Common Core: What you need to know

Mar 27, 2013
On March 19, my colleague Souzanne A. Wright and I answered teachers’ questions about the new English Language Arts Standards in a Facebook chat on the Scholastic Teachers page. I thought it would be helpful to address your top-10 questions in language taken directly from the ELA Standards. 1. “How can I best help my students build knowledge and academic vocabulary?” Within and across grade levels, books should be chosen around topics or themes that systematically develop the knowledge base and vocabulary of students. Within a grade level, there should be an adequate number of titles on a single topic—the human body, the solar system, or Colonial America, say—to allow for study of that topic for a sustained period. 2. “Which teacher is responsible for teaching which subject(s)?” The K-5 section lists Standards for Reading, Writing, Speaking, Listening, and Language across the curriculum. That’s because most or all instruction in these grades comes from one teacher. Grades 6-12 are covered in two content-area sections: one for English/Language Arts teachers, another for teachers of History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects. Each section uses the same anchor standards but also includes grade-specific standards. 3. “Why do content-area teachers have to teach informational texts?” Extensive research establishes the need for students to be proficient in reading complex informational texts independently in a variety of content areas. Most of the reading in college and workforce training programs is informational and challenging. 4. “Are students expected to read the exemplars in Appendix B?” No. The titles in Appendix B merely serve as guideposts in helping teachers select texts of similar complexity, quality, and range in a given grade band. They are suggestive of the breadth of texts that students should encounter in various text types, including stories, poetry, drama, and informational texts. 5. “Does literature still matter?” Yes. The Standards call for a range of literary reading, from classics to contemporary works, representative of a variety of periods, cultures, and worldviews. The Standards do put great emphasis, however, on informational texts. In elementary school, literature should comprise roughly 50 percent of a student’s reading. In middle school, it switches to about 45 percent, and by high school, 30 percent. Because the ELA classroom focuses on literature (stories, drama, and poetry) as well as literary nonfiction, a great deal of informational reading in grades 6-12 will likely take place in other classes. The important thing is to get your students reading texts of all types. 6. “What does a sample classroom lesson look like?” In this video, David Coleman, the lead writer of the ELA Standards, offers a close reading of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, an exemplar text in the 9-10 grade band. Coleman has said that he wants students to “read like a detective and write like an investigative reporter.” Here, he zeroes in on vocabulary and rhetoric, offers writing prompts, then suggests complementary texts on the Civil War. 7. “What should student writing look like in the Common Core era?” Appendix C gives samples of student writing in grades K-12 for the particular types of writing to be mastered—argument, informative/explanatory text, and narrative. The Standards place a particular emphasis on writing arguments. In the lower grades, samples include “opinion” writing, an elementary type of argument in which students give reasons for their views and preferences. Because reasons are required, such writing helps prepare students for drafting the arguments they will be expected to create starting in sixth grade. 8. “What is a performance task?” Here are three sample performance tasks taken from Appendix B: After listening to L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, students describe the characters of Dorothy, Auntie Em, and Uncle Henry, the setting of the Kansas prairie, and major events such as the arrival of the cyclone. After reading Robert Coles’s The Story of Ruby Bridges, students draw upon their knowledge of how cause and effect gives order to events, using specific language to describe the sequence of events that leads to Ruby desegregating her school. Students use text features, including the table of contents and headers, found in Aliki’s text Ah, Music!, to locate information relevant to a given topic (e.g., rhythm, instruments, harmony). 9. “How can I prepare students for the upcoming assessments?” The best way to prepare students is to have them read deeply across content areas. The assessments will demand that students demonstrate an understanding of complex texts and an ability to analyze them. “As the assessments become more and more technology driven,” writes educator Christopher Lehman, “a smart response should be more and more reading and writing.” 10. “How can I help struggling readers?” On the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress, only 34 percent of fourth and eighth graders were rated “proficient” in reading. This makes achieving the Core daunting. With limited resources and countless demands, how can teachers help raise reading levels—especially among English Language Learners, children grappling with poverty or trauma, and students with special needs? Intervention programs can help. To limit frustration: Meet kids wherever they are and allow them to choose books that they’ll WANT to read. As Donalyn Miller writes in The Book Whisperer, nurturing a love of reading “starts with encountering great books, heartfelt recommendations, and a community of readers who share this passion.” Ask your school or local librarian for help selecting books for your students. Encourage students to make recommendations to each other.