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Common Core Standards for High School English Language Arts

by Susan Ryan, Dana Frazee and John Kendall

Table of Contents

Chapter 1. About the Common Core English Language Arts Standards for High School

This chapter focuses on key areas of the Common Core standards for English language arts that represent the most significant changes to commonly used curricula and presents an overview of how the standards are organized, fit together, and reinforce one another. Reviewing the essential student knowledge and skills in the Common Core will allow teachers to quickly understand how they might adjust the materials and strategies used in their classroom to best meet these new expectations.

Focus Areas and Instructional Implications

Although the Common Core ELA standards are comprehensive and address a broad range of communication skills, they place particular emphasis on five key areas: reading informational text, reading complex text, close reading and citing text evidence, writing arguments, and research. Let's take a closer look at each area and consider its implications for teachers.

Reading informational text

During the last decade, the amount of nonfiction included in literature textbooks and on national reading tests such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) has been increasing. The Common Core standards add momentum to this trend, calling for a balance between literature and informational texts in the curriculum. The standards also emphasize domain-specific vocabulary and informative writing, requiring that students read texts that provide rich subject-area content and models of expository structures. For high school English language arts teachers, this shift means that they will need to incorporate more literary nonfiction into their classrooms, giving students the opportunity to read and build knowledge about a wide variety of subjects through nonfiction texts geared toward a general audience.

Reading complex text

The Common Core defines a three-part model for selecting texts in each grade span that will lead to college and career readiness by the end of high school. Within this model, text readability—specifically, its quantitative measure for relative difficulty—is set higher than the mark established by prior readability systems and reading comprehension assessments. This change will have a strong impact on which texts, and in particular which informational texts, are appropriate for high school students. The qualitative measures and reader task considerations, which are the other two legs in the model for text selection in the Common Core, provide teachers with a set of criteria to use when evaluating titles appropriate for students. The particular challenge for high school English teachers may be ensuring that the texts students read build steadily in complexity over the sequence of traditional high school courses, from World Literature to American Literature to British Literature.

Close reading and citing text evidence

The Common Core has numerous reading standards that ask students to closely analyze the information, ideas, and rhetorical choices that appear in texts. Students are expected to provide text evidence to support their assertions about the content and rhetoric in texts that they read. Teachers may emphasize this type of close reading and use of text evidence in their classrooms by increasing the number of text-based questions that they ask. Currently, many questions in the curriculum are designed to develop student background knowledge or to help students make connections between the text and their prior experience. The Common Core publishers' criteria document (Coleman & Pimentel, 2012) estimates that in order to match the requirements of the reading standards, 80 to 90 percent of questions teachers ask should be text-based. It's also recommended that teachers increase their use of graphic organizers and activities that ask students to provide direct quotations from the text as evidence. Teachers will need to inventory and review their current curriculum, identifying the types of questions and organizers they use so that they may make plans for modification.

Writing arguments

The Common Core includes many standards that ask students to evaluate and develop formal, logical arguments based on text evidence. While prior state standards typically described a broad set of skills related to persuasion, they did not place particular emphasis on dissecting logical arguments. Teachers will need to incorporate lessons that ask students to analyze exemplar arguments, as well as increase the number of writing and speaking assignments in which students argue their opinion about a topic or theme, using text-based evidence as support.


The research standards in the Common Core are not a significant departure from those found in most state standards, and most teachers may find that they are accustomed to covering similar content during the course of a year. However, the Common Core specifies that students conduct both brief and sustained research and that this research be woven into many different classroom contexts. Likewise, standards throughout the Common Core reflect research skills requiring students to compare and integrate information from diverse sources. Teachers seeking to implement the Common Core standards will likely need to increase the number of activities in which students gather and synthesize information.

How the Standards Are Organized

The Common Core ELA standards present content within a highly organized structure, first by strands and then by more specific headings. The standards themselves provide the most detailed level of content description: statements of student knowledge and skills for particular grades. For high school students, standards are divided into two grade bands, 9–10 and 11–12. Each grade-level content standard can be traced back to the Common Core's foundation: the set of College and Career Readiness anchor standards (CCRA) that broadly describe what students should know and be able to do by the time they graduate high school. To further clarify the structure of the Common Core standards, we will look at each organizational component in turn.


The ELA standards are sorted into four strands: Reading, Writing, Speaking and Listening, and Language. The first three of these categories will be familiar, as they have been used to organize content in numerous state ELA standards documents. The category of Language, however, is found less frequently in state standards. The Common Core Language strand describes skills that may be applied to one or more of the other strands. For example, grammar may be applied to both writing and speaking activities, and vocabulary is an important element of reading, writing, speaking, and listening. The strands are also distinguished from some state standards in that research skills and media literacy are not separate categories; research is addressed in the Common Core Writing strand, and media is embedded throughout the ELA strands, with some emphasis in the Speaking and Listening strand. At the middle school and high school levels, the Reading strand is further subdivided into two domains: the Reading Standards for Literature and the Reading Standards for Informational Text. The standards in these two domains are parallel, addressing the same basic reading skills but describing them in ways specific to reading fiction versus reading literary nonfiction.

