to save for optional or independent reading? Along with the issue of gender, here is another important angle to consider: What are the demographics in your school? This question raises at least two other questions: 1) How will you entice students with culturally-relevant selections? And 2) How will you widen students’ perspectives through the lenses of diverse texts? It’s not enough to draw students in; we also have to show them the wider world. Discussions around these two questions often sound like conversations about nutrition: How can we achieve a healthy balance?
In addition to contemplating cultural and gender relevance, we must also consider the curriculum’s themes, potential author studies, and a range of genres. Let’s examine these ideas more closely….
What themes/topics will you address this year—both in your subject and in other content areas? For example, if you’re an English teacher, have you talked with the history and science teachers about interdisciplinary opportunities and appropriate texts to build background knowledge? English teachers should not be the only ones using books in their curriculum. When we began designing the ninth-grade curriculum at North Star Academy, we decided that in addition to an array of books in English and history, students would also read The Hot Zone (an engrossing narrative about the Ebola virus) in their biology class.
Which authors have written enough grade-level appropriate books to warrant consideration for potential author studies? One school I worked with made the following choices:
The Boy Who Lost His Face
There’s a Boy in the Girls’ Bathroom
||Mildred D. Taylor
||Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry
Let the Circle Be Unbroken
||Walter Dean Myers
||145th Street (stories)
||Romeo and Juliet
Which genres do you want/need to address? Look to the Common Core Standards for guidance. The K-12 Reading Informational Text Standards require that we pay persistent attention to nonfiction (and, again, across the curriculum, not just in ELA classes). The K-12 Reading Literature Standards consistently mention “stories, poems, and drama,” but they approach them differently in different grades. Here is a quick overview culled from the Standards:
||Genres Mentioned in the RL Standards
||Stories; poems; story books with illustrations.
||Stories; poems; books.
||Stories, including fables and folktales from diverse cultures; poems; songs; two or more versions of the same story (e.g., Cinderella stories) by different authors or from different cultures.
||Stories, including fables, folktales, and myths from diverse cultures; drama; poems; stories written by the same author about the same or similar characters (e.g., in books from a series). Note: Drama begins in third grade.
||Drama; poems; stories, myths, and traditional literature from different cultures.
||Drama; poems; possibly a graphic novel, multimedia presentation of fiction, folktale, myth, poem; stories in the same genre (e.g., mysteries and adventure stories).
||Drama; texts in different forms or genres (e.g., stories and poems; historical novels and fantasy stories).
||Stories; drama; poems; a fictional portrayal of a time, place, or character and a historical account of the same period.
||Stories; drama; poems; suspense; humor; modern fiction; myths, traditional stories, religious works such as the Bible.
||Drama; poems; stories/novels that include flashbacks, mystery, tension, surprise; world literature.
||Eighteenth-, nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century foundational works of American literature; stories; poetry; drama (including at least one play by Shakespeare and one play by an American dramatist); comedy; tragedy; texts that include satire, sarcasm, irony, or understatement; multiple interpretations of a story, drama, or poem (e.g., recorded or live production of a play or recorded novel or poetry).
Whatever texts you select, it’s important to remember that your choices will significantly shape student learning. “We’ve always used that book,” “We have 500 copies of it,” and “It doesn’t really fit, but the kids like it” are not good-enough reasons to keep a text. So, as much as possible, let’s make thoughtful, purposeful decisions.
 Maddie Witter, Reading without Limits (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2013).
 E.D. Hirsch, Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1987); see also The Knowledge Deficit: Closing the Shocking Education Gap for American Children (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006).
 Sarah Tantillo, The Literacy Cookbook: A Practical Guide to Effective Reading, Writing, Speaking, and Listening Instruction (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2013), 7-13.
 The Standards can be found at: http://www.corestandards.org/the-standards/download-the-standards. This particular standard appears on page 10.
 The Standards can be found at: http://www.corestandards.org/the-standards/download-the-standards. This particular standard appears on page 14.
 Jeanne S. Chall, Sue S. Conard, and Susan H. Harris, An Analysis of Textbooks in Relation to Declining SAT Scores (New York: College Entrance Examination Board, 1977).
 Donald P. Hayes, Loreen T. Wolfer, and Michael F. Wolfe, “Schoolbook Simplification and Its Relation to the Decline in SAT-Verbal Scores,” American Educational Research Journal 33, no. 2 (1996): 489-508.
 Marilyn Jager Adams, “Advancing Our Students’ Language and Literacy: The Challenge of Complex Texts,” American Educator 34, no.4 (Winter 2010-2011): 4-5.
 Marilyn Jager Adams, “Advancing Our Students’ Language and Literacy: The Challenge of Complex Texts,” American Educator 34, no.4 (Winter 2010-2011): 10.
 Peg Tyre, The Trouble with Boys (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2008), 151. See also pp. 149-153.
 The Appendices can be downloaded here: http://www.corestandards.org/the-standards/download-the-standards
 Lucy Calkins, Mary Ehrenworth, and Christopher Lehman, Pathways to the Common Core (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2012), 38.
 Richard Preston, The Hot Zone (New York: Doubleday, 1994).
 The ELA Common Core Standards can be found at: http://www.corestandards.org/the-standards/download-the-standards.