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Common Core Content Area Reading and Writing

Nothing in the new Common Core State Standards (CCSS) has worried English-language arts teachers more than “The Great Shift.” This shift changes the emphasis of reading and writing in K-12 English-language arts (ELA) classrooms from the literature and narrative to the informational (to explain) and argumentative (to persuade) genres.

A response to one of my recent posts reflects this worry:

“…taking away (or throwing it into the ‘narrative’ category) creative writing is going to kill creativity in our country. I wish they would realize that creative writing goes hand-in-hand with critical-thinking and problem-solving… I went to a workshop this spring in which one of the writers of the CC standards said MOST of the non-fiction reading/writing would come in the history and science classes… But they do not make that clear enough in the standards. If that is what they want, then they need to speak up soon before ELS teachers stop teaching literature all together! (And if that is the case, I will be getting out of teaching).”

So, what’s all the fuss?

Common Core Content Area Reading

Citing the Distribution of Literary and Informational Passages by Grade in the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress NAEP framework, the introductory pages of the Common Core State Standards call for the following distributions of text: 50% literary/50% information (4th grade); 45% literary/55% information (8th grade); 30% literary/70% information (12th grade).

Secondary ELA teachers are quick to point to the CCSS reading footnote:

2 As with reading, the percentages in the table reflect the sum of student writing, not just writing in ELA settings.

Common Core Content Area Writing

Similarly, the CCSS introduction follows the NAEP lead in the Distribution of Communicative Purposes by Grade in the 2011 NAEP Writing Framework, but with more explicit direction than with respect to the reading distribution.

“It follows that writing assessments aligned with the Standards should adhere to the distribution of writing purposes across grades outlined by NAEP.” (CCSS Introduction p. 5)

And “the Standards aim to align instruction with this framework.” (p. 5) So, what are these writing distributions? 30% to persuade/35% to explain/35% to convey experience (4th grade); 35% to persuade/35% to explain/30% to convey experience (8th grade); 40% to persuade/40% to explain/20% to convey experience (12th grade).

Again, secondary English teachers are quick to point to the CCSS writing footnote, which is more explicit than the reading footnote and provides a useful example:

1 The percentages on the table reflect the sum of student reading, not just reading in ELA settings. Teachers of senior English classes, for example, are not required to devote 70 percent of reading to informational texts. Rather, 70 percent of student reading across the grade should be informational.

It should be noted that “The Great Shift” actually introduces a greater curricular change for elementary teachers. In response to the guidelines of the National Reading Panel, most elementary teachers spend 90-120 minutes daily in reading instruction (primarily literature), while reductively integrating writing, social studies, and science instruction. There is just so much time in the day. But, elementary teachers can adjust reading and writing assignments to reflect this shift more easily than their secondary colleagues.

Indeed, the challenges for secondary teachers to conform to the change in emphasis in the CCSS standards will be many. And since “The Great Shift” has been introduced in the ELA standards of the CCSS, the initiative of how to respond has been clearly dumped in the lap of English teachers. If follows that if the strategic goals of ELA teachers will be to spread the wealth (pain) of the CCSS mandates to include other content area teachers, a discussion of tactical options will be advisable.

Tactics for Developing Common Core Reading and Writing

  • It’s time to discuss curriculum with history/social studies and science colleagues. Let’s add on visual and performing arts friends as well.
  • Recognize and validate the fact that content area colleagues have full curricular plates already and reading/writing add-ons will not be universally welcomed.
  • Make the Common Core State Standards the “bad guys,” not ELA teachers.
  • Recognize the expertise of content area colleagues. They are probably better informational (to explain) readers than are ELA teachers. Writing may or may not be a different matter.
  • Make peace with excerpts, articles, abstracts, abridged versions, editorials, etc. Non-fiction does not have to come in 300 plus page volumes. Content area teachers will be willing to compromise and add small bites throughout their curriculum.
  • Cherished class novels may have to go.
  • Be willing to give up pet instructional language and adopt universal language of reading and writing instruction across the curricular areas.
  • Be willing to relinquish control. What if history/social studies teachers handled the bulk of persuasive writing? What if science teachers handled the bulk of informational/explanatory writing? Would the world end?
  • Consider a humanities-based, interdisciplinary approach. We are simply too comfortable in our content area castles.
  • Support staff development and include outside “experts.” Yes, “a prophet is without honor in his own country.”
  • Support; don’t criticize. Baby steps are important here. It’s preachy, but needs to be said.

