Teaching Opinion

Response: Best Ways to Prepare Our Students for CCSS in Language Arts

By Larry Ferlazzo — January 20, 2013 10 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

(This is the first post in a two-part series on this topic)

Mary Lou Baker asked:

“How can we best prepare our students for the common core in language arts?”

I have been no fan of the Common Core standards (see The Best Articles Sharing Concerns About Common Core Standards). However, one of the key lessons I learned in my nineteen year community organizing career was that, though we should always recognize the tension inherent in “the world as we’d like it to be” and “the world as it is,” living in the former seldom leads to success in the latter. The Common Core is the reality for most of us, and I’ve begun collecting the most useful resources for implementing them.

This two-part series will be contributing to that collection. In addition to guest responses, I hope readers will continue to offer their own suggestions. I’ll be including them in the final post of this series.

Today’s post will feature commentaries from educator/authors Christopher Lehman, Amy Benjamin and Ben Curran.

Response From Christopher Lehman

Christopher Lehman is author of several books including his newest on more student-centered research instruction, Energize Research Reading and Writing. He is a national speaker and a Senior Staff Developer at the Reading and Writing Project at Teachers College, Columbia University. Follow him on Twitter, @iChrisLehman, and at his blog:


The most essential piece of all of this, the reason you are here is simply this: your students. There is no initiative, no data, no mandate, no curriculum that can get in the way of caring for the students in your charge.

I worry that in the age of the Common Core we can mistake “initiatives” with “learning.” That we can be led to believe that adopting the CCSS means what teachers must do, instead of seeing how students are doing in comparison to the standards. That we can get swept into a frenzy of initiatives-to-check-off.

True “college and career readiness” is more than a particular knowledge base, more than how many hours of nonfiction one has read, more than how much evidence one has used to develop ideas. Being ready for college and career also has something to do with self-belief, care for others, taking risks, falling down and getting back up.

This is not to say that getting to the know the standards is not important, that the invitation to challenge your best practices is not what great teachers do--most do this constantly. This is to say that no initiative is worth its salt if it doesn’t lift up the students in our care.

To talk practically, this means looking at our kids and making them our teaching. It means seeing “data” as not a thing you collect only with standardized assessments, but with our eyes, ears, and heart, every day.

• While reading aloud a text, stop often to listen. Ask students to talk while you walk around. What is the quality of their conversation about the text? How similar or different to The Standards--or to your own standard of thoughtfulness--are their conversations? From this brief reflection you can direct your teaching to making those conversations better.

• While students are writing or reading independently ask them about their process. I have been doing this often and am struck when students can clearly describe their thinking, their process, their mental tools. I am equally struck when they cannot. It seems hard to be independent if you don’t know what you are doing or why. This, then, becomes another point of instruction.

• Ask students to show off what they know before you plan. Before diving into a study, before ticking off the lessons from a curriculum, see what your students are already doing, saying, writing, reading. Looking at them first can help you decide what strengths to build upon.

• Help students reflect on habits and beliefs. Take time to not just teach, teach, teach, but to mentor as well. Sometimes the best conversation when a student is having difficulty is not always “do it like this...,” but instead “when you get stuck, what do you usually do? Let’s think of how you can approach struggles in the future...”

• Steal any moment to check in not just intellectually, but emotionally. Post-Hurricane Sandy, many of us in the Northeast are anxiously returning to classrooms and the first thing we are doing is saying, “How are you?” To students, to other adults. We need to do the same as we move forward into this new era in education. It seems the current trend in politics is to overload our classrooms with anxiety, therefore we need to keep our heads up and see when we need to check-in. Take your community’s emotional temperature and allow that to help you chart a new course.

There is plenty written on approaching the standards--some I profoundly believe in, some I profoundly don’t--but I write this to remind all of us, though honestly to remind myself, that we cannot lose our students in all of this. The best way to prepare our students for the common core in language arts is to avoid letting “compliance” become the end game, and instead keep them at the center of all we do.

Breathe. Look in their eyes. Teach your heart out.

