Why Becoming a Nation of Readers Is Still Relevant

    by Elfrieda H. Hiebert | August 23, 2013

    This past Monday, I gave a workshop for teachers about to start the academic year and the emotions surrounding the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) were palpable. There was hope for higher levels of student proficiency and awareness that CCSS offers new opportunities for an emphasis on acquisition of knowledge. But there was also worry and nervousness. Topics such as text complexity, in particular, generated concern, especially for students who are English Learners (and I was speaking in an area with a large population of English Learners).

    We are embarking on huge changes in English/Language Arts. Unlike the No Child Left Behind legislation of 2001, these changes have not been legislated. That’s good news. But it also means a substantial amount of professional interpretation and implementation at a time when there aren’t many professional development resources. There are so many interpretations and so many suggestions about what the Standards mean—including terms that are not in the CCSS but which have been equated with it (e.g., the term close reading).

    Whenever a new document comes out, such as Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children in 1998, Teaching Children to Read (report of the National Reading Panel) in 2000, and now CCSS, in 2010, my thoughts turn to the first national project in which I was involved—as the director of the staff that worked with the Commission of Reading and produced the report Becoming a Nation of Readers in 1985.

    Becoming a Nation of Readers continues to be a summary of a vital era of research on reading processes and texts—the 1970s and early 1980s. On some topics such as the use of text difficulty systems for selecting and teaching texts, a substantial amount of research has not been gathered subsequently and Becoming a Nation of Readers remains a summary of critical evidence. Because of the relevance of the message of Becoming a Nation of Readers for the current educational context, TextProject is providing an ebook version of this important document, which has been out-of-print for over a decade.

    The section on “School Textbooks” within the chapter “Extending Literacy” of Becoming a Nation of Readers illustrates just one of the areas of this report that merits revisiting. In particular, I encourage educators to read the first section–“Controlling the difficulty of schoolbooks.” This section deals with readability formulas. The term “readability formulas” may seem like an archaic term in the current CCSS context where text complexity is the focus. But the summary of research in this section is very relevant to text complexity, especially when quantitative systems are used to identify bands of text complexity at different grades in Appendix A of the CCSS and the 2012 supplement to the CCSS entitled “Measures of Text Difficulty.” Today’s quantitative systems may be called text difficulty systems but they function in a similar way to the readability formulas described in this section of Becoming a Nation of Readers by algorithmically establishing text difficulty on the basis of sentence length and vocabulary frequency. The name may have changed but quantitative systems of text difficulty/complexity are forms of readability formulas.

    Becoming a Nation of Readers cautioned against overreliance on readability formulas and the evidence it summarized prompted a reduction in their use. Following Becoming a Nation of Readers, the nation’s two largest states—California and Texas—initiated policies against the use of readability formulas as one of the criteria for adoption of reading and English textbooks in their states. Educators who are being introduced to quantitative systems in the CCSS era and weren’t in classrooms or universities at the time of Becoming a Nation of Readers should be aware that readability formulas have not been a driving force in American core reading programs since then. The reliance on quantitative measures of text difficulty for the staircase of text complexity within CCSS Appendix A and its supplement represents a return to practices that research of several decades ago had challenged.

    The summary of research in Becoming a Nation of Readers and the recommendations of the Commission are worthy of attention, even if some terms are out of fashion and the cover of the report in the ebook looks worn. The truth of the matter is that the cover is worn. The ebook is a scanned version of my last copy of Becoming a Nation of Readers—a volume to which I have turned many times, as some important features of American reading education fall by the wayside (e.g., well-organized and monitored independent reading), new policies and demands surface (formal reading instruction in kindergarten), and old practices reappear with new labels (e.g., readability formulas become text difficulty or complexity systems).

    Click here to view Becoming a Nation of Readers.