The Common Core Vs. Books: When Teachers Are Unable to Foster a Love of Reading in Students

January 17, 2014 | 23 5 min read


How did you develop a love for reading?

Ask George Saunders, Barry Hannah, or Andrea Barrett. For each of these writers, their love for reading was realized in a K-12 classroom. For Maya Angelou, it’s thanks in part to Miss Kirwin, a “brilliant teacher” at the George Washington High School in San Francisco. For John McPhee, it’s thanks in part to Olive McKee, an English teacher he had for three years. Of course, you don’t have to look to lauded authors. Most readers, writers, and book-lovers can point you to a moment in their educational journeys where a love for reading was inspired in them by a passionate K-12 teacher.

However, the ability of schools and teachers to foster a love for reading in students is under assault in today’s educational climate. We live in a time of high-stakes accountability, where quantifiable metrics, namely standardized test scores, are used to judge students, teachers, and schools. Now, we are faced with the Common Core, new standards in Math and English Language Arts that are sweeping the nation. Incentivized by billions in federal grant dollars, 45 states are adopting the Common Core, with some states rolling out their implementations over the last two school years and other states waiting until next school year.

With these new standards come new tests, namely the Smarter Balanced assessment and PARCC, which are expected to take up to 10 hours for students to complete every year, starting in third grade. These tests will dominate students and teachers’ lives and turn many engaging classrooms into test prep zones. This myopic focus on testing places an extraordinary burden on students and teachers — such an extreme focus detracts from students’ educational experiences and greatly impedes schools and teachers’ ability to foster a love for reading in all students.

This should matter not only to students, parents, and teachers, but to publishers, writers, readers, and booksellers across America. If we want reading to flourish as a pastime and a serious pursuit, schools must be able to devote the necessary time and resources toward reading for pleasure.

You can probably think back to a time in school when you were introduced to something new. Maybe it was a concept in science class or a way of solving problems in math. With this new knowledge came a mix of recognition and surprise, the delight of learning. For many readers, a book passed along by a kind English teacher or eccentric history teacher carried with it this delight. In this sense, K-12 teachers are agents of intellectual excitement. A vibrant teacher can ignite students’ curiosity and enthusiasm in immeasurable ways. Especially for students who don’t have access to many literary resources at home, the classroom is the place where the world of books is brought to life. Educators can pass along their love for reading by introducing students to great books and by being sources of passion, creativity, and spunk.

In her Paris Review interview, novelist Andrea Barrett talks about her difficulties in high school, how she used to skip class and was a “horrible student.” Yet there was one person who stood out, a 10th-grade English teacher named Mrs. Williams. Mrs. Williams gave students “an extensive list of really good books to read” and then asked them to journal about their reading experiences. Soon, Barrett was reading more than she ever had before. “Mrs. Williams,” Barrett says, looking back, “was important to me in ways I didn’t understand for years.”

This is a relatable feeling. The lasting ramifications and reverberations that result from the guidance of our teachers — these people who, at the time, may have seemed silly, ridiculously strict, overly enthusiastic, and unbearably old — are hard to quantify. Yet many of us have been shaped in tremendous ways by these teachers who took the time and extended themselves, these teachers, like Mrs. Williams, Miss Kirwin, and Mrs. McKee, who went above and beyond and brought reading into our lives. Booksellers everywhere should be sending these teachers thank-you cards. These are the people who are inspiring the next generation of readers and book-buyers in America.

It’s worth thinking about what a young Andrea Barrett would have made of an English classroom that was strictly aligned with the Common Core and geared solely toward preparing students to get high scores on standardized tests. Instead of reading novels hand selected by her teacher, Barrett would read the same informational texts as every other student. Instead of being able to journal about her own ideas, Barrett would complete multiple-choice questions, each of which related directly to a Common Core standard. This is not the kind of environment that can foster a love for much of anything.

