Reconciling Common Core State Standards

Common Core State Standards advocates contend that the standards provide consistent, clear targets of what students should learn. The standards, they say, are robust and relevant to the real world, with the ultimate assurance that graduates will be college and career ready. Embedded in the content of the standards is the expectation that all learners will interact with complex texts.

Adversaries, however, object to the requirement that learners engage with materials that are so demanding and rigorous that success is impossible for a major segment of the student population. As Richard Allington and Peter Johnston state in their book Reading to Learn: Lessons from Exemplary Fourth-Grade, the best way to become a better reader is to practice the reading process intensely, with self-selected materials that can be read independently.

Further, those who oppose the Common Core movement express concern that too much instructional time is devoted to preparing learners for high-stakes exams and to conforming to discrete learning expectations. The resulting conformity supplants opportunities to be creative, innovative, and imaginative. Each of those learner qualities is essential to competing in a global economy that values creators and designers of new knowledge, risk-taking systems, and entrepreneurial opportunities.

Common Ground on Common Core

Educators can honor best practices while adhering to the rigor of the standards. Both camps have elements of merit and value.

First, the Common Core State Standards incorporate an element of rigor and challenge that is essential to long-term learning. As Margaret Gredler states in her 2012 Educational Psychology Review article “Understanding Vygotsky for the Classroom,” a level of tension or disequilibrium must exist to ensure growth in learning.

However, in the context of a challenging curriculum, a high level of teacher support or scaffolding is vital. Also, in the same context of rigorous learning, we must not ignore the role of motivation. In motivation theory, the experience of success is essential to extended and sustained learning, according to Gredler. This begs the need to provide instructional interventions and learning materials that are at a level that ensures learner commitment and endurance.

To reconcile these opposing views, we need a model for responding to the expectations while adhering to the research and best practices in teaching and learning. The balanced literacy model for promoting reading and writing competence in learners from preschool to high school does just that.

The balanced literacy model offers gradual release of teacher responsibility. As such, it supports all learners, even those who have trouble engaging with demanding and sophisticated texts. In its design, teachers can use the rigorous and demanding texts endorsed in the CCSS while using best practices of education. These instructional elements create scaffolds that allow the teacher to move from large group to small group to individual readers.

Here is a brief description of the elements of the balanced literacy framework for reading:

Read Alouds and Think Alouds—In a large-group setting, teachers model the thinking and reading expectations for all learners. Carol Ann Tomlinson and Cindy Strickland suggest in their book, Differentiation in Practice: A Resource Guide for Differentiating Curriculum, Grades 9–12, that as the teacher reveals the process, the learners hear what a skilled reader does to make sense of a text. The use of grade-level or more rigorous text is appropriate because the teacher models how an accomplished reader navigates the challenging text.

Shared Reading—Also in a large-group setting, the teacher directs the readers to turn and talk to a partner about their understanding and thinking. Again, a grade-level or more rigorous text is effective because the teacher is there to provide ample support.

Guided Reading—This strategy takes place in a small-group setting where the learners apply the pre-taught reading-thinking processes. Here, the readers have increased responsibility; the text selection is more appropriately matched to the reading competence of the readers; and the teacher’s role moves from model to monitor.

The teacher documents the readers’ thinking and reading behaviors to determine what thinking and reading strategies to model in future Read Alouds and Shared Readings. The teacher differentiates by matching the readers to texts that are on the readers’ instructional level, not necessarily their grade level.

Independent Reading—This critical element of the framework gives readers the opportunity to apply the comprehension strategies modeled in Think Alouds and Shared Reading. The opportunity for students to self-select texts is critical; they should select appropriate texts that are at their independent level and are interesting to them. Increased reading stamina is one of the goals of independent reading time.

As in the case of the reading segment of the balanced literacy framework, the writing components offer the same opportunities to reconcile the CCSS demands for increased writing volume, focus on argumentation rather than persuasion in writing, and increased attention to nonfiction writing. Once again, the writing components of the balanced literacy framework provide a manageable structure.

Here is a brief description of the writing elements:

Modeled Writing—This is the “I Do” element. Learners watch the teacher construct text and use thinking/problem-solving strategies to draft a piece of writing. Included in the teacher modeling process are the various genres included in the CCSS, including argumentation, research, and informative texts.

Shared Writing—This is the “We Do” element. The teacher uses authentic and real-life texts as models for the students to replicate. The teacher directs the students to study the content and the writer’s technique. Jeff Anderson, in his book Mechanically Inclined: Building Grammar, Usage, and Style into Writer’s Workshop, calls this approach an “invitation to notice.” After the learners identify the author’s strategies, the students are challenged to apply the strategies to their own drafts.

Guided Writing—This is the “You Do” element. The teacher brings together the student writers who demonstrated particular strengths or needs in the Shared Writing activity. The teacher differentiates instruction and increases instructional contact time with the writers as necessary.

Independent Writing—Quality independent writing is the ultimate goal of the balanced literacy framework and the Common Core State Standards. The addition of teacher/learner writing conferences increases the volume of writing and enhances its quality. As the young writers apply the strategies and techniques they’ve learned, their chance of successful independent writing increases.

We Can Do This

As the full implementation of the Common Core State Standards looms ominously, and with the realization that there is no turning back, we must move from conceptual understanding to effective implementation. By implementing the components of the reading and writing domains of the balanced literacy framework, classroom teachers can honor the research and best practices of literacy teaching and attend to the demands of the Common Core State Standards.

By implementing the CCSS and the steps of a balanced literacy framework, we can supplant the exasperation of “Here we go again” with the notion that “We can do this.” The Balanced Literacy Framework offers the structure; the teachers provide the expertise and attitude.

Darlene Schoenly is an assistant professor in the College of Education at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania.

Published in AMLE Magazine, October 2013.