Each strand has an associated abbreviation code to identify its particular numbered standards, with each of the two domains of the Reading strand receiving its own shorthand:

  • Reading Literature (RL)
  • Reading Informational Text (RI)
  • Writing (W)
  • Speaking and Listening (SL)
  • Language (L)

These strand abbreviations are used as part of the CCSSI's official identification system, which provides a unique identifier for each standard in the Common Core and can be very useful to school staffs developing crosswalks, planning lessons, and sharing lesson plans. For example, the sixth standard in the Writing strand can be referred to as "Writing Standard 6" or, using the full, formal "dot notation," as "CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.6." To speak specifically of a standard for a particular high school grade band, the grade designation is inserted between the strand letter and standard number: "CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9–10.6," for example, is Writing Standard 6 for grades 9–10. In this guide, we use an abbreviated form of this identification system, dropping the common prefix and using strand and standard number (e.g., W.6.). In the sample lessons, we insert the grade band indicator.


Within each strand, a set of two or more topic headings provides further organization. The same headings span all grade levels. In the Language strand, for example, the standards are organized under three headings: Conventions of Standard English, Knowledge of Language, and Vocabulary Acquisition and Use. The headings provide users with an overview of the topics that the particular strands address, group standards that share a similar focus, and provide context for understanding individual standards. For example, the Craft and Structure heading in the Reading strand signals that the standards listed under it will focus on the various choices that authors make when developing (crafting) and organizing (structuring) their writing.

College and Career Readiness Anchor standards

As noted, the College and Career Readiness Anchor standards define the knowledge and skills students should acquire in each content strand over the course of their K–12 education. The more specific, grade-level content standard statements spell out the aspects of CCRA knowledge and skills appropriate for students within each grade band. In other words, there is a version of every anchor standard for each grade level, and every grade level has the same anchor standards. For illustration, see Figure 1.1, which displays the grade-level versions of the same anchor standard within the Reading strand.

Figure 1.1. High School Grade-Specific Versions of a CCRA Standard


Grades 9–10 Students:

Grades 11–12 Students:

RL.2 Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas.

RL.9–10.2 Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze in detail its development over the course of the text, including how it emerges and is shaped and refined by specific details; provide an objective summary of the text.

RL.11–12.2 Determine two or more themes or central ideas of a text and analyze their development over the course of the text, including how they interact and build on one another to produce a complex account; provide an objective summary of the text.

In this way, the anchor standards provide overarching goals for student learning. When a single standard includes many details and various aspects, teachers can identify that standard's primary focus by reviewing its associated anchor standard. The progression of grade-level standards provides a structure that indicates how students' skills are expected to advance over time. As teachers assess their students, the continuum of grade-level standards in the Common Core may enhance their understanding of how student skills develop. Additional assistance can be found in a learning progression framework developed by the National Center for the Improvement of Educational Assessment, which identifies research-based learning progressions for use with the Common Core (Hess, 2011).

Connections Across Content Areas

It is important to note that the Common Core ELA standards are published in the same document as the Common Core literacy standards for history/social studies, science, and technical subjects. Because the literacy standards are intended for teachers in those subject areas, rather than language arts teachers, we do not address them within this guide. However, the Common Core emphasizes an integrated model of literacy that includes cross-subject collaboration among teachers, so language arts teachers will benefit from familiarizing themselves with the literacy standards. Briefly, the literacy standards cover reading and writing and share the same CCRA standards as the ELA standards; the grade-specific literacy standards describe how the same set of skills articulated in the ELA standards should be applied in social studies, science, and technical classrooms.

Appendices to the ELA/Literacy Standards

In addition to the standards themselves, the Common Core standards document for ELA includes a set of three appendices that provide further clarification and support.

Appendix A (CCSSI, 2010d) explains the research base and rationale for many of the key aspects of the standards. It describes how to use the Common Core text complexity model, which includes three factors for determining the appropriate complexity of texts for each grade range. Appendix A also describes the three major text types required by the standards in the Writing strand: argument, exposition, and narration. The role of oral language in literacy is also described, as are various aspects of the Language strand, including vocabulary.

Appendix B (CCSSI, 2010e) provides further support related to text complexity by excerpting portions of particular texts that illustrate the level of complexity required of students within each grade band. Short performance tasks accompany the exemplar texts and indicate the types of activities and student performances that support specific reading standards.

Appendix C (CCSSI, 2010f) provides annotated samples of student writing for each grade level that meet or exceed the minimum level of proficiency the standards demand. Examples are provided across all three of the text types: argument, informational/expository, and narrative writing. In most cases, the samples are accompanied by a description of the context for writing (prompt, requirements, audience, and purpose). Annotations help clarify how the samples meet the requirements of the grade-level standards.

As noted, our intention in this quick-start guide is to provide a sense of the meaning of each high school ELA standard and explain how the standards are related to each other across grades and strands. Please be aware that what we present are only a few examples of such connections, and we do not mean to suggest that no other connections can or should be made. Teachers should build on the information here to strengthen their own practice and enhance their implementation of the Common Core standards.

Now that we've looked at the overall structure of the Common Core ELA standards, we will examine each strand in turn.


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