I welcome additional tactics.

The author of this article, Mark Pennington, has written the assessment-based Grammar, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) Grades 4-8 programs to teach the Common Core Language Standards. Each full-year program provides 56 interactive grammar, usage, and mechanics and include sentence diagrams, error analysis, mentor texts, writing applications, and sentence dictation formative assessments with accompanying worksheets (L.1, 2). Plus, each grade-level program has weekly spelling pattern tests and accompanying spelling sort worksheets (L.2), 56 language application opener worksheets (L.3), and 56 vocabulary worksheets with multiple-meaning words, Greek and Latin word parts, figures of speech, word relationships with context clue practice, connotations, and four square academic language practice (L.4, 5, and 6). Comprehensive biweekly unit tests measure recognition, understanding, and application of all language components.

Grammar, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) also has the resources to meet the needs of diverse learners. Diagnostic grammar, usage, mechanics, and spelling assessments provide the data to enable teachers to individualize instruction with targeted worksheets. Each remedial worksheet (over 200 per program) includes independent practice and a brief formative assessment. Students CATCH Up on previous unmastered Standards while they KEEP UP with current grade-level Standards. Check out the YouTube introductory video of the Grammar, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) program.

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The Dos and Don’ts of Differentiated Instruction

With the Response to Intervention (RTI) model now being incorporated into many school districts today, it has become increasingly important to help frame the differentiated instruction (DI) discussion in an objective manner that won’t promote narrow agendas and will encourage teachers to experiment with DI in their own classrooms. Before I offer some tips on the dos and don’ts of differentiated instruction, it makes sense to address the key reasons that some teachers resist this educational approach.

Why Some Teachers Resist Differentiated Instruction

1. Some teachers resist implementing DI because they wrongly perceive that managing diverse instructional strategies and on-going assessments would necessitate a veteran superstar teacher with no life outside of the classroom. Some teachers believe that DI requires too much preparation, assessment, correction, and record-keeping. These may have been truisms years ago, but clever teachers have since developed effective short-cuts to planning, assessment, and paper work. DI need not be a cause of teacher “burn-out” and teachers of all ability and experience levels can begin differentiated instruction with proper training and support. Furthermore, DI is not an “all or nothing” proposition, as some would lead us to believe. Most teachers layer in different aspects of DI over time.

2. The increasing emphasis on rigorous standards-based instruction and teaching to high-stakes tests have clearly prevented some teachers from implementing DI. In today’s educational climate, teachers do not want to be accused of “dumbing-down” instruction. However, DI can provide better access to those rigorous standards and greater success on those high-stakes tests, if done right. Differentiated instruction adjusts the focus from teaching to learning. Teachers can help students “catch up” through scaffolded instruction, while the students concurrently “keep up” with rigorous grade-level instruction.

3. Some teachers resist implementing differentiated instruction by attempting to create  homogeneous classes. Early-late reading and math instruction in the elementary grades and tracked ability classes in the secondary schools are designed to provide qualitatively different instruction for different student levels. However, analyzing the data of any subject-specific diagnostic assessment will indicate that students have a wide variety of relative strengths and weaknesses in any subject and that “different student levels” is an arbitrary and unworkable concept. Even within highly-tracked programs, DI is absolutely necessary because each student is unique with different skill sets and learning needs.

*For the complete article on Why Teachers Resist Differentiated Instruction, check out this link.

The Whats of Differentiated Instruction

Don’ts

1. Don’t Trust the Standardized Test Data. The results of standardized tests provide “macro” data that can assess program quality or level of student achievement relative to the composite scores of other students. The data cannot pinpoint the “micro” data of student strengths and weaknesses in the skills and content that teachers need to assess. Even standards-based assessments provide only generic data, not the “nuts and bolts” discreet skills analyses that can effectively inform instruction.

