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Professional Opinion

The ELA Common Core Initiative

How cross-content competencies will impact your students.

Within the Common Core State Standards Initiative, I facilitated the working group charged with the development of a new generation of English-language arts (ELA) standards that would be fewer, clearer, higher, evidence-based, and internationally benchmarked. Moreover, these standards would address the realities of the kinds of reading, writing, speaking and listening required for success in college or the workplace.

These three strands—reading, writing, and speaking and listening—each ask for substantial change on the part of schools. All set a high bar, but I will discuss only the reading strand here to illustrate the rigor of the targets that students must meet.

An Emphasis on Comprehension

In the newly proposed Common Core document there are 18 reading comprehension standards and five accompanying standards that specify the range and content of student reading. The reading standards are also accompanied by exemplar texts to illustrate the level of complexity students should be able to comprehend independently. There are sample assignments related to these exemplar texts that show the depth of understanding expected from reading (and writing or speaking) tasks.

The exemplar texts come from science, history, the workplace, and other nonfiction sources, as well as literature. In choosing these exemplars, the working group attempted to be mindful not just of academic or work-related content that students encounter, but to include as well the reading done in everyday life. One exemplar, for example, comes from The New York Times, another from a Web version of that newspaper, and another from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco’s Web site.

These reading standards represent a radical and decisive change from business as usual.

These reading standards will present a huge challenge for students. To meet the standards, students will need to perform a variety of complex comprehension tasks independently, whereas now students typically perform such tasks either with significant scaffolding from a teacher or with texts that are not especially challenging.

Why This Emphasis

These reading standards represent a radical and decisive change from business as usual. The writers of these standards know 1.3 million students drop out of school each year. Many do so because they cannot read. Like all school people, we know that schools, at best, have been able to put in place only small fixes to attack the reading problem.

The Common Core Standards confront this problem head-on for end-of-high-school students by setting a high, but realistic, bar from which to backmap to the lower grades. The goal is that when future documents are written, they will make clear—again with exemplars and sample tasks—the depth of reading comprehension necessary grade-by-grade if a student is to graduate workplace- or college-ready. This plan should ensure the development of competent readers up through the grades.

Decisions about who has the responsibility for teaching these standards and how they should be taught are left to schools. It is obvious that the standards go far beyond what is typically thought of as the purview of the English teacher. Across all content areas there must be an emphasis on teaching reading, not simply assigning it. All teachers will need to understand how to merge their focus on content with a focus on literacy, and all teachers will need staff development that addresses effective content-area reading instruction.

Curriculum, too, will need revision. Rigorous assignments tied to complex texts cannot simply appear for the first time in grade 12. Complex texts address complex topics and require significant background knowledge. At each grade level, there must be attention paid to building the kinds of world and content knowledge that students need if they are to comprehend challenging materials. Curriculum must be developed that does not treat reading as a content-free activity if students are to reach 12th grade as competent and independent readers.

Sally Hampton is a senior fellow for America’s Choice, a provider of products and services to schools. Her fields of expertise include writing development, assessment, and standards. She was the facilitator for the working group that produced the ELA Common Core Standards.