It was an illuminating morning for champions of children’s literature and literacy. The Children’s Book Council’s annual meeting on September 19 at the CUNY Graduate Center not only welcomed a substantial audience of publishing industry professionals, educators, and writers, but also hosted two guest speakers: Alan Lawrence Sitomer, a children’s and YA novelist and California’s 2007 teacher of the year, and Maryanne Wolf, director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University and the author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. Sitomer spoke on the significant changes occurring in the U.S. school system as a result of the Common Core State Standards, and Wolf discussed the influence of technology on the minds of developing readers.

Sitomer offered an in-depth analysis of the new state standards, clarifying the impetus behind their development, laying out their essential framework, and addressing common misconceptions. The bottom line, Sitomer explained, is that the Common Core is a set of “academic objectives” that are clearly identified and “aligned in an academic staircase structure” as a way to not only address what educators are teaching but how. Asserting that the Common Core represents the most significant “cultural shift” in the world of education since Brown vs. the Board of Education, Sitomer explained that the Common Core aims to strengthen the U.S. teaching system by following several fundamental principles. Though he acknowledged the skepticism that many teachers, parents, and others feel toward the Common Core, he emphasized how its proponents aim to introduce more comprehensive standards that focus on qualitative, conceptual knowledge. The standards, as applied to reading and language arts, focus on close reading, rereading, finding and presenting textual evidence.

Sitomer went on to explain what he described as the “greatest misperception” about Common Core. To illustrate, he referenced an infographic showing the percentage of literary versus informational texts to be taught at different grade levels. For 12th grade, for example, informational texts are expected to comprise 70% of the reading throughout the day; books that are literary in nature will represent only 30% of the day’s reading. However, what many critics of the Common Core don’t understand, he said, is that the 30% figure represents the reading that happens throughout multiple classes over the course of a day – not just language arts. Under Common Core, “everyone is a literacy instructor,” Sitomer said. The state standards will foster an environment in which students can draw connections between different disciplines using a shared language of deliberation and critical reasoning.

Common Concerns

One controversial aspect of the standards, Sitomer said, lies in Appendix B, which contains “Exemplars of Reading Text Complexity.” Although a disclaimer in the Common Core’s Appendix B asserts that the books do not comprise a comprehensive reading list, many educators view the list as such. He foresees teachers simply ordering the texts on the list rather than thoughtfully shaping content. While the books mentioned in Appendix B may represent the types of complex texts appropriate for the classroom, educators will, ideally, feel empowered to select from a broader range of books that “build bridges toward anchor texts with merit.” For example, Sitomer suggested that The Hunger Games can serve as a gateway into books with shared dystopian themes such as William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and George Orwell’s 1984. Similarly, in the realm of nonfiction, a student reading a biography of Tupac Shakur might, with some guidance from an educator, transition into reading about Richard Wright or Frederick Douglass.

Another problematic area of Common Core involves assessment, which Sitomer sees as distinct from the standards themselves. He told the audience that new designs for multiple choice tests will be less focused on cut-and-dried answers – one correct response and several incorrect ones – but will instead introduce numerous potentially correct answers to a question, along with an area where students must write a paragraph supporting their answer choice. Issues of accommodating students with learning challenges, he said, will need to be addressed once the Common Core is fully implemented.

Despite the challenges inherent in instituting a program as sweeping as Common Core, Sitomer views the state standards as positive for students as well as for much of the publishing industry. Calling supplemental materials “the path forward” for publishers and predicting that textbooks are likely to lose their relevance in classrooms, Sitomer concluded his talk by suggesting that publishers “build an ocean” of books and resources, “not one ship.”

Reading: A Developmental Miracle

Wolf agreed with Sitomer that the Common Core standards “are a very wonderful step in the right direction,” and then began her presentation, called The Reading Brain in a Digital Age: Implications for Reading, Technology, and Global Literacy. She reminded the audience of their common bond: “We are all deeply committed to the heart of reading.” For those in the children’s publishing industry, Wolf recognized that it can be easy to lose sight of their raison d’être: getting new books into the hands of young readers.

And what an extraordinary accomplishment it is, she said, for a child’s mind to master literacy. As integral to our lives as reading is, the brain wasn’t born to perform such a task, she explained. To emphasize that fact, Wolf provided images of the changes that occur in the brain as it learns to read. Wolf also compared an image of the brain of an individual who reads Chinese characters to an individual who reads in English. The brains appear markedly different, due to the Chinese reader’s capacity to decipher thousands of characters. In short, Wolf said, “We cannot take semantic development for granted.” Fostering literacy, she continued, requires that a child be exposed consistently to spoken and written language; some of the most essential tools for assisting children in this developmental area are primary books that specifically introduce letter patterns and phonemes, such as Dr. Seuss stories and Mother Goose nursery rhymes. It’s through hearing these “tiniest speech sounds” spoken aloud, she said, that children first develop the brain circuitry that will pave the way to later reading.

If the young brain is a tabula rasa, Wolf asked, then how are growing minds reared on digital devices and a new kind of reading being affected? The question remains to be answered. Nevertheless, Wolf said, the role of technology in our world has led to a culture of multitasking and skimming of text, which she believes has had some detrimental effect on “deep reading comprehension skills” and the reader’s ability to “go beyond the wisdom of the author” by forming a critical and contemplative relationship with text. Even though it is too soon to tell how technology may affect children’s brain development on a large scale, Wolf emphasized that “data suggests we should be worried and vigilant.”

Wolf admitted that her relationship with technology is a complicated, even contradictory one: she serves as a consultant for the group One Laptop Per Child, which was founded by Nicholas Negroponte of MIT. The group conducted a yearlong study to determine whether technology can succeed in teaching children without any previous access to educational resources. In 2012, 20 Motorola Xoom tablets containing apps designed to facilitate learning were distributed to selected groups of children in the villages of Wenchi and Wolonchete in Ethiopia. Within just a few moments, a child from Wenchi had succeeded in powering up his tablet. After two weeks, children who had never seen paper or written words were able to sing ABC songs, and after several months, one child had successfully hacked into a tablet to enable use of its camera.

Since technology has and will continue to change the way that people read, Wolf suggested that we embrace it while also continuing to value print. While the verdict is out about whether or not “the digitally reading brain can become the deep reading brain,” perhaps the solution for now is to be diplomatically “biliterate,” voiced Wolf.

Closer to Boston, where physical books are in abundance, Wolf works with Reach Out and Read, an organization of pediatric doctors who promote literacy in their medical establishments by supplying books and encouraging the parents of their patients to read aloud to their children. The organization serves four million children annually at nearly 5,000 sites and distributes 6.5 million books each year to families.

In conclusion, Wolf delivered encouraging words to the audience, honoring the work of writers, publishers, and others involved in promoting literacy. “Books are an antidote for preserving contemplation in our society,” she said. “We want the next generation to go beyond us, and reading is the most extraordinary platform that human beings have established toward that end.”