2. Don’t Trust Your Colleagues. Teaching is an independent practice. No matter how many years we have eaten lunch with our teacher peers, no matter how many conferences, department or grade-level meetings we have attended together, no matter how many of the same teaching resources we share, and no matter how specific our scope and sequences of instruction align, we cannot assume that the students of our colleagues have mastered the skills that we need to build upon.

3. Don’t Trust Yourself. Making instructional decisions based upon “what the students know and what they don’t know” requires objective data to inform our judgments. There are just too many variables to trust even the best teacher intuition: family situations, language, culture, school experience, just to name a few. If we are honest, even veteran teachers are frequently fooled by sophisticated student coping mechanisms and cultural stereotypes.

Dos

1. Use relevant and specific diagnostic assessments. Eliminate the trust factor with good diagnosis. Record and analyze the student data to inform direct and differentiated instruction, including what skills and concepts need to be taught, how much time needs to be spent upon instruction, who needs intensive instruction and who needs only review, and who has already mastered the skill or concept. Use whole-class, multiple-choice assessments whenever possible, to minimize assessment and grading times.

2. Develop quick and frequent formative assessments to gauge student mastery of your teaching objectives. Use the data to inform and adapt your instruction accordingly. Learning is the heart and soul of DI, not teaching.

3. Establish and use a collaborative model to determine the whats of instruction. Include students, parents, and teaching colleagues in data analysis. Collaboration is essential to successful implementation of DI and RTI.

The Hows of Differentiated Instruction

Don’ts

1. Just because DI is student-centered, don’t go overboard on adjusting the how of instruction to correspond to student learning preferences. Learning styles, multi-sensory instruction, and multiple intelligences are long-standing educational constructs, but are based upon minimal research. Learning preference inventories do not provide reliable diagnostics about how to differentiate instruction. For example, auditory and visual processing deficits can be diagnosed, but no research has yet demonstrated which instructional strategies work best for these learners.

2. Don’t devolve all decision-making to student choice regarding how they choose to learn. Students don’t know what they don’t know. To devolve the how of instruction to student choice is to abrogate our responsibilities as informed and objective decision-makers. Do we really want to entrust the how of instruction to an eight-year old student and agree that Johnny knows best how to learn his multiplication tables? Do we really want to allow middle schoolers to choose whether they can listen to their iPods® while they silently read their social studies textbooks?

3. Don’t allow the hows of learning to destroy class management or time-on-task instructional efficiency. We should always perform a cost-benefit analysis on how we differentiate instruction. Good teachers weigh the needs of the class and the needs of the individual students, and then make decisions accordingly. Sometimes the optimal instructional methodology needs to be ditched and substituted with another because the students or teacher just can’t handle learning or teaching that way that day.

Dos

1. Consider the needs and differences of the learners. We never want to limit students to our own imaginations. Students do have important insights into their own learning that we need to consider. Teaching students to monitor and experiment with how they learn best is invaluable to their development as life-long learners. This kind of self-reflection can be promoted by teaching metacognitive strategies, such as self-questioning during independent reading or self-assessment on an analytical writing rubric.

2. Model different ways to learn skills and concepts. For example, in composition, some students prefer to draft first and revise thereafter; others prefer to integrate the drafting and revision process. Wouldn’t a teacher-led “think-aloud” that models these two composition processes make sense? Students learn which option or combination thereof works best for them through teacher direction, not from a sink or swim, work-it-out-yourself, trial and error process.

3. Use a variety of instructional methodologies. Effective DI instruction adapts to the needs of the learners. For some skills or concepts, DI involves direct, explicit instruction to pre-teach or re-teach concepts. For others, DI is best accomplished in heterogeneous cooperative groups or homogeneous ability groups. For still others, DI requires individualized instruction, via targeted worksheets and one-on-one review.

At its core, DI is simply good, sound teaching. Some proponents seem to intimate that DI is the ultimate educational panacea. However, no educational approach absolutely ensures student success. Unfortunately, it is all too often the case that you “can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” Some students exposed to the best DI will continue to fail. But, directly addressing the individual learning needs of our students, rather than teaching a class as though all individuals in it were basically alike, offers our best chance of success for all.

