A few months ago we asked our 110,000 Facebook fans, “What are your biggest concerns related to implementing the Common Core standards?” We read and gathered the responses—and there were a lot of them—and started on a quest to find answers.
We asked education thought leaders like Carol Jago, past president of the National Council of Teachers of English and author of With Rigor for All, and Susan B. Neuman, a professor of education at the University of Michigan, to weigh in. We also asked top teachers like Justin Minkel, a second- and third-grade teacher who was Arkansas’s 2007 Teacher of the Year, to share practical, classroom-tested solutions. Hopefully, their excellent advice will make the hard work of implementing the standards a little less daunting.
Helping English language learners meet the standards. Under the Common Core, your students are expected to read (and master) complex texts, and all students, even those who are still working to learn English, are expected to read and comprehend grade-level texts by year’s end.
Emphasize academic vocabulary. Help students learn the language they need to understand the text. “Draw attention to idioms, expressions, and often-used academic words every single day,” says Jago.
Use electronic texts. With an electronic text, students can look up the definitions of any words that they don’t know with the touch of a finger. Don’t let students skip unfamiliar words; missing even one word can make a big difference in their comprehension, especially when working with science texts.
Offer complex texts in students’ native languages. It’s easier for students to understand complex concepts, like character development, if the material is in their native language. If possible, have them initially read and discuss complex texts in their native language. Then work together to tackle the text (and others like it) in English. Remember that the Common Core doesn’t expect miracles. Students are expected to progress to more complex texts, not master them overnight.
Integrating more informational text into the curriculum. The standards call for a 50/50 split in grades K–8: half of the text your students read should be informational and half should be literary. That’s a big shift for teachers who are used to focusing on literature!
Use expository books as read-alouds. Instead of reading another storybook or novel to your class, try a nonfiction text. “My class loved Predator Showdown. It gives facts about two animals, like a polar bear and a grizzly bear, and then has students predict who would win a fight,” says Minkel.
Think cross-curricular. The ELA standards are meant to be taught across the curriculum. So think of ways to reinforce ELA concepts in other subjects. “Ask yourself, If I’m teaching main idea, can I teach the concept using a science text?” says Sherida Britt, director for ASCD’s Tools for Teachers. Materials that students read in science, social studies, math, art, and music “count” as informational texts. Consider ways to study topics across subjects. A simple geometry lesson can be amplified by reading texts about architecture, art, and history.
Use informational text to go deeper. Informational text can deepen your students’ understanding of concepts they encounter in fiction. If your students are reading a book about bullying, introduce some current Web articles on the topic. Informational texts can also be used to supplement and differentiate instruction. If a student seems fascinated by the concept of flight after a science lesson on it, offer her books about the history of flight, animals that fly,
or innovations in flight.
Finding nonfiction books for beginning K–1 readers. Most easy readers are fiction. Teachers are often stumped by the dearth of appropriate informational texts for early readers.
Look beyond books. “There are a number of tremendous nonfiction magazines for young kids, including Ranger Rick Jr., by the National Wildlife Federation,” says Ben Curran, a K–5 instructional coach in Detroit. Scholastic News Grade 1 and Let’s Find Out are good choices, and Curran also recommends websites such as wonderopolis.org.
Consider genre benders. Genre benders blend fiction and nonfiction; usually, they use the techniques of fiction to share information in an engaging way. Good examples include the Magic School Bus books and Ben & Me: An Astonishing Life of Benjamin Franklin by His Good Mouse Amos, by Robert Lawson.
Also, check the Orbis Pictus awards, which honor outstanding nonfiction for children.
Designing challenging yet developmentally appropriate writing lessons for early elementary students. The amount of writing your students are expected to do has probably increased under the Common Core. So has the complexity. As early as first grade, students are expected to write opinion pieces, informative texts, and narrative works.
Show them good examples. “We look for texts that have the quality of writing that we want the students to have,” Curran says. “If we want our students to understand the idea of headings and subheadings, we’ll look for texts that have good examples of that. If we want them to write in a conversational tone, we’ll look for texts that are less newsy and more conversational.”
Make a magazine. Curran helps his students investigate simple informative texts. Together, they look carefully at the construction of the text, noting features such as subheads, diagrams, and illustrations. Then, each student creates a feature article on a topic of his or her choosing, following the example of the sample texts. The articles are compiled into a class magazine.
Move the focus. Traditionally, early elementary students have been encouraged to write about themselves. The new standards, though, call for more informational writing. “They want descriptions and evaluations,” says Neuman. So help your students write about real events, using as many details as possible.
Lack of funds to buy Common Core–aligned materials. Few school districts have the money to replace all their books, and they shouldn’t have to. Teachers have to figure out a way to teach the Common Core with materials designed to support other standards.
Check the Basal Alignment Project. A number of educators are working to analyze preexisting materials. “The Basal Alignment Project has essentially taken a look at the majority of basal readers that are out there now, and they’ve developed series of text-dependent, Common Core–aligned questions that can be shared online across schools, states, and districts,” Britt says. Find the Basal Alignment Project (BAP) at edmodo.com. Use code “etuyrm” to join the BAP group.
Look in your library. Many of the books you already have in your classroom and school library are suitable for use with the Common Core. Look for well-written, engaging texts, especially nonfiction titles, or novels and stories that engage with big ideas.
Accommodating students with below-grade reading levels. All students are expected to read and comprehend complex, grade-level texts—even those who are currently reading well below grade level.
Isolate vocabulary. “Research shows that the reason a lot of these students are struggling is because they don’t have a grasp on academic vocabulary,” Britt says. So break out during reading and discuss challenging words. “Make sure the student understands the vocabulary in isolation, then put that vocabulary back in the text and see if he can read the text more appropriately,” Neuman says.
Have every student read two books simultaneously. One book should be at the student’s independent reading level; let kids choose books that fit their interests. The second book should be at grade level. Work with your students to help them understand the text.
Differentiate instruction. Group students by their reading readiness level, Neuman says. “We use a reading workshop model where teachers are teaching kids at their level, instead of teaching whole groups or the same text to the whole class,” Curran says. It’s also important to search out other resources. Carefully assess your students to identify their individual learning needs, and take advantage of whatever extra resources and services are available in your district.
Try e-books. Electronic books that offer a “read-aloud” alternative can be a big help to struggling readers. Scholastic’s BookFlix is an interactive online resource that pairs classic-fiction video storybooks with nonfiction e-books. For a free trial, visit bit.ly/BookFlix for details.
Scholastic just launched a fabulous resource center with essays about the Core, alignment of its products and books, and teacher blogs offering practical, hands-on advice for implementing the new standards.
Check it out at scholastic.com/commoncore.