by Isabella Robertson

The recent post, Teachers Ask: "Is 3rd grade the new 7th grade?", suggests that there is a new mandate to require children to read books that are too hard for most of them to understand.

No such mandate exists. A key shift called for by the Common Core standards is to challenge kids to read more complex text. This does not mean read books that are too hard. It does mean kids need to grapple with academic vocabulary and complex language structures if they are to become proficient readers. The current practice of "meeting kids where they are," while well-intentioned, means that many kids never encounter words and language beyond conversational language and their own independent reading level. The challenge of the Common Core is to give children book experiences at their independent reading level and opportunities to experience more complex texts.

The post wonders whether a 2nd-grade teacher's decision to read Charlotte's Web is best for students at that grade level, citing the Scholastic website that lists the book as written at the 4th-grade level. The post does not note that a variety of factors go into determining whether a text is appropriate for a grade. While it's true we might not expect students to read Charlotte's Web independently until at least the 4th grade, it is also true that, when read aloud, many 2nd graders will be engaged by the story and the vivid characters. What you ask students to do with the text (independent, guided reading, etc.) and the types of supports you provide (read-alouds, close reading discussions, vocabulary instruction, etc.) factor heavily in determining what is appropriate to teach at each grade.

The teacher in question was using the ReadyGen curriculum, which uses Charlotte's Web as a whole class read-aloud text and with significant supports for students and direct instruction. The primary purpose for using the text is to expose students to the admittedly complex language structures and vocabulary that they would not be exposed to in conversational language and in their own independent reading. Therefore, selection of this text is intended to challenge students beyond what they already know and it is assumed that they will need support from their teacher and their peers. It is also worth noting that Core Knowledge (the K-2 Curriculum recommended by NY State) recommends Charlotte's Web for guided reading in the 2nd grade.

Does that mean we have to drop all the great teaching we've done encouraging kids to practice fluency at their own pace and choose books within their independent level? Of course not. Children also need to read lots of books that they choose and within their comfort zone.

As the city continues its transition to the Common Core standards this year with schools choosing aligned curricula in English and math for kindergarten through 8th grade, teachers are being trained to support their students in this shift to harder standards.

But whatever our stance on literacy or the research we cite, we can't forget the open, curious minds that sit in front of us. At the end of the day, the books we choose to teach, especially in the early years, are so important because they set the stage for our students' life-long path of passion, inquiry, and learning. I can't think of a better book about life and literacy to read to 2nd graders than a book about a wise spider who teaches a self-conscious pig, through her friendship and the words she writes in her web, why he's so very special.

ReadyGen is a new curriculum and has some of today's most esteemed literacy experts and researchers working on it. That said, we have designed a process where feedback from teachers and schools will inform future tweaks to the curriculum. It is important that we keep the dialogue open in order to provide the best curriculum and instruction to our 1.1 million students.

(Robertson is the Director of ELA Curriculum at the New York City Department of Education)