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  • Research & Practice: Viewpoints

Attaining the CCSS Is Impossible—Without Engagement

 | Apr 12, 2013

John Guthrie
by John Guthrie
University of Maryland
April 15, 2013



The common core state standards (CCSS) are bringing a sea change in reading and writing. Designers of the new standards, educational administrators, and teachers all say the CCSS will require new reading skills. Calling for more complex text, the standards immediately raise the difficulty of the materials in the classroom. Beyond the texts, the standards call for reading as reasoning. Merely recognizing words, or being fluent at reading aloud, is not enough. Students need to think deeply to answer high level questions.

Teachers are assembling the complex texts. They are aligning them to the standards at each grade. Daily teachers are creating unprecedented high aims for learning from books and the internet. Unpacking the CCSS-based questions themselves is a formidable reading problem. In most classrooms, most students face daunting reading demands in every lesson.  

Will this work? Can educators succeed simply by giving harder, higher reading tasks to everyone?

My Take

Absolutely not. While students must learn a new reading skill set, teachers cannot simply force feed hard reading materials. Students are not like empty jars waiting to be filled. We cannot simply pour hard reading materials into them. Too many students are passive learners, or even dislike reading. Presenting hard texts and high level questions cannot be sufficient. Students are growing beings who require nourishment. Teachers need to activate and energize their students. Teaching new skills is a must, but new skills must be balanced by inspiring students’ passions and purposes for learning.


Every teacher knows that students have to be motivated to learn. Opening the book, looking at it, concentrating to comprehend it, and using what you learn from text are all motivated. They take effort and energy. Learning to read the more complex texts demanded in the CCSS takes more dedication, certainly not less. In these times, students have to be more fully engaged and motivated than ever. A review showed that 100 studies have connected motivation to comprehension (Guthrie, 2009). For example, children who enjoy reading stories in their spare time and have favorite authors or genre like mysteries are higher in comprehension than less avid readers (Becker, 2010). Evidence substantiates what most teachers know. Students with interest, drive, desire, belief in themselves and passion for reading will tackle complexity, devour deeply, and persist in reading until their jobs are done.

Teachers often believe that motivation comes from home, which is partly true. But tragically many teachers overlook the empowerments of their own classrooms. A host of studies shows that the classroom context can be a motivator (Guthrie, 2012). For example, when teachers give academic choices and some freedom, students awaken to learning; whereas when teachers dominate the landscape and control everything, children shrink from engagement and decline in achievement. The classroom can motivate and inspire or it can discourage and disengage. This pattern is vividly evident from primary through secondary grades (Christensen, 2012).

Teachers can expand on how they enhance their students’ motivation and learning. Even when they have not done so before, teachers can learn to give students a few meaningful choices—choice within boundaries is the idea. Teachers can promote partnership activities instead of constantly expecting solo work. Teachers can link a story or a science book to student backgrounds and personal interests to show relevance. Choice, collaboration and relevance are all motivators—and there are dozens more.

In our work, we have found that even with just a half day of professional training, coupled with a half day of coaching, teachers can enrich their classrooms with motivational activities (Guthrie, 2013). Equally important, we know just providing new materials and turning teachers and students loose on them doesn’t do the job.  In the absence of training for motivation and engagement, an infusion of complex information texts and guidelines for comprehending them does not increase achievement (Baker, 2011). A barren text that is not interesting, relevant, important or inspiring—no matter how interesting we as educators might think it is—has few chances of boosting students to the heights of CCSS attainments.

It may appear that providing a more motivational context is a bit more work for the already overworked teacher. But that bit of extra work will pay big dividends because motivated students initiate their own activities. They require less discipline, guidance, organization and micromanagement.  A small investment in designing for engagement yields a classroom of self-directed learners, freeing the teacher to plan and organize creatively.


To assure that all students are attaining the CCSS, teachers want to afford them a rich—and balanced—literacy diet of teaching for skill and designing for engagement. Without both parts of this diet in every lesson, students stumble out of their classrooms half starved—and still hungry for engaging activities that lead to the sort of learning championed in the CCSS.


Baker, L., Dreher, J., Shiplet, A., Beall, L., Voelker, A., Garrett, A, Schugar, H., & Finger-elam, M. (2011). International Electronic Journal of Elementary Education, 4(1), 197-227. 

Becker, M., McElvany, N., & Kortenbruck, M. (2010). Intrinsic and extrinsic reading motivation as predictors of reading literacy: A longitudinal study. Journal of Educational Psychology, 102, 773-785. 

Christensen, S., Reschly, A., & Wylie, C. (Eds.), Handbook of research on student engagement (pp. 601-635). New York: Springer Science. 

Guthrie, J. T., & Coddington, C. S. (2009). Reading motivation. In K. Wentzel & A. Wigfield (Eds.), Handbook of motivation at school (pp. 503-525). New York: Routledge. 

Guthrie, J. T., Wigfield, A., & You, W. (2012). Instructional contexts for engagement and achievement in reading. In S. Christensen, A. Reschly, & C. Wylie (Eds.), Handbook of research on student engagement (pp. 601-635). New York: Springer Science. 

Guthrie, J. T., Klauda, S. L. & Ho, A. N. (2013). Modeling the relationships among reading instruction, motivation, engagement, and achievement for adolescents. Reading Research Quarterly, 48, 9-26.

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