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Common Core: Key Shifts in English Language Arts

By Meghan Everette on February 22, 2013
  • Grades: PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5, 6–8, 9–12

Common Core, and how to implement it, is the big discussion throughout the country. My state is fully implementing the English Language Arts standards next year, but the work of unpacking the standards and facing the meat of the objectives has already started. It can be overwhelming even with positive and continual guidance, so I’ve broken down the three key shifts in the English Language Arts Common Core Standards and provided a few baby steps to guide you when starting.




Key Shift #1

Building knowledge through content-rich nonfictionWriting in Science

You teach nonfiction, right? Once a week you throw in that historical passage that numbs the kids' brains. You teach science and social studies, so surely they have nonfiction access. Isn’t there a book all about corn in the library you saw a student check out? So what’s the big deal? The fact is, as adults we rarely read fiction texts unless it is for pleasure. Jobs require huge amounts of reading and synthesizing of nonfiction texts. Think about the STEM careers we know our country needs to cultivate. Students who leave school unable to work with nonfiction may just be leaving unable to work at all.

Baby steps

Common Core calls for a 50-50 balance of fiction and nonfiction in reading. Use what you already have in math, science, and social studies and go from there. When you practice close reading, show students how to Paired High Interest Readingbreak apart difficult passages to truly understand and comprehend. Make anchor charts of reading strategies that can help when they encounter problems. Become proactive in the library check-out, making sure students choose a variety of reading materials. Finding high-interest texts that support what you are already reading or studying can help. News articles aimed at students, from sources such as DynaMath or Junior Scholastic, can provide engaging material. Use those to spark an interest in your students and get rid of the “nonfiction is for nerds” mentality. Check out Scholastic’s Common Sense for the Common Core for lessons, text recommendations, and even videos to get you started.


Key Shift #2

Reading, writing, and speaking grounded in evidence from the text,

Anchor Chart for Reading Strategiesboth literary and informational

We are all guilty of the easy question. You know the one: “Have you ever felt sleepy like Bear? Tell about a time you felt sleepy.” What’s the problem with this question? Well, frankly, we just don’t care if you are sleepy or not. We care if you read and understood the text. Questions in Common Core need to be text-dependent, meaning that the student has to have read and understood the specific text the question comes from in order to answer. What’s more, important vocabulary can be used in the question that a student must know. Our 2nd grade had a great example of this. The question was, “What in the text lets you know that George was an unusual child?” Not only do students have to have read and understood the passage, but they also need to know the meaning of "unusual."

Baby stepsText-Dependent Questions

Look at the tests you are already giving. While some directly stated questions have to be included, make sure you have a balance of inference questions. Check your open-ended questions. Did you ask something that relies on a student experience? Did you ask something they could make up, even if they hadn’t fully understood what they read? Then it is time to write some text-dependent questions that assess student learning. Practice them throughout your lessons. Several good guides for text-dependent questions exist at achievethecore.org and through the Basal Alignment Project on Edmodo. Finished reading? Good, then write about it. Writing is folded into the Common Core ELA, so remember that student responses, thinking, recording, and presenting can be done through writing.



Inferences on the SmartBoard

Key Shift #3

Regular practice with complex text and its academic language

You know that teaching from a basal alone doesn’t give students the range of reading experience they need. Students have to read a variety of texts in order to be successful. Did you know that students also need practice with text that pushes them? Think about it: the only way we ever Biography Reportlearned to read at a higher level was by reading something slightly more difficult than what we had previously read. Why then would we be content to let students go on reading at their comfort level without pushing them further? That is where text complexity comes into play. Students need to be able to read and comprehend specific academic vocabulary in the context of difficult text. Research on text complexity from Common Core Appendix A promotes a stair-step approach so that students are able to read at and beyond the college level when they graduate.


Baby steps

Kick it up a notch! Text-complexity doesn’t necessarily mean longer reading, nonfiction text, or scientific wording. It is based on the structure, language convention and clarity, knowledge demands, and the levels of meaning (literary) or purpose (informational) within the text. Keeping that in mind, use guided and close reading practice as Student Notes While Close Readingan opportunity to push students to the next level. TextProject states that students who don’t read at school are unlikely to read at home. In a typical classroom, students are only responsible for reading 20 percent of the time. If you increase that by just 7 minutes a day, you will create over 21 hours of reading in a 180-day school year. Make it harder, read for longer.


