There are three key shifts in the ELA Common Core Standards that influence how curriculum should be developed and instruction redefined. The first shift involves a focus on complex texts and academic language. The ELA standards refer to a “staircase of increasing complexity” by which students, as they move from grade to grade, learn strategies to derive meaning from all different types of reading materials–from myths and legends to historical documents. Students need to be able to comprehend more difficult materials as they progress through the grade levels. The goal is for them to be ready to read college-level material when they complete twelfth grade. Currently, many students are entering college without the ability to read college-level texts independently; many are also unable to read and understand information presented to them in the workplace because they lack the experience and skills to interact with new materials and concepts. To learn more about complex text, watch this short video from Dr. Timonthy Shanahan, Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
The second key shift in ELA requires that reading, writing, and speaking be grounded in evidence from text, both literary and informational. In the past, students may have been asked questions that could be answered based upon prior knowledge or experience. Now, teachers need to structure their questions so that the answers are dependent on information contained in whatever the students are reading. This type of questioning requires the students to closely read and analyze materials so that they can gain a deep understanding, and make inferences based on evidence.
In addition to impacting reading instruction, this shift also affects writing. The Common Core requires students to engage in all types of writing: narrative, argumentative, and informative. However, this writing should be evidence-based, just as discussions of readings should be. If a student is writing an argumentative piece on a topic, that argument must be based on facts, logically sequenced, and filled with appropriate details to inform or persuade. This type of writing is aligned with the expectations of college and the workplace.
To see this second shift in action, view this video from EngageNY, in which second graders analyze the similarities and differences between insects and spiders using two informational texts.
The third key shift in ELA involves building knowledge through content-rich non-fiction. Although students will still be reading works of fiction, they will now also be exposed to non-fiction works beginning in kindergarten. The Common Core asks students in K-5 to read a 50/50 balance of fiction and non-fiction so that they can gain a greater understanding of the world around them and learn how to use the different reading strategies required to navigate non-fiction. For instance, because the content of non-fiction may be unfamiliar or unknown, students will need to learn how to use tables of contents, glossaries, text headings, illustrations, and word boxes. When reading non-fiction, students also may need to slow down their rate of reading and reread information to fully understand it. These are important reading skills to develop throughout an academic career. In Grades 6-12, ELA teachers should focus on fiction, while content area teachers (such as social studies) will focus more on non-fiction. In these grades, content area teachers also take partial ownership for developing students’ literacy skills. This shared ownership for content area teachers is a new and essential part of the Common Core.