The Common Core standards for English Language Arts call for student-centered work in classrooms that build knowledge, develop writing skills, and produce confident and competent critical thinkers who are ready to take the next step toward college and careers. Within these Common Core standards are six fundamental shifts that all educators (not just English teachers!) need to understand.
The Common Core calls upon educators to enact these Six Fundamental Shifts in their curriculum design:
Balance literary and informational text (K-5): Beginning in the elementary grades, the Common Core calls for an equal balance (50%/50% split) between time spent on literary texts and time spent on informational text. This shift really isn’t about ensuring that students can read technical manuals by the time they graduate high school. It’s about building coherent and integrated knowledge within and across grades, beginning in students’ early years.
Build knowledge in the disciplines (6-12): Following on from the balance between literary and informational text in elementary grades, the Common Core pushes educators to shift that balance in middle and high school. By grade 8, middle school students should spend 55% of their time in school working with informational text. By the end of high school, students should spend 70% of their time working with informational text.
Again, the aim of this emphasis on informational text is not really about technical manuals or even scientific journals. The aim is to build students’ background knowledge and vocabulary, so they are able to read and comprehend the rich variety of text that they will be confronted with in their future schooling, their careers, and their daily lives.
It is critical to note that the 70% of students time in school working with informational text in high school includes the reading they are doing in history, science, the arts, and math, so English teachers should not despair. (Think about it…within a typical school day, students spend a significant amount of their time outside the English classroom.) Probably the best way to do this is to build school-level curriculum that reinforces big ideas across content areas.
Provide a staircase of complexity: This shift points to the Common Core’s emphasis on text complexity and ensuring that students are given the supports they need to work with grade-level appropriate texts…not just texts that are at their level. The staircase metaphor is a reminder that students should work with texts that become increasingly more complex as they move through school. This is probably the biggest game-changer embedded in the Common Core, as it exposes one of the larger gaps between current practice and the kinds of instruction it will take to bring the Common Core to life. This staircase of complexity and emphasis on grade-level appropriate texts will force teachers and schools to rethink sole reliance on leveled reading instruction.
Insist on text-based answers: This shift is about developing students’ ability to use and interpret text evidence. This shift calls for classroom instruction that is focused on a common text, that engages students in rigorous discussion that allows them to construct meaning from that text (rather than be told what it means), and that holds them accountable for backing up their reasoning and interpretations with evidence drawn from the text. This shift, too, exposes a pretty large gap in current practice, as, in many classrooms, a primary text may be present (e.g. the U.S. Constitution) but students may not actually read the text themselves and more often than not, they are simply told what it means.
Write from sources: Halleluiah! The Common Core reminds us that the majority of student writing should ask them to persuade and explain rather than convey experience. In the early grades, the Common Core asks for a balance between writing prompts to persuade, to explain and to convey experience, but by high school, the Common Core calls upon educators to construct learning experiences that ask students to persuade (40%) and explain (40%) much more often than to convey experience (20%). This shift pushes teachers to move away from often facile and de-contextualized writing prompts and to ensure that students can work with a common body of text-based evidence to support and develop their claims.
Build academic vocabulary: The Common Core acknowledges the immense power of words. Indeed, research indicates that giving students access to academic vocabulary produces dramatic increases in reading comprehension and builds students’ background knowledge, giving them access to increasingly complex text. Teachers need to make frequent and consistent use of common general academic vocabulary, ensuring that students know what it means to “generate a hypothesis” or “identify assumptions in two writers’ arguments” before they sit down to write an essay on a high-stakes test. This is a shift that calls for teachers of all subjects to consciously and consistently use academic vocabulary rather than simpler words to convey the same ideas.
Additionally, students need to gain access to the subtle distinctions between words that can only come through an awareness of not only denotation and synonyms, but also the connotative differences between apparent synonyms. This calls upon teachers to use the web of words around a given word to expand students’ vocabulary and understanding.