While we do not know what the full effects of these new efforts to standardize education will be, it’s clear that success on these Common Core-aligned tests will shape learning and teaching in many districts, because these tests will be a primary metric by which districts are judged. This will greatly influence what’s happening in our classrooms. Simply put, the more instructional time K-12 teachers have to spend preparing students for high-stakes tests, the less time teachers have to foster a love for reading in students.

This is not only a question of classroom time, but also of students’ perspectives. When books are seen through the lens of test prep, they lose value. Texts are turned into word searches, where students’ singular goal is to find the correct answer. If reading is treated merely as a way to extract the necessary information — rather then as an activity worthy in and of itself — our literary culture will be greatly diminished. “The most significant kind of learning in virtually any field,” writes visual arts teacher and Stanford professor Elliot Eisner, “creates a desire to pursue learning in that field when one doesn’t have to.” This definition of learning — of learning that is transformative, of learning that galvanizes our minds for a lifetime — is what should be driving our discussions, instead of the current focus on more and more high-stakes tests, where standards are geared toward establishing uniformity of thought among students and where creativity and individuality are neither valued nor encouraged.

If this current trajectory continues, the next generation of Americans will spend more time in school prepping for high-stakes tests than they will reading books or engaging in lab work or doing much of anything else. It seems likely that this, in turn, will have an impact on the number of active readers in America, a number that is already in noticeable decline. If we want our schools to be transformative places, if we want students to develop a deep love for reading, then we must understand that the most fundamental parts of an education are those that cannot be easily quantified through standardized tests.

At a time when so many external groups and special interest forces are involved in education, it’s important that the voices of book-lovers echo in our classrooms. Publishing houses should provide more free resources to students and schools. Local writers should find ways to collaborate with K-12 teachers. We should all advocate for a public education that engenders a love for reading in students.

Thinking of writers — George Saunders, Maya Angelou, and Andrea Barrett, just to name a famous few — who have been influenced by their K-12 teachers, it’s worthwhile to contemplate how they would have experienced today’s high-stakes testing climate. Would they still have developed a rich love of literature? Can such a love flourish in an environment where student achievement is reduced to standardized test scores? What is at stake, in this debate over education, are the lives and minds of the next generation of readers, writers, thinkers, activists, and academics in America. At some point, we have to ask how many students have already been turned off by today’s educational priorities? We have to wonder how many stories have already been lost.

Bonus Link: The Problem With Summer Reading

Image Credit: Flickr/albertogp123

is a writer and works on the administrative team of a Boston Public Schools high school. You can read his other writings here, email him at [email protected], and follow him on twitter @alexkalamaroff.


  1. Many points in the article are well put. At the elementary level many or most schools in our nation participate in a motivational reading program called Accelerated Reader. The volume of reading at these schools is fairly high with high library circulation rates. However, the knowledge base of children’s literature within the teaching profession has declined to the point of non-existence. Teachers do not read children’s literature. Teacher preparation programs do not address this. NCLB and Reading First put the basal text with its focus on excerpted literature and sub skills at the center of instruction. Without guidance our students read fun, humorous books with little substance such as Wimpy Kids, Dork Diaries, and the most popular Captain Underpants. Elementary school librarians (not library clerks) are rare. What is needed are teachers that can recommend the right book to a child because they have read it. When a child reads Harry Potter, the teacher should be able guide him/her to Lloyd Alexander or Susan Cooper for the next book to read. The teacher should be able to talk to children about great books they have read and pass on a sense of passion. This dialogue is absent. Let’s all go to the library and read Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry and get a few students to read it.

  2. The most difficult aspect of instilling children with a love of books is that many
    of them simply do not live in socioeconomic conditions that will enable them to secure quality books. In America, we’ve collectively decided that it’s more important to use our vast resources to murder people overseas and promote militarism than it is to learn and develop critical thinking skills.

  3. Giving kids a list of books that are “good” and having them “journal” about them sounds like lazy teaching to this high school English teacher. It also sounds like a way to make good kids who like to read read more, and kids who hate to read hate it even more by turning it into an exercise of pushing papers.