The Common Core isn’t as daunting as it may seem. It is simply a reminder to teach what we know through good, engaging, and ever-more-challenging lessons every day. CoreStand lends some advice for becoming a Common Core Ninja. And if you need a fun reminder of why we are in it to win it, check out "Why We Need Common Core: I Choose C."

What resources have you used for preparing to teach the Common Core? What ELA lessons are working for you?

Comments (15)

I am also curious as to why you only covered three shifts. Do the above three shifts you wrote about encompass the 6 shifts mentioned on other common core websites?

Where are the other 3 Shifts?

In the school district I teach in, core subject teachers are not requiring the students to read. In the classes I go into (Special Education inclusion), I have yet to see them open a textbook, much less a supplemental trade book. This district has not gone to digital textbooks yet.

The result of this negligence is low reading skills, low reading scores, and no continuity. Learning is pretty much...HIT or MISS. Sad, but true.

That's a real shame. Hopefully the Common Core will kick them into gear. It's got to be a real full-school focus to work. You'd think a "good" teacher would natrually do that! I guess, close your door and work hard for your kids. You can't always help what goes on outside your four walls, unfortunatley!

This post put everything into understandable and very complete language that makes a difficult topic easy to grasp...feel like one of my kids taking a dreaded test sometimes when I read CCS documentation.
Well done--Scholastic should publish this!

I like the way you think :) -- What about it, Scholastic??? Hahaha.

I am a mom of a 7th grade student. My degree is in English and secondary ed. I currently teach preschool. And, I completely understand what you all are saying! I have always felt that it is more beneficial to the child's overall learning if all or almost all subject areas join forces. If the history class is learning about the revolutionary war, why isn't the language arts class reading fiction and non fiction literature from that time? Can't science and even math join in here as well by talking about the discoveries and inventions of the time as well? Isn't that the way you give students a fuller, more critical understanding of the subject area? Whenever my son tells me about the literature he is reading in school, we always discuss the history and cultural mindset of the time. It makes his reading more relevant.
It may seem silly to compare it, but as a preschool teacher, my job is to encompass all subject areas into one theme - to make learning more relevant. As a result the children are completely engrossed in the theme, and I believe, learn much much more. If you do this, then even the vocabulary becomes part of their every day language as well.
Anyway, I assume this is very hard to actually implement, but I believe it would create much more critical thinking in the classrooms.
Good luck to you all - and as a mom, I appreciate your dedication.

That's a really great comparison, actually. I love to theme things for my kids. I think they "get it" so much better and have really great connections. I hope that common core will drive a little more of that for the upper grades especially. I think middle and high schools struggle with some of the collaboration we enjoy in elementary. Maybe this will help!

Plan c made me laugh.

The "think, pair, share" cracked me up.

As a HS English teacher I struggle most with the first shift. This has been horribly, horribly misinterpreted by my administration. The shift really calls for the other subject areas to infuse more literacy skills into their subjects. What is happening is that ELA secondary teachers are being forced to abandon fiction, poetry, etc. and being forced to teach Science and Social Studies texts. The 50/50 (or 70/30 in HS) split is supposed to occur across a student's ENTIRE school day, not just the 45 minutes they soend in English class. As a former 5th and 6th grade teacher who had the class for all the core subjects, I can see where the CC literacy pieces could easily fit into the day. But as usual, all these changes are dumped on the ELA teachers while the other subjects, sans math, continue on as usual. My 12th graders have read 1 piece of fiction all year. My Juniors also have only read 1 work of literature and they have to prepare for the NYS Regents. It is awful when these new things come into play and are put into practice improperly.

I hear ya, Tracy. My mom teaches middle school and she often feels the same way. I think there has got to be a push in training and from administration that lets ALL teachers bear the weight of the teaching responsibility. I also think part of why non-ELA teachers aren't adapting is a lack of training. It isn't that they are bad teachers, they just aren't seeing the big picture of what ELA means. Elementary schools tend to work a little more closely with colobaration, even if they are departmentalized. Maybe one way to help would be to develop some units together. The ELA teacher could, for example, read Out Of the Dust, while the science or social studies teacher discuss weather, terrain, or economics. Another help might be something like our PLT where we meet across grade levels and read research, explore student evidence, and set a school-wide goal to disseminate among our teams. I think it is certainly going to take a mind-shift to get everyone on board!

Give me a week or two... We've been doing math this year already! :)

Can someone write an article like this for Math??? I teach Math, Social Studies, and Science. We Math teachers also need to know how to start with baby step for Common Core!!! Thanks!!!

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