ILLINOIS SCHOOL BOARD JOURNAL
Academic game changer...Common Core will shift reading across the board
by Stuart Yager, Carol Webb, Rene Noppe and Donna McCaw
Stuart Yager is an associate professor of educational leadership at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Carol Webb and Rene Noppe are assistant professors in educational leadership at WIU. Donna McCaw recently retired from WIU and currently works with the Common Core Institute.
After teachers and administrators are thoroughly familiar with the implementation demands of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), the next step is to identify which changes in instructional practices will be necessary in their buildings to take full advantage of the potential within the standards for improving student learning.
David Coleman, leading author and architect of the CCSS, has given educators advice for making the transition from the existing state standards to common core. He has identified six shifts in instruction that teachers must be willing to adjust if the new standards are to accomplish their purpose.
According to Coleman, these shifts are necessary because, on average, instruction in reading and writing has been inadequate over the past 40 years in secondary schools. Although some progress has been made in the primary grades, more students leave high school unprepared to successfully enter college or a career.
Achieve, an independent, bi-partisan, non-profit education reform organization founded following the 1996 National Education Summit, reported in 2005 that some 40 percent of high school graduates who responded to their survey said they felt unprepared for either employment or college, and as many as 80 percent wished they had taken a more rigorous high school program.
Since that report, some things have improved and high school graduation rates have risen. Achieve’s 2011 report, “Closing the Achievement Gap,” found that 20 states and the District of Columbia have established requirements that all high school graduates must complete a college- and career-ready curriculum. This includes at least mathematics through content typically taught in Algebra II (or its equivalent) and four years of grade-level English to earn a high school diploma.
Coleman reports colleges are overrun with under-prepared students who take remedial classes upon entering college under academic probationary status. The 2005 Achieve survey showed that college professors indicated two out of five college students were unprepared for collegiate work. Instructional shifts must be made now in public schools in order to be aligned with the common core and enable students to be college- or career-ready when they graduate from high school.
The necessary shifts
The first shift is to increase the emphasis on informational texts. Currently, students in elementary schools spend most of their time reading literary texts. This shift requires instruction to be balanced equally between literary and informational texts. By high school, students should be reading close to 80 percent non-fiction and 20 percent fiction. This represents a shift in secondary schools that is opposite of the current instructional focus.
The second shift is an emphasis onliteracy standards in all content areas. Years ago, educators began talking about “reading across the curriculum” as a method to increase reading comprehension of non-fiction texts. This shift means even more.
It challenges all teachers to take a lead role in teaching reading and writing in every subject area — especially social studies and science. The common core standards in English and language arts require that teachers in history, social studies, science and other technical subjects take a strong role in educating students to gain knowledge through reading and writing.
The ability to read complex primary and secondary sources of information is essential to students’ independent work both now and in the future. Their ability to draw knowledge from text is critical.
Practicing scientists spend half their time reading in addition to the actual experiments they conduct. This shift in instruction puts the burden of teaching reading and writing on all subjects, not just language arts.
Shift number three is to maintain an emphasis ontext complexity. The key for students to be college- and career-ready after high school is the level of text difficulty that they can master.
Right now, in most high schools, the level of text complexity is far beneath what is required for the first year of college. Text complexity is typically determined by sentence length and word difficulty.
While the complexity of college-level texts has not declined over the last 50 years (and in some cases actually increased), studies of high school text complexity show declines of up to four grade levels from textbook reading levels of the 1960s and ’70s.
In addition, college professors are much less likely to provide explanations of assigned readings and more likely to require students to attain basic concept knowledge independently. That’s the exact opposite of what occurs in many high school classrooms. The common core standards require a staircase of text complexity as students progress through school.
The fourth shift is structuring text-dependent questionsacross the curriculum. Most questions teachers ask students regarding a text selection do not require that they must read the text closely in order to provide a correct answer. This emphasis has enabled students to forego a close analysis of the text as part of their learning. The core activity of close reading is required in order for students to master the common core standards.
The fifth shift is to focus on evidence-based writing. Currently, the most common form of writing in schools today is narrative writing, which focuses on personal opinion or personal experience. At college or in a career, presenting a personal opinion is not emphasized. What matters most is the ability to argue based on verifiable evidence.
The ability to debate and advocate from a position of evidence is critical for college- and career-readiness. In the common core, the ability to provide evidence-based answers will be required of students at every grade level.
The sixth and final shift is to emphasize academic vocabulary. In most textbooks, subject-specific vocabulary is the highlighted focus, presented in a glossary or index as a list of literary terms or scientific terms necessary to learn specific content in a subject. The crucial vocabulary, however, is academic vocabulary — vocabulary used across content areas.
For example, “phenotype” is a biology term referring to all of the observable traits of an individual (cell or organism). Knowing what “phenotype” means would be necessary to understand specific units of biology and would be considered subject-specific vocabulary.
In contrast, “system” and “order” are words that have meaning in science, social studies, math, literature, visual art and music. It is imperative that students increase their ability to use academic vocabulary.
Teachers do this by placing less emphasis on subject-specific terms and increasing emphasis on vocabulary where nuance and flexibility of use matters. Building the use of academic vocabulary that typically surrounds subject-specific words in texts is embedded throughout the common core standards.
It is vital that these six shifts be made in instruction so students will be best ready for college and career at the completion of high school. Adoption and implementation of the Common Core State Standards will drive teachers to make these necessary shifts and ultimately ensure students are college- and career-ready.
School boards in-the-know about these shifts will be equipped to support teachers and administrators as they make the necessary changes in instruction for successful implementation of the common core standards.
Other parts in the series are:
Part I: May/June — Common Core 101
Part III: September/October — What to look for
Part IV: November/December — Eating the elephant
“Closing the Expectation Gap,” Achieve, 2011
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