    The article should be amended: the problems detailed are not found in “all” public schools. They are specific to public schools that are located in places where administrators and school board members are easily terrified by scores that have no connection to the actual “education” of their students. I teach in a public high school where independent reading of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry is encouraged from 9th-12th grade. We’re going to be a part of the Common Core testing system. We have no plans to change the way we teach our kids. In fact, the state of Illinois has been using the ACT to measure student achievement for the last 10 years. No standardized test in history has changed more local school curricula across our state more insidiously than that test. No standardized test values creativity less than the ACT. And yet, and yet.

    These new tests will not dominate my life as a teacher. I know this because people said the same thing 10 years ago with NCLB. And 10 years before that. And 10 years before that. And 10 years before that. Part of the problem with reforming education in this country is that teachers act like the sky is falling with every reform. Every new movement is worse than the last. It’s just not the case.

    Want students to love reading? Read lots of books. Be ready to recommend some of those books to each student on an individual basis. Teach books that have the qualities of great literature but also tell meaningful stories (three of the best, in my opinion: Cuckoo’s Nest, The Great Gatsby, The Things They Carried) instead of books that meet canonical or diversity checklists. Stop making everything about “theme.” Talk about actions, psychology, relationships. Let kids speak their minds. You’ll get kids to love reading.

  4. While I agree that the focus on testing is lamentable, and detrimental to students, readers, authors, and our general culture, I can’t blame the Common Core. The Common Core only instructs teachers on what to teach, it doesn’t address how. Teachers are still free to give lists of amazing books to children, to read aloud everyday, and to choose books to share with care. The subtle shift of focus away from solely fiction to a balance between fiction and non-fiction is a reasonable response to our high tech, STEM focused world. The issue is with testing. The issue is with the idea that teachers and schools and students can only be evaluated using a test. If we could all agree to evaluate using portfolios, journals, authentic responses, and other metrics, the tests would die. Additionally, if parents embraced a more difficult curriculum while rejecting the tests, the tests would wither and fade. Embrace a better curriculum, but reject the tests!

  5. This article’s logic, particularly the position implied by the title, is absurd, and I’m forced to wonder if Mr. Kalamaroff genuinely understands the Common Core or if he is being intentionally misleading. More accurately, Mr. Kalamaroff might argue against high stakes testing and purely objective tests are detrimental to teaching students to enjoy reading. That at least would have some merit, but that’s not quite what he’s done, instead opting to conflate high-stakes testing with CC reading standards, which ensure students can read informational texts as well as fiction (also a CC standard).

  6. Looking back, I don’t know why I got a degree in English because the literature instruction I got in middle and high school was mostly terrible. I think it comes down to one teacher, 9th grade. I think it’s more about finding teachers who reach you than it is about any particular “method.”

    Other than 9th grade, here’s what I remember: books and stories and poems were drudgery. They weren’t fun, they weren’t amazing, they didn’t help me make sense of my life. Their key moments were to be memorized, their symbols and motifs understood. Everything was presented as hard, awful work. Reading Ethan Frome or Beowulf seemed like punishment, it really did.

    Granted we needed to be weaned off the light fare we had grown up reading. But there was no effort to cajole us to actually like the material. I’ve talked to a number of people who feel the same way. (All public schools of course.) I’ve asked them, why don’t you read? And they cite red hunting caps and green dock lights that never seemed to actually mean anything to them. They felt like they didn’t get it, and they never would.

    Reading, even great literature, even difficult literature, is supposed to be a pleasure. It’s not worth doing if it isn’t. I agree that it’s down to teachers to find ways to reach their kids, no matter what the obstacles. But the first thing I would do is stop treating books like puzzles, stop focusing so much on symbols and motifs. Symbolism is just one of many many aspects of literature, but in my experience and the experience of many I’ve talked to, it’s like the only thing that seems to matter in scholastic lit study.

