In a recent survey conducted by Education Week only 45% of teachers reported being “very familiar” with the Common Core standards in ELA and literacy and more than three out of four teachers reported that they wanted additional training around CCSS. Do you feel the same? Does growing your familiarity with the demands of the Common Core standards seem like an overwhelming task? Where to begin?
Many people in the field of education feel that the most reasonable place to start is with the “instructional shifts,” shifts in materials and instruction you are required to incorporate in order to align with the standards. How many shifts are there? The New York State Department of Education outlines 6 shifts (EngageNY.org) while Student Achievement Partners outlines three. However, both organizations share the idea that these shifts revolve around the types of texts we read (more informational and more complex) and the way we respond to these texts (more evidence based questions and answers).
Types of Texts
You probably don’t even realize how much informational text (text intended to convey information) surrounds you on a daily basis – from the newspaper to work emails to advertisements on the bus. Incorporating more informational texts into your classroom is a win-win situation because time spent learning how to comprehend these texts will both strengthen your students’ reading skills while also broadening their content knowledge. Informational texts can also help you integrate literacy with science and social studies and help you blend otherwise separate parts of your day. Informational texts can include biographies, how-to articles, essays, history books, etc. so the range from which to choose is incredibly large.
Standard 10 of the Common Core focuses on two reading skills:
- The ability to read and comprehend complex literary texts independently and proficiently
- The ability to read and comprehend complex informational texts independently and proficiently
So what is a complex text? This is a tricky question. There are three dimensions in determining text complexity and you need all three to make a fair judgment:
- Quantitative – this typically refers to sentence length and the number of difficult words; you can rely on Lexile frameworks, for example, to figure this out
- Qualitative – this can include (but is not limited to) text structure, language conventionality, clarity of language, levels of meaning, and purpose. You need to read the text to evaluate this in your own way; technology will not be a useful guide
- Reader and Task – this includes student interest, motivation and background knowledge. You have to decide what makes sense for your particular group of students based on everything you know about them to assess this final piece
So how do you uncover the complex texts in your classroom library? One way is to read through several books to identify the elements that make them complex or not. Here are some useful questions you can ask yourself:
- Is the purpose of the text explicitly stated or is it vague?
- Is the language clear or is it vague?
- Is the language contemporary or unfamiliar?
- Is there a lot of figurative language that will make the text challenging?
- Is there one perspective or multiple ones?
- Is the text organized in a chronological manner or does it skip around?
- Do the graphics help explain the text or are they just for show?
- Will my students be motivated to learn about this topic?
Doing this kind of work will help you grow familiar with the dimensions of complexity and also help you understand the challenges of the books in your collection.
Once you grow familiar with what makes a book complex, the next question you probably want answered is how you help your students read these kinds of texts.
One important thing you can do is use the gradual release of responsibility model (I do, we do, you do) for teaching students how to work through complex texts. You can begin by modeling how to read a complex text through interactive read alouds. You can model how you understand challenging vocabulary, how you figure out the author’s purpose, how you use comprehension strategies to monitor your reading and make inferences. Being as explicit as possible and carefully articulating your thinking process will make a big impact on your students when they try this work themselves. Scaffolding students’ skills in reading complex text can also take place during guided reading when you are working beside the students and supporting their attempts in small groups. Finally, giving students the opportunity to read independently and try out all the reading skills and strategies you have taught them, will give them the practice they need to be successful.
Finally, it’s important to remember that the Common Core suggests that only by the end of third grade are students expected to read complex texts without support. Up until then, it’s expected that you will be supporting them. Also, the Common Core clearly states students reading above and below grade level may need additional support. That’s where your understanding of differentiation and formative assessment techniques become invaluable.
Responding to Texts
Evidence Based Questions & Answers
If you are reading complex texts to or with your students, or if they are reading them independently, you will clearly need to check in with them frequently on their comprehension. After all, complex texts should contain age-appropriate but sophisticated concepts, vocabulary and themes. One technique for checking in with students is using text dependent questions. These are questions that students can only find the answer to by using evidence from the text. If you ask a range of these questions – from basic questions about plot to deeper questions about author’s purpose and their opinions – you will help students gain a more thoughtful understanding of their texts.
How to Plan Text Dependent Questions
- Read through the text
- Determine what you think is the most important learning from the text (the key ideas)
- Craft questions that address these key ideas
- Determine what the most powerful academic words are in the text and incorporate these into your questions
- Find the sections of the text that will be most challenging for the students and craft questions around these areas. These could be sections with difficult syntax, particularly dense information, and tricky transitions or places that offer a variety of possible inferences.
Here is a useful chart for thinking through the range of text-dependent questions you can ask your students.
For specific questions that address each of these types of questions, try looking at Rosedale Curriculum.
What’s important to remember is that you ask a range of text dependent questions and not just limit yourself to who, what and when. Additionally, consider asking questions on both the word level (“What does the author mean when he describes Chrysanthemum as “wilted”?), on the text level (What did the author want you to learn from this book?) and across texts (“How were the two books we just read about bats similar?)
What shifts in the Common Core Standards are you comfortable with? Which are most challenging for you?
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