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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, Usage, 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, Usage, 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, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) program.

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