  7. I teach high school science and have been adapting primary source, classic maritime books into Google Earth chapter tours. I have found it is a fun way to engage students as they virtually travel to oints of interest mentioned in the text. This multidisciplinary approach introduces science, history and geography in my marine science class. Feel free to read the books at:

  8. @ Kristen: I’m afraid that’s not the case. Take it from a product of the East Asian high-stakes test-taking culture: Regardless of tests, as long as grading and assessments have standardized rubrics (and they will, if high school diplomas are to mean an equivalent mastery of subjects), there will always be drudgery and forced learning. Changing tests to portfolios, journals, etc. simply means that students will learn to write the “correct” essays and journal entries. It also means that the sphere in which they have to “get it right” will no longer be limited to test-taking, but will start to permeate more and more of school life. This is the main criticism of the educational reforms currently being pushed through in my own country (Taiwan).

    There is an even more insidious danger here as well. When essays, journals, etc. start to have “correct” answers, it also means that the system is engaging in thought-censorship. Think of the the scene discussing Hitler in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys: Would you, as a grader of essays, give as high a grade to an essay discussing the attractions of Nazism (before attempting to refute them) as one that discusses the merits of democracy? Freedom of speech and thought is easy to pay lip service to, but when actual speech acts (including written ones) conflict with the grader’s personal beliefs (or those held by most of society), then it’s not just an abstract question. A kid’s grades (and, if the system is widely implemented, the kid’s future) are on the line.

    That being said, I don’t agree with this article, either. The truth is that, even in the midst of high-stakes testing, those who love reading (or any other extracurricular activity) will still love it, be it due to an inspirational teacher or what they do with their free time. On the other hand, for those who don’t love reading, rigidly standardized tests can better ensure that they retain (to a certain degree) knowledge that is deemed essential to the information society of the 21st century. In Taiwan, we may not use school knowledge in daily life, but that knowledge often serves as a common cultural base, or even a surprising source of tangential inspiration.

    Should life revolve around testing and only testing? No. And is ten hours too long a time to sit a multiple-choice exam? Most likely (unless it’s split among different days). But to say the the Common Core will kill the cultural future of the United States is not contributing to the discussion.

  9. This makes sense. Growing up in Brazil, I was educated at a private school that focused on getting its students through the entrance examinations for the best colleges in the country. This meant millions of hours of multiple choice mock tests and teaching how to do well on them. Literature was reduced to memorizing a few facts about each mandatory book (short lists of ten brazilian classics for each college you were to apply). Suffice to say that my appreciation of literature was blocked until the moment I finally left school (and yes, I got into the college I wanted, but at what cost?) and managed to find time to actually pay attention to what I was reading, in levels other than mere fact recollection. Most of my high-school friends didn’t have that luck and even though they also managed to get into good colleges, they never found their way into the joys of reading. Don’t go that way, America.

  10. I’m a new English teacher in NYC and keeping the CC in mind while preparing lessons has been a big part of my training. This article, like many others, focuses on testing and how this will change the direction of the curriculum. I think many are missing the point: testing helps us focus on what IS working, on what the students are not grasping, allowing us to revise and review areas of learning to make them more effective. By examining test results and making the appropriate adjustments, we can become more effective teachers.

    Of course, there are some imbalances in the current approach; expected at the start of any “revolution.” Allowing this transition to be co-opted by politicians and voters who are attracted to this topic because they see it as a liberal/conservative “plot,” designed to further their own agenda has only illuminated the differences each and every state education system has when it comes to spending the taxpayer’s money.

  11. The people who are enthusiastic about these tests (and I just had to listen to one of them for an interminable hour) and the people who are left absolutely cold by them….are just residents of two different planets.

    There is no bridge. Teachers, be subversive.

  12. This, like many articles, is a vast over statement of the CC approach to teaching English texts. My freshmen have been exposed to works from all sorts of writers of different styles and who write for different purposes. They are learning why people write, how to interpret what people write, and they are writing themselves in response to those texts—in terms of style and substance.
    The core is not designed to limit teacher freedom or student access to literature. Rather, the goal is to remove the teacher-as-interpreter model that has been pervasive in our culture for far too long.

