Using Standards to Promote Reading Engagement

Katie Pak
Wednesday, September 7, 2016
College- and Career-Readiness
Student Learning
Teaching and Instruction

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell writes that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery in a field. However, missing in his equation is the feeling of enjoyment that teachers hope will accompany such intensive work. Intrinsic motivation is a key component of self-improvement. Similarly, kids should be able to derive pleasure out of the reading they must do in school if they are expected to demonstrate growth.

As an English Language Arts (ELA) teacher of students with disabilities (SWDs), I would often launch the year with a series of lessons themed “Why We Love Reading” in a motivational effort to get my students invested in reading. Stories of how I laughed, cried, and gasped over the events in all seven Harry Potter books would invariably sneak into our discussions. Students, too, would share their accounts of fictional characters that they connected with or of the genres that they most enjoyed. Independent reading was a coveted time during each class period. My colleagues and I thought that if students read and wrote consistently in each class, they would become more literate and perform better on high-stakes tests—but, each year, students’ excitement would dwindle as the demands of testing slowly took precedence and reading time become less of a cherished activity and more of a chore.

Troublingly, according to the National Center on Education Statistics (NCES) comprehensive international comparison report, while the United States employs more reading specialists than other countries, American students report very low levels of reading enjoyment. Forty-five percent of teachers in the U.S. claim that reading specialists are always on hand to help struggling students. Russia, the country with the next highest distribution of reading specialists, reports a much smaller percentage (thirty-two percent) of teachers who state that these specialists are always on hand.  Perhaps as a result of the United States’ laser focus on reading instruction, only 33 percent of girls and 20 percent of boys express interest in reading. Some may say that low student engagement levels explain why only 34 percent of 8th-grade students across the nation are proficient or advanced in reading.

The idea that one should pay attention to students’ emotional connection with the content is not new. John Dewey opined about a similar concept in his book, Experience and Education. While Dewey supports the instructive role that experiential learning plays in education, he acknowledges that some experiences can be miseducative. Educational environments that students find boring cause students to view learning as undesirable, thus stymying their academic growth. Educators should pay close attention to the quality of the experience (loosely defined as one that students find meaningful, engaging, and connected to their personal lives) if they hope to produce positive learning outcomes.

Complicating this argument is the fact that analyses of student motivation in mathematics show that countries demonstrating superior performance on PISA, the international benchmark assessment administered by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, are the ones with students reporting low degrees of motivation and interest in that content. So what exactly is the relationship between student achievement and motivation, if there seems to be a negative correlation between the “high flyers” and the least motivated? What is the relationship between hours spent in reading instruction, either with the help of reading specialists or with constant exposure to reading in all disciplines, the cultivation of “miseducative” experiences, and performance on reading assessments?

Emphasizing high levels of student achievement in our current standardized testing regime and fostering continuous student engagement need not be mutually exclusive practices. It may be true that efforts to rigorously prepare students for challenging ELA tests often negatively influence their love of reading (and the same goes for math). It may be true that efforts to assign more and more reading specialists to students have done little besides keep motivation and proficiency levels at low rates. This does not need to be the case.

College- and career- ready standards invite limitless opportunities for engaging students in critical, powerful, and meaningful ways. Below are some examples of K-12 anchor Common Core ELA standards that can both motivate and interest students while boosting reading achievement.

Anchor Standard

Classroom Application

Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.


Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.


At first glance, these standards seem pretty uninspiring. However, students can still have a great time working on both of these standards, as long as the teacher presents an intriguing puzzle or question that can animate a text-based discussion. I use a popular story here as an example: Jack and the Beanstalk. With the question, “Is Jack selfish?” students can debate whether Jack is a greedy thief for stealing from the giant or whether he is a good son for supporting his family while supporting their answers with text evidence or logical inferences. I’ve observed a demonstration of this lesson and the participants enthusiastically offered insightful text-based arguments. They collaborated with diverse partners, built on each other’s ideas, and practiced expressing their own ideas persuasively.

Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, including the validity of the reasoning as well as the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence.


This was my favorite standard to address in my ELA lessons, as I watched students grow in their abilities to critically evaluate authors’ claims, even claims they agree with or claims that come across as facts. Students can be engaged in identifying and assessing the validity of an author’s reasoning, especially when the arguments connect to real world social justice issues. Any one of Donald Trump’s speeches can be used as fodder here. Or, are the students interested in reading about police brutality? Climate change? Gender discrimination? Teachers should select informational or literary texts that speak to the topics that students find relevant or engaging so they can gauge for themselves if the authors are making valid arguments.

Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects based on focused questions, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation.


Research projects are empowering for students who get to select their questions based on personal interests or goals and present their findings to their peers. If teachers interpret the standard in this way, students will feel agentic and the learning will feel authentic. Embedded in this standard is every other ELA standard, considering that students need to synthesize what they read, be critical about what they read, draw connections, and use evidence to support their analysis. Of course, teachers would need to provide the appropriate scaffolds and resources to help make the research project manageable for students.


This exercise demonstrates that there are multiple ways of interpreting and applying the standards, and in each of these applications, student engagement is at the heart of the instruction. Many states are now in their sixth year of implementation of college- and career- readiness standards and C-SAIL’s interviews of a handful of these states reveal that indeed, there is excitement around the instructional shifts aligned with the standards. Administrators in one district in Kentucky specifically mentioned project-based learning as one practice that more teachers are moving towards because it simultaneously integrates many of the standards across content areas and is more engaging for students.

There is a false tension between standards-based reform and opportunities for high-interest, student-centered curriculum. While some states, districts, and schools implemented problematic test preparation practices as a result of high-stakes accountability environments, those “drill and kill” multiple choice worksheets do not need to be the only strategy for enhancing student achievement. Let’s keep working with these reading specialists, let’s still encourage literacy across different content areas, but let’s always make sure we are creating reading environments that ignite student passions and keep them motivated.