Response From Amy Benjamin

Amy Benjamin is a teacher and national consultant specializing in improving student performance through literacy skills on the secondary level. Her most recent book is Big Skills for the Common Core (Eye on Education, 2012). She has also written But I’m Not A Reading Teacher and Vocabulary at the Core:

Although the Common Core Literacy Standards extend throughout the student’s day, English language arts classes are Command Central for the three essential skills around which the Standards are built. Those skills are:

1. Comprehending increasingly complex text and answering questions requiring close attention to the text, rather than personal response to the text
2. Writing that calls upon multiple sources to justify assertions
3. Using academic vocabulary (Tier II and III) to accomplish both of the above

But the fundamental things apply: Language--and literacy skills--are learned mostly through comprehensible input and the need to understand and produce messages. So says Stephen D. Krashen when he reminds us of the primacy of inculcating the reading habit in students by offering them the time and materials to read freely for pleasure. It would be a grave mistake to forfeit our efforts, time-consuming as they may be, to entice students into the world of reading in exchange for “test prep.” That would be like diminishing the time you spend exercising in favor of watching a television show about the benefits of exercise!

Beneficial and essential as free voluntary reading is, students need regular practice and targeted instruction in the language of academics and business. Teachers need to immerse students in aural and written academic vocabulary, both Tier II (generic academic words) and Tier III (domain specific terminology). By far, the best resource for this is the Academic Word List (AWL) compiled by Averil Coxhead (2000). This list may be found here. Various free, classroom-ready activities based on this list may be found at my website.

Students are expected to compose written arguments in various subject areas, but it is in English classes where they should be taking apart arguments, such as seminal speeches and daily editorials (op-eds) to see exactly how they work. Students should learn the elements of argument, rhetorical devices, appeals, and sentence frames, including transitional and contrastive words, to hold complex ideas. Here is where I believe the use of formulas and models is effective for the novice. But, again, writing is a secondary function of language (output), one that is informed by input (reading a well-structured argument). Just as art students learn to go to museums to copy the masters, novices at writing need copious models as well as guidance as to how those models work. The more terminology we have for the components of argumentation, the more students can use those components as tools for their own writing.

The short answer to the question of how to advance the Common Core in English language arts class is to give students excellent aural and written models and show them how these work.

Response From Ben Curran

Ben Curran is an instructional coach for a K-5 charter school in Detroit, Michigan. For the previous seven years, he taught grades four and five at this school. In addition, he coordinates his school’s Common Core transition team and leads educational technology workshops for his district. In 2011, he and a colleague founded Engaging Educators, a company dedicated to helping teachers increase student engagement and develop 21st Century learning environments. Ben blogs actively for his school and about teaching poetry. He is also co-authoring a book with fellow Engaging Educator Neil Wetherbee for Eye on Education. He is a member of the Teacher Leaders Network, and Education Week Teacher recently published his commentary, When Poetry Meets the Common Core:

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in English Language Arts offer many opportunities for teachers to deepen students’ understanding and develop critical thinking skills. Much has been made of the standards’ shifts toward more non-fiction texts and greater concentration on text complexity and academic vocabulary. These are all important for teachers to understand and to take into account when making the CCSS transition, but I think the ELA standards are written in a way that leads us to one critical thing we can do to make sure our students are prepared: vertical alignment.

I am sure in my career, I’ve spoken with teachers in other grades about the work that was happening in my classroom. But never formally or in an organized or truly meaningful way. And certainly not very often. These types of vertical conversations about teaching and learning across grade levels need to start happening, because they will go a long way toward preparing our students for the CCSS in ELA.

Taking a look at the standards themselves will quickly reveal the importance of vertical planning. They are written with this in mind, with K-12 “anchor standards” in Reading, Writing, Speaking and Listening, and Language. Examine the grade level standards across a sequence of grades and you’ll see how each year builds upon the previous one, year after year, K through 12. If we ignore this in our planning, we are missing out on a critical element of the new standards.

Conversations between grade levels need to happen more often. For example, second grade teachers need to know what a specific writing standard “looks like” at first grade, so they can build on it appropriately. They also need to know what it should look like at third grade, so that the progression makes sense. Leaders must start carving out the time for these conversations to take place. Because without them, we’ll be right back where we have been, working in isolation and in a disjointed fashion on standards that are meant to be approached collaboratively and with a broader vision.

Thanks to Christopher, Amy and Ben for contributing their responses.

Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to this question and the ideas shared here. As I mentioned earlier, I’ll be featuring them in the next post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a selection of seven published by published by Jossey-Bass.

Just a reminder -- you can subscribe to this blog for free via RSS Reader or email....

And,if you missed any of the highlights from the first year of this blog, you can check them out here. You can also see a list of the ten most popular posts in 2012.

Look for Part Two in a few days....

Related Tags:

The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.