    What does it matter if students read eight novels a year if they are only able to understand those novels in the presence of a teacher who forces the information in front of them? The CC goal is to develop the skills so that a student can independently approach texts that they find interesting or need to interpret in their own lives. These skills are more important than notches in the literary belt. They are also of use across content areas, allowing students to own the skills and see the purpose (something that cramming books does not allow them to grasp). Additionally, I have not sacrificed any compelling literature in my classroom. My freshmen (mark that–freshmen), have read full works and selections ranging from Donald Barthelme, Thoreau, Cormac McCarthy, Steinbeck, Barbara Kingsolver, Shakespeare, Petrarch, John McPhee, Jonathan Safran Foer, Cisneros, through Harper Lee and James Baldwin. They journal and write constantly.

    If anything, the CC opens up room for a wider range of text that are more compelling, and more complex. We’re educating citizens, not English majors. To teachers who feel there is not as much room for the classics I say this: read farther and wider. Literature comes in many lengths, shapes, and colors. I would love to introduce students to the books that made me fall in love with literature in high school, but that is not necessarily going to prepare them when they meet texts that require them to rely on their own abilities without a teacher at the helm to support them.

    Many teachers decrying the loss of literature seem to be frustrated over the challenge of incorporating a wider range of texts into their classrooms, as well as having to restructure the models with which they have grown accustom to in the teaching of texts that they have grown reliant upon. This is a poor reason to stand in opposition to a curriculum that aims to prepare students for thinking independently and critically without the teacher as authority.

  13. The key factor in children becoming avid readers I is the influence of a teacher passionate about reading. The solution is more teachers who are passionate about teaching. Too many teachers hanging around the profession because they are making six figure salaries ( for those who would argue that teachers don’t make six figure salaries check out teacher salaries in IL which are publicly available) Children may have actually better off when more of the teachers were motivated by love of teaching than the relatively good salary retirement they could earn.

  14. Yes, it’s the teachers making above the national median income who are dragging the nation’s love of reading into the toilet. I work in a district in Illinois. Lots of people here make more than $100,000 per year. They’ve also been teaching for 25 years or more and have one or two Master’s degrees. (Granted, many graduate programs are worthless. But that’s not our fault.) My desire to teach good literature is the same as it was 10 years ago when I started. Paying me more isn’t going to change that.

    To say motivation is replaced by complacency the moment a person starts making money is foolish.

  15. 12 years of school in Louisiana and i never had one English teacher try to get me to read any books. It was all “nouns and adverbs, and spelling words”. There were times they would offer book reports for extra credit but reading was never a part of the curriculum. There was a library close to my house that i could walk to and my parents would visit book stores where i could browse. Reading for me began and ended at home. I don’t see how Common Core affects reading books. We didnt’ have Common Core in the past and teachers never pushed anyone to read. or is Louisiana just that terrible in Education? I attended both Catholic private and Public schools.

  16. As an elementary school teacher who taught for 40 years ( 1964-2003) in the bowels of the NYC public school system, I can testify to the change of focus,slow but definite, from teaching kids the necessary skills to function well in society to teaching them to be good little test takers. Now living in upscale New Hope Solebury, Pa, all I hear from the supt. is that we ( the administrative staff and teachers) MUST align our curriculum with the new state standards. The result of all of this is a proclamation put on the district’s Home Page ( is a declaration that we are # 2 in Bucks County and #37 in the state.

  17. I found it interesting that the article never mentioned the influence and impact that having a credentialed Teacher-Librarian running a dynamic school library program can have. The trend, at the local, county, state and national level, has been to gradually eliminate strong school library programs, and with that the elimination of access to qualified Teacher-Librarians. Through direct contact with students, and working with teachers to develop quality curriculum and instruction based on a strong foundation of reading and writing, the Teacher-Librarian, along with Public Librarians, have likely had a stronger influence on the reading habits and development of our youth than any other group of individuals. Even with the explosive growth of digital delivery of information, the Teacher-Librarian has a central role in providing students direction and clarity in exploring multiple areas of interest and discovery.

