Cutting to the Common Core

As the introduction to a series of articles on how implementation of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) will affect teaching, Language Magazine presents a selection of expert advice

The mission of the Common Core State Standards is to “provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them.” Ultimately, the CCSS aim to create the framework for a well-rounded education that will prepare students for the global economy. To date, 45 states and the District of Columbia have signed on to adopt the CCSS. What sets the CCSS initiative apart from past educational initiatives?

Supporters of the CCSS emphasize the focus on developing students into 21st century learners rather than getting them to perform well on tests. The CCSS place special importance on literacy, including literacy in mathematics and science as well as computer literacy. Erica Russikoff of Teacher Created Resources explains: “Whether in favor of the CCSS or not, we have to acknowledge that the rationale behind them is reasonable. The CCSS call for students to no longer skim for answers or memorize and recite information. Importance is placed on participating in higher-order thinking by understanding the processes behind concepts. Specifically, the standards focus on how students learn, not just on what they learn (Farrell 2011).”

The implementation of the CCSS will affect the teaching profession as well. Dr. Cynthia Schofield, a Michigan educator and author remarked on the uniting effect the CCSS have on teachers across state lines. She said, “The CCSS created a platform for teachers across the nation to share insights and discuss literacy goals. By adopting common goals, the states have provided teachers with a common language. The CCSS offer teachers the opportunity to collaborate, share, and dialogue ideas across district, county, and state lines. It is an exciting time to be a teacher dedicated to the concept of literacy for all.”

Mel Riddile, the National Association of Secondary School Principals’ associate director for High School Services, has a special perspective on the effect of the CCSS on ELLs thanks to his own experience of improving outcomes at a school with students from 88 countries who spoke 66 languages. As Principal, Riddile increased the percentage of students taking the International Baccalaureate (IB) from to 15 to 48 percent, and the school’s ranking became comparable to some of the top private institutions.

He sees the similarity between the IB and the CCSS. The biggest change he predicts is that the standards will require a school-wide focus on literacy — every class will need to emphasize literacy and an on-going professional development program will be essential. “We teach using language and it is the teacher’s job to teach the language of their content area,” explains Riddile, while stressing that the key is consistency, “We must look at the CCSS as a long-term effort and keep working at it year-in, year-out.”

Given the emphasis placed on the acquisition of academic language and advanced vocabulary, the task of educating English language learners (ELLs) to the CCSS presents new and complex challenges. Lauren Davis of Eye on Education remarks that, “Students will have to analyze complex texts, use academic vocabulary, and write logical, research-based arguments. Many teachers are concerned that English language learners are going to be left too far behind as a result of these increased comprehension and language demands. It will be crucial for teachers to provide extra supports and scaffolding to help ELLs reach these high levels of learning. Extra supports might include using text sets, teaching students to break down syntax when reading, spending more time on fluency practice, and emphasizing implicit and explicit vocabulary instruction.”

Schofield adds, “The challenges facing ELL students are tremendous. ELL students are struggling to acquire language (English), which compounds the issue of learning abstract concepts with limited or no English language acquisition. Teachers will need to collaborate and work together as teams to address the expectations of the CCSS, especially the academic vocabulary. However, collaboration will also nurture the creation of new strategies and a focused approach to scaffolding students to the acquisition of skills.”

“As the ELL addendum claims,” explains Russikoff, “These skills are necessary for students in college and careers. In meeting the standards, our students will become competitive in the global marketplace. While these are excellent goals, we have to consider our entire student population. Is it fair to ask ELLs to do higher-order thinking in a language that they don’t fully understand? Many ELLs struggle with fundamentals such as vocabulary and content and would find this abstract task overwhelming. These ELLs are still trying to master the “what,” let alone the “how.”
How will implementation of the CCSS affect the teaching of ELLs?

