At Home With Common Core

Testing vs Text

The Common Core State Standards Initiative, more commonly called “The Common Core,” has ignited a national conversation about educational standards in the United States. After several years of development, a final version of the Common Core State Standards for English language arts/literacy and mathematics has been adopted by more than 40 states and implementation has begun across the country.

The work of training local educators and administrators to align their teaching methods to the new standards and tests has proved difficult, however. Several states have delayed implementation of the standards, and national leaders have voiced concerns about the best ways to support the major shifts required by this new initiative.

A new appendix of the CCSS contains a review of research stressing the importance of students being able to read complex text for success in college and career. The research shows that while the complexity of reading demands for college, career, and citizenship have held steady or risen over the past half century, the complexity of texts students are exposed to has steadily decreased in that same interval.

In order to address this gap, the CCSS is emphasizing that educators increase the complexity of texts students read to improve reading comprehension. According to the “Dummies” web site, the Common Core for Dummies states that the Appendix additions include the following:

  • Appendix A focuses on text complexity and the research behind the standards. This section includes more information on how to evaluate a text’s complexity and whether it’s appropriate for a child. Appendix A also reviews some of the research behind the standards and their use.

  • Appendix B contains examples of appropriate texts for each grade level and samples of student tasks. This appendix has ideas on texts that are representative of the desired complexity for each grade level with recommendations for literature, history, science, and other subjects. Another helpful aspect of this appendix is the inclusion of sample tasks that outline what a child will be asked to do with the material.

  • Appendix C includes samples of student writing aligned to the literacy standards. In this section there are actual examples of student work with feedback on how well each piece of writing aligns to the expectations of the standards. These examples are particularly helpful in assessing a child’s performance and progress.

Whether you’re a parent, teacher, administrator or education activist, the key to an informed stance on Common Core is to learn as much as you can about the initiative’s origins, as well as the varying sides of the debate.

Learn more HERE.

And, as always, there is plenty you can do to support your child’s growth in literacy, by participating in exercises at home.


Common Core Not New

With the introduction of Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in literacy, it’s easy to think that text complexity is a new way to look at text. But this is not the case. It has been around for almost a century as part of readability formulas by governmental and educational agencies. It’s just that text levels weren’t explicitly identified. Statements were made that “students should recognize figurative language in a grade-level text” but grade level was never specified. The situation has changed with the CCSS. An entire standard is devoted to increases in students’ ability to read complex text over the school years to the point of college and career readiness.

It should be noted that there are no clear paths for how this standard translates into classroom instruction. Compounding the issue is the text itself. Many teachers purchase books to read aloud or for special units but textbook purchases usually occur at the school or even district and state levels.

There are also many questions about assumptions of the CCSS’s construct of text complexity such as how far texts can be stretched before students’ comprehension breaks down. Until researchers answer such questions and until educators and publishers determine how text complexity will be measured, most teachers will incorporate the texts they have and use their knowledge and experience to make those determinations.

Home educators looking to incorporate Core Knowledge standards at home can follow some basic steps:


1. Focus on Knowledge

The biggest reason why reading is so important is that texts are where human beings obtain and record knowledge. Typically, the informational texts of content areas—biology, chemistry, physics, economics, geography mathematics, even the arts (e.g., music, art history)—are the ones that come to mind when we think of knowledge. It is true that these content areas are laden with new concepts and knowledge important to students. These content areas are recognized in the CCSS as critical. However, strengthening the knowledge of students also means helping them gain knowledge within literature. The central themes included in the humanities (philosophy, literary theory) and certain social sciences (history, psychology, anthropology) deal with the human condition. Reading about and analyzing relations among human beings and the relationship between the individual and society and nature is critical. The purpose of literature is to convey themes about the human experience—themes of survival, courage, family ties, or the joys and perils of growing up can be paramount to preparing young people for learning, and their own future.

The first action is to bring the themes of literature, even in the primary grades, to the foreground. Here are content maps that illustrate how narrative texts might be read-aloud to second graders, or how instructional and independent events can be incorporated for third graders in ways that help them relate to the themes of community connection and relationships. 

 As a community based organization committed to providing more equitable education and enrichment opportunities for underserved students, Operation Exodus believes it’s a social injustice. 

We must strengthen our resolve to not lower, but to raise our expectations and support. 


2. Create Connections

For knowledge to be useful, new ideas and information need to be connected to existing knowledge. The integrated view of the language arts in the CCSS recognizes this need to reflect, share, and use knowledge.

The acronym KNOWS can be used to support the creation of connections.  Knowledge of the text at hand can be assessed with simple comments or questions to the student about the text. New knowledge—is what will give students a purpose and focus for reading the text.  Anticipatory information regarding the role of speeches to inspire (e.g., Churchill’s speech) can contribute to students’ sense of why and what they are reading. Organizing comes when we encourage students to write a response or make a concept map after reading a text. In a world with massive amounts of knowledge, learning to organize knowledge is one of the most enduring strategies of lifelong learning. Connections to additional sources for learning widen students’ webs of knowledge. For example, directing readers to the two other speeches that Churchill made that helped turn the tide of public sentiment in Britain illustrates how teachers can help students widen their web of knowledge. Finally, we can give students occasions to share what they have learned which empowers them to demonstrate retention and help them claim ownership of their knowledge.

Students need the chance to delve into topics. They also need some choice in what they read. These choices, researchers have shown, do not have to be great. Even getting to choose between two books can go a long way in increasing students’ engagement in reading. Teachers can do a great deal to engage students’ passion and interest in reading by giving them the chance to read widely and deeply.


3. Activate Their Passion!

Most American students can read, but many don’t like to read. This finding is sobering—and sad. In the 21st century, the world of knowledge represented by books is open to individuals as never before. According to researchers, an explanation for American students’ disinterest in reading may stem from the fact that much of their school days are spent reading assigned texts. Further, reading events are often short with few connections from one event to another. Students need the chance to delve into topics of interest, and have some choice in what they read. Teachers can do a great deal to engage students’ passion and interest in reading by giving them the chance to read widely and deeply.The educator’s equivalent to location, location, location,’ is motivation, motivation, motivation.’* Motivation is probably the most significant factor educators can target in order to improve learning, but without texts that interest them, it can be an uphill climb get a student reading with complexity.


4. Build A Wall…of Words

About 90% of the words in texts come from a small percentage of the words in English—about 4,000 word families (e.g., help, helped, helps, helping, helper). The other 10% of the words that make texts unique from a group of at least 300,000 words. The words in the 10% are different for narrative and informational texts. The unique words in narratives usually come from networks of words that students already know. Fourth-graders may not know the words exasperated or irate but they know mad. The unique words of informational texts—convectionradiationinflation rate—often represent new concepts for students and are understood through inquiry, discussion, demonstration, reading, and writing extensively.

You can find the unique words to teach in content areas—they are usually clearly called out in glossaries and curriculum guides. There is more ambiguity in the words of narrative texts, which is where most vocabulary instruction in the elementary grades occurs. One author will use the word incensed and then enraged, while another author uses furiousriled, and up in arms. Students know the underlying ideas; they simply do not know the specific words.

It is the vocabulary instruction of the unique words of narratives that requires more direction, if students are to be prepared to read complex texts. While certainly all 300,000+ words can’t be taught, students can be aided in understanding the kinds of words they can expect in narrative texts. Word Reminder forms, or charts for “everyday words” are just a few of the tools educators use. 

Learn more about more steps you can take to help students tackle more complex texts HERE. 


*Diane Walker, “The Art and Craft of Motivating Students.”

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