  18. I have some deep concerns with the article you posted in January.

    Three things I see as concerns with this article: #1 You did not mention public or school libraries even ONCE in the article… while I lament, as you do, over stories lost, how can California foster an appreciation of literature when they routinely CLOSE school libraries and lay off Teacher Librarians as non-essential… I’ll take a sentence here to stand on my soap box: CA ranks 53rd of 53rd (dead last) in the ratio of qualified teacher librarians to students. (national average is 800 to 1, CA is 7000 to 1) – #2 – Teacher librarians take up the slack in resources that English and other teachers simply do not have in a single classroom. One person can’t do it all, testing or not!! The Whole Child Blog ( states: “… often school librarians teach the crosscutting topics that don’t fit neatly into English language arts, science, mathematics, or social studies.” So qualified Teacher librarians are the ones that fill holes and often make learning relevant because the atmosphere is conducive to learning at a student’s own pace. Lastly #3 – You state, “If we want our schools to be transformative places, if we want students to develop a deep love for reading, then we must understand that the most fundamental parts of an education are those that cannot be easily quantified through standardized tests.” This is an agreement that most teachers would also make: it should NOT be all about the testing. But you also state, “ We should all advocate for a public education that engenders a love for reading in students.” Because of “ … impact on the number of active readers in America, a number that is already in noticeable decline.” And I agree. But if you truly want an education in California schools to make a difference or any other state, and NOT be all about the testing, then I challenge you to stand up and fight at least for California’s public and school libraries and Teacher Librarians, because without their help, I fear the war on literacy will truly be lost.
    Yours in fighting the war,

  19. So sad to read of another federal fiasco being imposed on the schools. The fact is we were doing O.K. with the basic 1950s system before the first federal assault began with the 1960s “reforms”. They got rid of the Dr. Suess readers (which can still be bought off Amazon for like 99 cents, that’s why there are so many copies still around). Then they trashed the phonics-based system with the “whole language” which is why I started to see high schoolers in the 70s who could not read unless they said is out loud (slowly).
    There is no substitute for good books. I read “The Island of the Blue Dolpins” in 4th grade, happily there are still teachers using it but I fear this will change under the latest assault.
    In 5th grade in the 60s we all got pocket sized copies of the Constituion courtesy of the John Hancock insurance company, I still have mine.Can’t beat the Bill of Rights for economy of language. But then the new mafia probably thinks it’s too white.
    “Animal Farm” by Orwell in 9th grade. “!984” in 12th. There are solutions. Plenty of good historical biography suitable for Jr. High will prepare them for these.

  20. This is a silly parody of a common core ELA classroom. Take it from a high school ELA teacher–none of what is described here is a necessary consequence of CC standards.

  21. I am currently studying to become a high school english teacher and my biggest struggle with the common core reading is how it only holds specific capital L literature written predominately by american white men that no teen will find enjoyable. It is so important to incorporate diversity into teaching to keep students involved and interested. There is no choice in what the kids read anymore, it can be boiled down to Fahrenheit 451, The Great Gatsby, Lord of the Flies, Romeo and Juliet, and To Kill a Mockingbird. While I would agree these text are important to the literary canon, they are not the only important literature that is out there. As a future educator I would rather have students develop a broad literary cannon that includes culturally diverse literature as well as being interested in class over them being able to identify the names of the children in Lord of the Flies. The joy of reading significantly decreases once high school begins and I hope the upcoming generations can change this. Test scores do not equate to knowledge. I received straight A’s in high school yet retained none of the knowledge because I was simply concerned with memorizing as many vocab terms as I could before a test. Literature and textual analysis are so much more than common core learning. Let’s teach kids something they will value and build off of there entire life.

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