The Common Core State Standards will require instructional changes at all grade levels. Making these changes when funds are limited and aligned curriculum and training materials are scarce presents challenges to districts and schools. But there are concrete, practical, and specific actions that districts and schools can take immediately to get ready. In this article, we share strategies and resources related to English language arts and literacy standards.
The Standards as a Whole
The first action is to get familiar with what the standards say and how the requirements differ from your current standards and practices. Everyone needs to understand the shifts in practice that the English language arts (ELA) and literacy standards call for. These resources can be used schoolwide or districtwide for this purpose:
Text Complexity in Particular
Understanding the unique role of text complexity expressed in the anchor standards for reading (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.10) is essential to understanding the instructional shifts we need to make. Never before has text complexity itself been a standard. Below are starter resources to explore the topic of text complexity:
Academic vocabulary is made up of mostly abstract words that appear in a wide variety of texts. A solid academic vocabulary is essential not only to reading complex text successfully, but also to becoming proficient at writing, speaking, and listening.
Vocabulary is one of the two most important features in determining the difficulty of complex text (Nelson, Perfetti, Liben, & Liben, 2011). The other is syntax. Yet student vocabulary development continues to receive less systematic and intensive attention than other components of English language arts and literacy. These resources can help you increase the focus on vocabulary:
Andrew Biemiller's 2010 book Words Worth Teaching includes a CD listing words that proficient readers are likely to know by 3rd grade and by 6th grade and an explanation of how to teach vocabulary in the early grades through readalouds.
- Articles at Text Project address what words to teach and how to teach them.
- The Academic Word List lists academic words by word family.
- Every major education-related publisher has a word study program; we recommend looking at and adopting one of these ready-made programs to help students learn not only the meanings of words but also the parts of words.
- Dozens of websites offer word games, puzzles, riddles, and other fun activities that can be used along with word walls and "word of the day" activities to make words part of the culture of the school. Knoword, Learning Games for Kids, and ABC Teach are good places to start.
Despite the importance of syntax in understanding complex text (Nelson et al., 2011), teaching it has fallen out of fashion in the last few decades. Because syntax has not been an area of focus for a while, few resources are currently available, but the two that follow are both excellent:
- At the blog My Life Untranslated, an English as a second language teacher describes how she uses Lily Wong Fillmore's "juicy sentence" approach to help English language learners explore syntax. This same approach can be applied just as well to all students.
- Judith Hochman incorporates syntax into her writing program using the approach she describes in Teaching Basic Writing Skills.
While we wait for more resources to be developed, complex texts themselves provide the ideal medium for teaching syntax. In the texts used in class, teachers can find complex sentences and ask students to break them up into shorter sentences; shorter sentences can also be combined into longer ones. Younger students like to count the words in a sentence and then discuss why some sentences are longer and how the sentence they just word-counted is put together. Formal study of a foreign language also promotes understanding of syntax in both English and the second language.
Many students are not proficient readers because they lack fluency. Although fluency does not guarantee comprehension, lack of fluency pretty much guarantees that students will have comprehension and stamina problems that can persist into high school (Rasinski et al., 2005). But unlike the task of improving so many skills in education, improving fluency is a straightforward process. Students need to engage in repeated and purposeful reading of text and to listen to text being read well while they follow along actively in the text.
The Common Core State Standards make it more important than ever for schools to build fluency work into the early grades. Students who are fluent with current materials at their grade level may need support once they encounter the more complex text called for by the standards as a regular part of their schoolwork. And students who struggle now will need even more help. In the upper grades, schools need to assess and diagnose students to find those who are struggling because of poor fluency. Once students and teachers understand the problem, practice in purposeful reading and in listening to reading can lead to improved outcomes in a matter of weeks.
Another intervention for addressing fluency is to consistently ask students to reread sections of a text that contain syntax and vocabulary challenges or key information. The time and energy spent rereading is made more purposeful if students are collecting evidence for a discussion or assignment, an activity that also fulfills Anchor Standard 1 in reading.
Finally, form a literacy task force to evaluate your current reading program. Classroom teachers can use fluency assessments to determine which students need support in fluency, but be aware that some materials are not updated to use the kind of complex grade-level texts that the standards call for. To adjust for this change, find more complex texts, such as those listed in the Common Core standards for grades K–5 and grades 6–12.
These fluency resources might also be helpful:
- "Assessing Reading Fluency" by Timothy V. Rasinski discusses assessing fluency in terms of accuracy, automaticity, and prosody (phrasing and expression) and includes a number of free online resources.
- The Ohio Literary Alliance provides free resources for fluency in high school.
Reading aloud is a potent tool that needs to be taken seriously. For young students to build content knowledge, as required by the standards, they will need to hear texts read aloud because the texts they can read for themselves in early grades rarely contain as much content as books they can listen to and comprehend. To build students' content knowledge, teachers will need to read aloud many more informational texts. The standards call for a shift to 50 percent of elementary students' reading being made up of informational texts and 50 percent consisting of literary texts. Before students can read for themselves, teachers will need to provide this balance through what they choose to read aloud.
