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Common Core Language Standards

As an author of both a spelling series and a grammar and mechanics curriculum, I am constantly deluged with questions regarding the language strand of the new Common Core State Standards. Teachers are naturally concerned with such a monumental change away from district and state standards to national standards. And don’t let ‘em fool you: These are national standards with minimal variations from state to state. Irrespective of how the standards came about (the Common Core State Standards Initiative folk are adamant that this was a state-driven effort), the current status as of this writing is that 43 of the states have adopted this national set of standards.

Here are the questions teachers are asking about the language strand of the Common Core State Standards. I’ll answer with specific reference to the document itself and then follow with a quick analysis.

  • Teachers know the standards dictate what they are to teach, but teachers also want to know if the standards dictate how they are to teach.
  • Teachers want to know the philosophical stance with respect to these conventions of language, for example how grammatical instruction is linked to writing instruction.
  • Teachers have heard that the Common Core dumbs-down the standards from Massachusetts and California, but significantly increases expectations for the rest of the states, and so they ask just how rigorous are the language standards.
  • Some past state standards have been intentionally vague; others have been much more detailed. Teachers want to know how general or specific the language standards get.
  • Teachers want to know about the pacing of the K-12 instructional scope and sequence: what new stuff to they have to teach?
  • Teachers want to know what’s de-emphasized in the language standards: what stuff do they not have to teach?
  • How much, if any, review is built into the language strand?

Teachers want to know if the standards dictate how they are to teach.

“The Standards are not a curriculum. They are a clear set of shared goals and expectations for what knowledge and skills will help our students succeed. Local teachers, principals, superintendents and others will decide how the standards are to be met. Teachers will continue to devise lesson plans and tailor instruction to the individual needs of the students in their classrooms.” http://www.corestandards.org

To me, the most interesting sentence above is “Teachers will continue to devise lesson plans and tailor instruction to the individual needs of the students in their classrooms.” A tacit acknowledgement that the teacher needs to have the autonomy to differentiate instruction according to needs of her students.

Teachers want to know how want to know how grammatical instruction is linked to writing instruction.

“To build a foundation for college and career readiness in language, students must gain control over many conventions of standard English grammar, usage, and mechanics as well as learn other ways to use language to convey meaning effectively… The inclusion of Language standards in their own strand should not be taken as an indication that skills related to conventions, effective language use, and vocabulary are unimportant to reading, writing, speaking, and listening; indeed, they are inseparable from such contexts.” http://www.corestandards.org

I find a nice balance between focusing on the correctness of usage and application to writing. The standards go out of their way to assert that grammar, mechanics, and spelling are best taught within the context of reading, writing, speaking, and listening. However, it is noteworthy that language does have its own strand, apart from writing and the standards do emphasize the necessity of mastering “standard English grammar, usage, and mechanics…”

Examples of Language Standards Emphasizing Correctness

  • Ensure that pronouns are in the proper case (subjective, objective, possessive). L.6.1.
  • Recognize and correct inappropriate shifts in verb voice and mood. L.8.1.

Examples of Language Standards Emphasizing Application to Writing

  • Vary sentence patterns for meaning, reader/listener interest, and style. L.6.3.
  • Maintain consistency in style and tone. L.6.3.

Teachers ask just how rigorous are the language standards.

Examples of Language Standards Emphasizing Rigor

  • Produce and expand complete simple and compound declarative, interrogative, imperative, and exclamatory sentences in response to prompts. L.1.1
  • Form and use comparative and superlative adjectives and adverbs, and choose between them depending on what is to be modified. L.3.1.

Examples of Language Standards De-emphasizing Rigor

  • Explain the function of phrases and clauses in general and their function in specific sentences. L7.1 (Clauses are not introduced until seventh grade.)
  • Explain the function of verbals (gerunds, participles, infinitives) in general and their function in particular sentences. L8.1 (Verbals are not introduced until eighth grade.)
  • Parallel structures are not introduced until ninth grade.

Clearly the levels of rigor are hit and miss.

Teachers want to know how general or specific the language standards get.

Examples of Vague or General Language Standards

  • Spell correctly L.6.2-L.12.2.
  • Use correct capitalization. L.4.2.

Examples of Specific or Detailed Language Standards

  • Use a comma to separate coordinate adjectives (e.g., It was a fascinating, enjoyable movie but not He wore an old[,] green shirt). L.7.2.
  • Form and use verbs in the indicative, imperative, interrogative, conditional, and subjunctive mood. L.5.2.

Teachers want to know about the pacing of the K-12 instructional scope and sequence.

The http://www.corestandards.org site lays out the language strands by elementary and secondary groupings of both bullet points and scope and sequence charts.

Without getting lost in the specificity, the language strand clearly places the largest burden of grammar, mechanics, and spelling instruction on primary (first, second, and third) grade teachers. At the macro level (after deleting the vocabulary components from the language strand): first, second, and third has three pages of language standards; fourth and fifth has one page; sixth, seventh, and eighth has one page; and ninth, tenth, eleventh, and twelfth has only half of a page.

Teachers want to know what’s de-emphasized in the language standards

Most notably, spelling gets short shrift in the Common Core State Standards language strand.

After third grade, here are the spelling standards:

  • Spell grade-appropriate words correctly, consulting references as needed. L.4.2. and L.5.2.
  • Spell correctly L.6.2.-L.12.2

It’s great to know that all American school children will require no spelling standards after third grade. Just wave the magic wand, I guess.

How much, if any, review is built into the language strand?

The following skills, marked with an asterisk (*)  are particularly likely to require continued attention in higher grades as they are applied to increasingly sophisticated writing and speaking.

A considerable number of skills are marked with the asterisks throughout the K-12 language strand. To me, this indicates a basic acknowledgement of the cyclical nature of grammar instruction and the necessity for review and differentiated instruction in grammar, mechanics, and spelling.

The author of this article, Mark Pennington, has written the assessment-based Grammar, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary  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  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  program.


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