Language Magazine asked the experts what teachers can do ensure their ELLs’ success in the Common Core classroom.
According to Patti Rommel, director of Research and Development for Lakeshore Learning Materials, “The CCSS place a larger emphasis on the following, all of which have significant implications for the teaching of ELLs:

• Comprehension of informational texts: Informational texts are full of both academic and content-specific vocabulary. As educators, we will need to ensure that ELLs are provided with targeted vocabulary instruction so that they can access grade-level, informational texts.

• Text complexity: Students are required to comprehend and evaluate increasingly complex texts. We will need to ensure that we are providing the appropriate instructional support and scaffolding for ELLs as they encounter these texts.

• Providing students with more opportunities to have rich discussions and meaningful collaborations with each other, analyzing texts and presenting evidence for their findings and opinions. We need to provide well-designed opportunities for classroom discussions and interactions that enable ELLs to develop communicative skills.”

However, Dr. Nancy Boyles warns that “The implementation of ‘close reading’ as it is defined by CCSS will be problematic for ELLs because of its move away from pre-reading support for students. While I generally agree with this change of focus (expecting students to retrieve meaning from the text rather than the teacher), this is not necessarily a good fit for ELLs who need vocabulary knowledge and may need additional prior knowledge established in order to adequately construct basic meaning from a text. This, I think, will require good collaboration between the ELL teacher and classroom teacher to address these needs appropriately.”

According to Boyles, there are four essential components that teachers and administrators need to understand in order to successfully implement the Common Core standards. These components are:

1 The standards themselves: This will determine WHAT we teach. Educators need to understand what is similar to and what is different from the state standards to which we’ve been accountable until this point. Remember also, that while some standards seem quite similar in name (main idea, theme, summary, etc.), the CCSS emphasis is different. It is important to understand these standards deeply if we expect to teach them well.

ESL teachers can differentiate their standards-based instruction by being aware of the progression of standards from one grade to the next. For example, if students are not able to handle the grade level benchmark for a particular standard, perhaps they can meet the expectations for that standard at the previous grade level, or the grade before that. The CCSS give us well-defined starting points for differentiating instruction.

2 The concept of text complexity: This defines what we teach WITH. Educators need to understand how the three components of complexity work together: qualitative features, quantitative features, and features related to the task and the students who will be reading the texts.

ESL teachers need to recognize that text that may not qualify as complex for the general population of students may offer many challenges for English Language learners. This will be evident in the cultural knowledge they bring to the text, the language structures within the text, and unfamiliar vocabulary, among other potential roadblocks.

3 The tasks used to assess student learning: This is how we MEASURE what we teach. Educators need to understand the rigor of “performance tasks”-including the way tasks will incorporate multiple standards. It will be important to stay abreast of information posted to the PARCC and SBAC websites as these assessment consortia will be our best resources in understanding exactly what students will need to be able to do to respond effectively to the new assessments.
ESL teachers will be challenged not only by the complexity of performance tasks, but also by the way these tasks are written. They are often two- and three-part questions, which students will need to break apart step by step in order to respond to them adequately. ESL teachers will need to work hard to make these tasks comprehensible to their students. Much instruction should, in fact, be focused on how to read and understand the intent of the questions-in addition to understanding the thinking involved in responding to the questions.

4 The shifts in scaffolding implied by the standards: This is HOW we teach. All reading instruction can be described in terms of how teachers support students before reading, during reading, and after reading. Authors of the Common Core are suggesting “close reading” as the key to achieving college and career readiness and have further suggested that the optimal way to deliver instruction is with less scaffolding before reading (reduced focus on activating prior knowledge), more scaffolding during reading (relying on what they are calling “text dependent questions”), and different scaffolding after reading (with a much stronger focus on oral response and collaboration among small groups of students before students independently write a response independently.

“Frequent assessment and positive feedback are essential in helping English language learners succeed. Teachers must empower English language learners by providing them with the tools they need to meet these challenging academic demands. Strategies may include reinforcing context clues, pre-teaching vocabulary, finding similarities to the student’s first language, or teaching how to use graphic organizers to sort information and new vocabulary. Older students may even be able to suggest strategies or tools that can help support their learning. Ultimately, it is the teacher’s job to maintain a positive and encouraging learning environment for all students,” advises Reagan Miller, an educational consultant to Crabtree Press.

