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Common Core Standards for Elementary Grades 3–5 Math & English Language Arts

by Amber Evenson, Monette McIver, Susan Ryan, Amitra Schwols and John Kendall

Table of Contents

Chapter 1. About the Common Core ELA/Literacy Standards for Grades 3–5

This chapter focuses on key areas of the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy 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/literacy standards are comprehensive and address a broad range of communication skills, they place particular emphasis on four key areas: building knowledge through reading informational text, reading complex text, close reading and citing text evidence, and writing and speaking about texts. Let's take a closer look at each area and consider its implications for teachers.

Building knowledge through reading informational text

During the last decade, the amount of nonfiction included in reading textbooks and on national reading tests such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress has been increasing (National Assessment Governing Board, 2010a). The Common Core adds momentum to this trend, calling for a balance between literature and informational texts in the curriculum. Considering that as little as 7 percent of current elementary school instructional reading is expository (CCSSI, 2010d), adoption of the Common Core means elementary teachers will need to increase the number of informational texts they ask their students to read. Rather than compete with literary reading for "ELA class time," this reading should support learning across the curriculum, helping to build literacy and content-area knowledge in science, social studies, the arts, and other subjects. Additionally, it's essential that students' reading abilities not limit their acquisition of knowledge in areas like history and science; instruction should be designed to allow students to listen to complex informational texts that they may not be able to read on their own yet. This focus on using literacy skills to support subject-area learning is found throughout the Common Core standards, which also emphasize subject-specific vocabulary and writing about informational texts.

Reading complex texts

The Common Core defines a three-part model for selecting appropriately complex texts 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 set by prior readability systems and reading comprehension assessments for each grade span. Elementary school students are now expected to independently read and understand texts with Lexile scores between 420 and 820L by the time they finish 3rd grade. The high end of this range is notably higher than the high end of the prior levels (450–725L) set by the Lexile system. By the end of 5th grade, students are expected to comprehend texts with Lexile scores between 740 and 1010L, which is another increase from the former expectation (645–845L) (Nelson, Perfetti, Liben, & Liben, 2012). This move toward more challenging reading material will have a strong impact on which texts and, in particular, which informational texts teachers select for upper elementary school students. The qualitative measures and reader task considerations––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 for particular students and situations. For a complete description of the Common Core's text complexity model, please see Chapter 2.

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 attributes of the texts that they read.

The Common Core's publisher's criteria for ELA/literacy (Coleman & Pimentel, 2012) notes that teachers can foster close reading and the use of text evidence in their classrooms simply 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. These types of questions will remain important during prereading exercises and as support strategies, but the bulk of questions teachers use during instruction should be text-based and answerable only by examining the text. Additionally, the writers of the Common Core advise teachers to favor graphic organizers and activities that ask students to provide direct quotations from the text as evidence. Teachers may want to immediately begin to inventory and review their current curriculum to identify and modify the types of questions and organizers used to help ensure that students are required to review and cite the specific texts they read.

Writing about texts

Many of the Common Core ELA/literacy standards emphasize writing in response to print and multimedia texts, including the use of research skills. Students write pieces in which they support an opinion about the texts that they read and hear, and they write explanations of information they find in texts. In both cases, students' writing presents evidence that they draw directly from texts. These writing skills are key to the research process, which requires students to use texts to find answers to questions and to investigate topics. The Common Core emphasizes research skills across the ELA/literacy standards, specifying that teachers ask students to conduct both brief and sustained research and that teachers weave research requirements into many different classroom contexts. The Common Core's reading standards also support writing about texts and conducting research by asking students to compare and integrate information from diverse sources. Teachers who implement the Common Core standards will likely need to increase the number of writing activities based on reading and listening activities and decrease their use of writing activities in which students respond to a prompt by drawing only on prior knowledge or experiences.

How the Standards Are Organized

The Common Core English language arts and literacy standards present content within a highly organized structure. Content is organized first by strands and then grouped under more specific headings. The standards themselves provide the most detailed level of content description: statements of student knowledge and skills for particular grades. In elementary school, there are standards for each grade, from kindergarten through 5th grade. Each grade-level set of content standards can be traced back to the Common Core's foundation: the set of College and Career Readiness Anchor (CCRA) standards 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/literacy 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 knowledge and skills that cross all the strands. Grammar, for example, is applicable to both writing and speaking activities, and vocabulary is an important element of reading, writing, speaking, and listening. The strands in the Common Core 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/literacy strands, although it is most emphasized in the Speaking and Listening strand.