The writer of this article, Mark Pennington, is an educational author of assessment-based teaching resources in the fields of reading and English-language arts. His comprehensive curricula help teachers differentiate instruction with little additional teacher prep and/or specialized training. Check out the following programs designed to teach both grade-level Standards and help students master those Standards not yet mastered. For the finest in assessment-based instruction…

Grammar, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) Grades 4-8 programs to teach the Common Core Language Standards. Each full-year program provides 56 interactive grammar, usage, and mechanics lessons. (Check out a seventh grade teacher teaching the direct instruction and practice components of these lessons on YouTube.) The complete lessons also include sentence diagrams, error analysis, mentor texts, writing applications, and sentence dictation formative assessments with accompanying worksheets (L.1, 2). Plus, each grade-level program has weekly spelling pattern tests and accompanying spelling sort worksheets (L.2), 56 language application opener worksheets (L.3), and 56 vocabulary worksheets with multiple-meaning words, Greek and Latin word parts, figures of speech, word relationships with context clue practice, connotations, and four square academic language practice (L.4, 5, and 6). Comprehensive biweekly unit tests measure recognition, understanding, and application of all language components.

Grammar, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) also has the resources to meet the needs of diverse learners. Diagnostic grammar, usage, mechanics, and spelling assessments provide the data to enable teachers to individualize instruction with targeted worksheets. Each remedial worksheet (over 200 per program) includes independent practice and a brief formative assessment. Students CATCH Up on previous unmastered Standards while they KEEP UP with current grade-level Standards. Check out PREVIEW THE TEACHER’S GUIDE AND STUDENT WORKBOOK  to see samples of these comprehensive instructional components. Check out the entire instructional scope and sequence, aligned to the Grades 4-8 Common Core Standards.

Pennington Publishing's Grammar, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand)

Grammar, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand)
Grades 4-8 Programs

The author also provides these curricular “slices” of the Grammar, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) “pie”: the five Common Core Vocabulary Toolkits Grades 4−8; the five Differentiated Spelling Instruction Grades 4−8 programs (digital formats only); and the non-grade-leveled Teaching Grammar and Mechanics with engaging grammar cartoons (available in print and digital formats).

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Teach Content Reading

As a reading specialist, I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to coach elementary teachers in reading instruction and teach remedial reading at the middle school, high school, and community college levels. From this perspective, I’ve come to the conclusion that we teach too much reading at the elementary school level. Probably not the most popular position among my fellow reading specialists and literacy coaches, I know. But let me state my case and see if some of my colleagues would agree.

I currently teach seventh-grade English-language arts and an occasional reading intervention class in a large school district, outside of Sacramento, California. While serving in a prior position as a district reading specialist some twelve years ago, our district adopted Open Court® as our elementary K-6 reading program. Our district went “whole hog” after this program and we have achieved remarkable results in improving our elementary reading test scores. However, as has frequently been the case in the history of educational reform, initial success has its drawbacks.

As a reading specialist, we helped teachers implement a two-hour morning reading block with additional time, usually in the afternoons, for reading remediation. With state-mandated P.E. time, one hour of math, recess, and a thirty-minute lunch, this left but a few minutes a day for social studies, science, art/music, etc. Not to mention writing.

As we implemented Open Court®, reading specialists, literacy coaches, elementary teachers and their administrators tried to maintain the integrity of both the reading and math programs, while still teaching state-mandated social studies and science standards. After all, school district success is measured by test scores in these areas. And test scores drive curricular and instructional decision-making. The key buzzwords became “incorporate social studies (or science or arts or writing) instruction” into the two-hour “literacy block.” Code words for “ignore these content areas.” Reading instruction became reductive.

I’ve found this to be even more the case with middle school and high school reading intervention programs. Typically, replacing an English-language arts class or an elective with a remedial reading course reduces the amount of content area reading instruction.

