By Donique Reid


A new wave of college- and career-ready standards promote the use of close reading to advance opportunities for student-led argumentation. According to the National Governor’s Association, “Argument is at the heart of critical thinking and academic discourse; it is the kind of writing students need to know for success in college and life—the kind of writing that the Common Core State Standards puts first.” Argumentation is a typical skill for college-bound students and requires in-depth attention to citing evidence. Unfortunately, research shows that teachers are not effectively providing students with close reading opportunities in the classroom to develop their abilities to form evidence-based arguments.

At this year’s American Educational Research Association annual meeting, senior researcher Cindy Litman and colleagues Stacy Marple and Cynthia Greenleaf from WestEd’s Strategic Literacy Initiative presented their paper, Argumentation in the Presence and Absence of Text. For the study, they observed thirty-four teachers in grades 6–12 to investigate the opportunities students have for meaningful engagement and analysis of text. The researchers found that even when students are working with text, they engage in close reading or active meaning-making only 43 percent of the time. Even more so, the findings show that when the researchers observed argumentation, close reading was less likely to take place, with only 29 percent of student argumentation including active engagement and meaning-making with texts. This calls into question what students actually are doing when they form arguments around text if they are not actively engaged with the content.

To explore this, Litman and her team analyzed two different teacher lessons and found that Teacher A told students what to underline and highlight, explicitly calling out the main idea for students as they read through the text together. Teacher A also simplified the text under the misguided notion that he was benefitting his students. These strategies collectively undervalue the thinking process that underpins critical analysis and evaluation and set low expectations for student engagement. On the other hand, Teacher B pushed students to identify important points for themselves, forcing them to make sense of text and think critically about what information is relevant. Teacher B helped students build the skills and processes necessary to support sensemaking rather than rote memorization of content. Unfortunately, when teachers, like Teacher A, provide prescriptive instructions and have students explain content rather than engage deeply with content, they strip students of the opportunity to develop mastery in both the content, critical thinking, and problem solving. Such instructional practices cheat students out of real opportunities for deeper learning and, as the WestEd study describes, “students in fact [have] limited opportunities for building deep disciplinary knowledge from text.”

Persistent Inequities in Opportunity

To participate in the growing economy, students must be able to form arguments to gain access to college or a career, defend interpretation of content in college, or recommend a course of action. Students who effectively master these skills and demonstrate deeper learning should be able to find, evaluate, and synthesize information to construct these types of arguments. Knowing this, teachers should provide students with in-depth opportunities to form their own claims and analyze texts to prepare for college, a career, and life. ASCD suggests several ways that teachers can help students with argumentation including teaching students to make inferences, examine an author’s purpose and style, and determine the difference between a claim and evidence. Unfortunately, not all teachers are fully equipped with the skills to do this and too often these teachers serve large numbers of students of color and students from low-income families.

In a 2015 report, the Reform Support Network notes that traditionally underserved students are disproportionately situated in the lowest-performing schools, which have half the number of highly effective teachers and one and one-half times more ineffective teachers as high-performing schools. Additionally, the 2015 NAEP scores highlight the results of inequitable access to teachers who are skilled at delivering instruction that leads to the development of skills like argumentation. Although NAEP eighth-grade reading scores for the nation have decreased overall, gaps in performance between students of color and their white peers remain. In 2015, only 16 percent of African American eighth-grade students and 21 percent of Latino eighth-grade students scored at or above proficient in reading, compared to 44 percent of their white counterparts. Students who score at or above proficient can go beyond identifying pieces of information in a text and use this information as evidence to provide and support an opinion, integrate details to provide an explanation, and make a claim about how a text feature relates to information in an article. In other words, it is likely that students at this level have had meaningful opportunities for argumentation and close reading in the classroom.

Building Teacher Capacity to Support Deeper Learning

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) outlines how states and local education agencies (LEAs) can ensure that teachers are knowledgeable about effective instructional strategies, methods, and skills. Under ESSA, states may use federal professional development funding to help teachers develop and implement deeper learning strategies. With common planning time and increased teacher capacity to use data and assessments to improve classroom practices, teachers can be better prepared to use challenging academic content standards to encourage argumentation in the classroom. LEAs specifically should train teachers how to differentiate content, rather than simplify content. States and LEAs should ensure that teachers have the skills to

  • use texts in the classroom that contain complex language and substance;
  • teach complex content and reading to students of different learning styles and needs;
  • facilitate student engagement with challenging content rather than orate and direct student learning; and
  • engage students in active problem solving.

Teachers should understand their roles as facilitators for student learning rather than suggest positions and arguments for students to adopt. Instructional practice and classroom strategies play a key role in how students engage with content, so teachers must be prepared to provide meaningful deeper learning opportunities for their students.

Donique Reid is a policy and research associate for the standards, assessment, and deeper learning team at the Alliance.

Photo by Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action