The basic rule of thumb is that teachers should not spend time reading to students what students can read for themselves. Just as the texts students can read themselves in the earliest grades cannot develop background knowledge, they do not offer enough depth or variety to be used for achieving the standards. Reading aloud rich complex text in K–2 develops academic language, background knowledge, and a love of literature. It enables all students to meet more rigorous reading standards and prepares students for the more complex text they will read in later grades.
There is not an abundance of resources that address reading aloud to meet Common Core standards, but there are lots of good reading lists and read-aloud supports available online. These articles on the Reading Rockets website all point at the robust research base for reading aloud a variety of texts to students and doing so in a mindful and deliberate way:
Appendix B of the ELA standards offers suggestions for text selections in the early grades. Teachers can also look two or three grades above their own for titles.
Amount and Type of Reading
Students need to read a lot to grow their vocabulary, develop stamina, increase background knowledge, and improve fluency. Students also need to read much more informational text. The standards follow the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) recommendations for informational text ratios: 50 percent in elementary school, 55 percent in middle school, and 70 percent in high school.
Teachers can help meet the informational text requirement by encouraging more nonfiction in their independent reading programs. They can provide newspapers, magazines, websites, and more informational text in full-length books. Boys especially will respond well to this infusion of nonfiction (Jones & Fiorelli, 2003). Similarly, teachers can begin to use more informational text in guided and shared reading, which traditionally has involved mostly narrative fiction.
Texts can be chosen to align with state social studies and science standards or to address topics that students find interesting. Social studies and science teachers can collaborate with English language arts teachers to increase reading across content areas. The Common Core standards explicitly address literacy in science and social studies, and publishers are now putting out series of informational texts that students can read in these classes. Many more informational texts are available online at sites like these:
- Text Project offers free, high quality, downloadable informational books for summer reading programs or independent use.
- Readworks has hundreds of informational texts with questions for each grade.
- Reading A-Z is an inexpensive program with a wide variety of informational texts for grades K–8.
Your public library or school media specialist will be able to provide information about how to find interesting articles online. Many districts subscribe to national databases to download articles. In many cases, these databases also include a complexity score by grade level.
Bringing It All Together
Several projects have made available resources that take into account multiple elements of the English language arts and literacy standards.
1. The Basal Alignment Project
In this ongoing cooperative effort among school districts, state education offices, the Council of the Great City Schools, and Student Achievement Partners, districts send interested educators to be trained in writing questions and tasks that require students to carefully examine written text. These teams return home and work together to revise the questions and culminating tasks in their current reading series so that they can use the existing materials in a manner that is aligned with the Common Core standards. The groups also identify the academic vocabulary and the syntax demands in the texts they work with.
The result is a growing collection of more than 100 revised sets of materials that can be used with seven of the major basal reading series. This resource gives districts and schools some breathing room until fully aligned instructional materials are available. These materials are available to anyone who wants to use them. Also available are training materials, templates, and protocols districts can use to align their own materials.
To access the materials, you will need an Edmodo account. Once you have an account, use the code etuyrm to gain membership in the Basal Alignment Project group.
2. The Core Task Project
Started in Reno, Nevada, in 2011, the Core Task Project is a grassroots project in which teachers of a shared grade level or subject come together for a half day of professional learning about the Common Core State Standards and the shifts in instruction. They then return to their classes and all teach the same lesson aligned to the standards. The teachers then gather again for a few hours to discuss what they and their students learned from the experience.
Links to videos, ongoing information about the Core Task Project, and other explanatory materials are located on the project's blog
3. America Achieves Sample Lessons
America Achieves has assembled a set of videos of educators teaching lessons aligned to the standards. Lesson plans and student work samples accompany each video. This collection will be expanded periodically. The resources are free, but users will need to go through a brief sign-up process to access them.
Get a Leg Up
Implementation of the standards would of course be easier if schools had more time, money, and high-quality professional development. Unfortunately, these ingredients are currently scarce. Yet when schools and districts encourage teachers to engage in thoughtful study, alone or together, and help them find free and low-cost resources to help, it is possible to get started with implementation right away. By starting to make these shifts and changes now, schools can get a leg up on meeting the standards.
Biemiller, A. (2010). Words worth teaching: Closing the vocabulary gap. Columbus, OH: McGraw Hill.
Jones, P., & Fiorelli, D. (2003). Overcoming the obstacle course: Teenage boys and reading. Teacher Librarian, 30(3), 9–13.
Nelson, J., Perfetti, C., Liben, D., & Liben, M. (2011). Measures of text difficulty: Testing their predictive value for grade levels and student performance. Technical report to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Seattle, WA.
Rasinski, T. V., Padak, N. D., McKeon, C. A., Wilfong, L. G., Friedauer, J. A., & Heim, P (2005). Is reading fluency a key for successful high school reading? Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 49(1), 22–27.
David Liben is senior literacy specialist and Meredith Liben is director of ELA and Literacy at Student Achievement Partners.
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