With the district’s shift in instructional priorities, middle school teachers began noticing significant declines in “content-readiness” in the areas of social studies, science, and English-language arts in their Open Court®-trained students. Ironically, the über-emphasis on reading (particularly in decoding and fluency development) has minimized student practice with the thinking processes and content prior knowledge so necessary for more advanced “reading to learn” skills at the secondary levels. The academic language of social studies and science expository texts are truly wake-up calls for in-coming seventh-graders. The resulting declines in middle school test scores probably have more to due with lack of elementary preparedness (as described above) and more-challenging expository-based middle school tests than a lack of middle school teaching expertise or the middle-school concrete operational “bubble” described by many cognitive psychologists.

The de-emphasis of elementary writing instruction has ill-prepared students for both reading and writing informative and argumentative text or essays at the secondary level. Writing instruction directly impacts reading comprehension. What better way to teach the reading skills of main idea, support details/evidence/interpretation, and text structure, than through writing instruction? What little writing instruction there is seems devoted to churning out the four or five “writing application standards” at each grade level. These are full-process pieces, requiring even fourth-graders to complete multi-paragraph essays. Results can be appalling. Students know the form, but can’t write in complete sentences. Essay strategy development is non-existent. Spelling, grammar, and mechanics instruction is relegated to a ten-minute D.O.L. (Daily Oral Language) opener or as last-minute test practice.

My solution is to allocate less direct instructional reading time at the elementary level and to minimize reduction of content area classes by requiring extensive, multi-year reading intervention programs for secondary students. Less is often better.  We need to trust our content area colleagues to teach reading. Let’s revive the every teacher, a teacher of reading mindset. Additionally, we need to develop more flexible delivery methods than those advocated, say in current Response to Intervention models. Many of these models are advocating two and one-half hours of direct reading instruction. Where will it end? Teachers have to make a basic commitment to differentiate instruction and receive extensive training to teach reading efficiently. Administrators and district leaders need to support more balanced instruction, irrespective of possible short-term test score dips to achieve long-term results. More time (and frequently more money) thrown at any subject of instruction, even  a subject as important as reading, simply isn’t the answer.

Following is a great content area reading resource to help unify reading instruction at your school.

FREE DOWNLOAD TO ASSESS THE QUALITY OF PENNINGTON PUBLISHING RESOURCES: The SCRIP (Summarize, Connect, Re-think, Interpret, and Predict) Comprehension Strategies includes class posters, five lessons to introduce the strategies, and the SCRIP Comprehension Bookmarks.

Get the SCRIP Comprehension Strategies FREE Resource:

Mark Pennington, MA Reading Specialist, is the author of the comprehensive reading intervention curriculum, Teaching Reading StrategiesDesigned to significantly increase the reading abilities of students ages eight through adult within one year, the curriculum is decidedly un-canned, is adaptable to various instructional settings, and is simple to use–a perfect choice for Response to Intervention tiered instruction. The program provides multiple-choice diagnostic reading and spelling assessments (many with audio files), phonemic awareness activities, blending and syllabication activitiesphonics workshops with formative assessments, 102 spelling pattern worksheets, comprehension worksheets, multi-level fluency passages recorded at three different reading speeds and accessed on YouTube, 644 reading, spelling, and vocabulary game cards, posters, activities, and games.

Also get the accompanying Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books. These 54 decodable eBooks (includes print-ready and digital display versions) have been designed for older readers with teenage cartoon characters and plots. Each book introduces focus sight words and phonics sound-spellings aligned to the instructional sequence found in Teaching Reading Strategies. Plus, each book has a 30-second word fluency to review previously learned sight words and sound-spelling patterns, five higher-level comprehension questions, and an easy-to-use running record. Your students will love these fun, heart-warming, and comical stories about the adventures of Sam and his friends: Tom, Kit, and Deb. Oh, and also that crazy dog, Pug.

Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books BUNDLE

Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books

Or why not get both programs as a discounted BUNDLE? Everything teachers need to teach an assessment-based reading intervention program for struggling readers is found in this comprehensive curriculum. Ideal for students reading two or more grade levels below current grade level, tiered response to intervention programs, ESL, ELL, ELD, and special education students. Simple directions, YouTube training videos, and well-crafted activities truly make this an almost no-prep curriculum. Works well as a half-year intensive program or full-year program.

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