Russikoff points out the numerous resources that are appearing as a result of the CCSS. Professional development is an integral part of marrying the CCSS with approaches to English language acquistion. She explains:

“To follow the CCSS and meet the needs of our ELLs, we can use teaching strategies that specifically support ELLs to help them gain the confidence needed to progress from a group (class) member to an individual learner. For example, perhaps you might start with Cooperative Groups and then progress to Dialogue Journals. The accommodations for ELLs in the CCSS may be limited, but fortunately, resources are not. California has already planned several implementation phases, which include collaboration and professional development opportunities ( Recent conferences have also provided support for and information about the CCSS. In particular, the 2012 International Reading Association’s conference in Chicago showcased more than 50 sessions about the CCSS, including presentations and panel discussions about how they impact ELLs. Resources may also be found on your state’s website.
The most important thing we can do is create awareness — awareness of the standards, awareness of our ELLs’ needs, and awareness of how we can stretch ourselves to meet those needs. The existing CCSS do make some allowances for ELLs; they acknowledge that ELLs may need additional time and instructional support and should be allotted these, which gives rise to the possibility that these same allowances will be built into the assessments, scheduled to be released in 2014. Until then, we’ll need to change our focus just as our students have — by concentrating on the “how” (as in how to make these standards applicable to ELLs) rather than simply the “what” (the standards themselves).”

To help non-ESL teachers prepare for the changes, Rommel advises: “Administrators should define what progress toward each standard looks like at each ELP level, and describe the methods and materials that will help ELLs meet the standard. This will help non-ESL teachers by giving them a bank of strategies to use that provide the scaffolding and differentiation needed for their ELL students. The CCSS and ELP/ELD standards should complement each other.”

Dr. Schofield also advocates for professional development, “A personal plan is a last resort option. Instead, administrators and teachers need meaningful professional development. The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium is developing assessments aligned to the CCSS and the drafts of the assessments are a great place to initiate professional development dialogue. Discussing and reflecting on the assessments will lead to discussions on the needs of the students and enable staff to determine the professional development needs of the staff to reach the new goals.”

This article is composed of edited comments by the following experts:

Dr. Nancy Boyles is currently an associate professor and the graduate reading program coordinator at Southern Connecticut State University, where she teaches courses in developmental reading, writing instruction, and the administration and supervision of school literacy programs. Previously, she spent 25 years as a classroom teacher at various elementary grade levels. She was named Teacher of the Year in her district and was a semi-finalist for Connecticut Teacher of the Year. She received her doctorate in reading and language from Boston University.

Lauren Davis has been senior editor at Eye On Education since May 2011. Previously, she served as senior editor of Weekly Reader’s Current Events, a classroom news magazine for students in grades 6-12. She also spent five years as director of Language Arts at Amsco School Publications, a publisher of workbooks and other resources for secondary students. Lauren began her career in the classroom. She taught sixth-grade ELA in Westchester, NY, and she also taught 7th and 11th grade English in New York City. She is passionate about engaging students in learning. She is currently working on a book of Common Core lesson plans, which will be published by Eye On Education.

Reagan Miller, an educational consultant to Crabtree Press, publisher of science and social studies series in Spanish and both Spanish-language and dual-language editions of the early reading series, My World (Mi Mundo).

Erica N. Russikoff, MA, works with Teacher Created Resources, the publisher of the new series, Strategies to Use with Your English Language Learners, which provides implementation tips and activities.

Dr. Cynthia Schofield is a Michigan teacher. She taught emotionally impaired students the first ten years of her career and English Language Art classes for the last twenty years. She is an avid reader of all texts. Her teaching has always been guided by her love of literature and her passion for the discipline. She is co-author of Guided Highlighted Reading: A Close-Reading Strategy for Navigating Complex Text published by Maupin House.

More expert opinion on the CCSS may be found online at