The Reading strand is further divided into three subsections, known as domains: Reading Literature, Reading Informational Text, and Reading Foundational Skills. The standards in the first two domains are parallel, addressing the same basic reading skills but describing them in ways specific to reading fiction versus reading nonfiction. The Foundational Skills domain addresses content related to early reading, including decoding and fluency.

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

  • Reading Literature (RL)
  • Reading Informational Text (RI)
  • Reading Foundational Skills (RF)
  • 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 third standard in the Writing strand can be referred to as "Writing Standard 3" or, using the full, formal "dot notation," as "CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.3." To speak specifically of a standard for a particular grade level, the grade designation is inserted between the strand letter and standard number: "CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.4.3," for example, is Writing Standard 3 for grade 4. In this guide, we use an abbreviated form of the CCSSI identification system, dropping the common prefix and using strand and standard number only (e.g., W.3) in our general discussion. We have included the grade-level indicators in figures that present or refer to standards at various grade levels and in the sample lessons.


Within each strand, a set of two or more topic headings provide 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 within the Reading strand signals that the standards beneath 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 that grade. 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 3rd grade, 4th grade, and 5th grade versions of the same anchor standard within the Reading strand's Reading Literature domain.

Figure 1.1. Upper Elementary Grade-Specific Versions of a CCRA Standard


Grade 3

Grade 4

Grade 5

RL.3 Analyze how and why individuals, events, and ideas develop and interact over the course of a text.

RL.3.3 Describe characters in a story (e.g., their traits, motivations, or feelings) and explain how their actions contribute to the sequence of events.

RL.4.3 Describe in depth a character, setting, or event in a story or drama, drawing on specific details in the text (e.g., a character's thoughts, words, or actions).

RL.5.3 Compare and contrast two or more characters, settings, or events in a story or drama, drawing on specific details in the text (e.g., how characters interact).

The use of anchor standards provides 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 specific skills develop. Additional resources have also been developed to help teachers understand the precursor and postcursor skills for the Common Core standards at specific grade levels. The National Center for the Improvement of Educational Assessment has identified research-based learning progressions for use with the Common Core (Hess, 2011), and the Center on Instruction at RMC Research Corporation has identified learning progressions for the standards within the Reading Foundational Skills domain (Kosanovich & Verhagen, 2012). In contrast to the rest of the Common Core standards for ELA/literacy, those within the Foundational Skills domain are not directly associated with anchor standards.

Connections Across Content Areas

It is important to note that although standards for literacy in history/social studies, science, and technical subjects are described separately in the Common Core standards for grades 6–12, they are fully integrated into the standards for grades K–5. The standards for reading, writing, speaking and listening, and language should be applied across the curriculum in elementary classrooms. For example, students will be expected to use skills articulated in reading standards when reading history texts and skills addressed in writing and speaking and listening standards when reporting the results of science experiments. In this way, the Common Core ELA/literacy standards work in conjunction with other subject-area standards and provide a foundation for a broad spectrum of student learning.

Appendices to the ELA/Literacy Standards

In addition to the standards themselves, the Common Core standards document for ELA/literacy 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 in this appendix, as are various aspects of the Language strand, including vocabulary.

Appendix B (CCSSI, 2010e) supports teachers' efforts to determine appropriate levels of text complexity by excerpting portions of particular texts that illustrate the level of complexity required of students within each grade band. The Common Core standards for elementary school include two text complexity bands: grades 2–3 and grades 4–5. Short performance tasks accompany the exemplar texts and indicate the types of activities and student performances that support specific reading standards.

The standards document's 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 clarify how the sample meets the requirements of the grade-level standards.


Our intention in Part I of this guide is to provide a sense of the meaning of each ELA/literacy standard for grades 3–5 and explain how the standards are related to each other across both grade levels and strands. Readers should be aware that what we present are examples of such connections; 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/literacy standards, we will examine each strand in turn.


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