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Common Core Basics

The Common Core: English Language Arts

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) have been adopted by 46 states. The Standards aim to raise student achievement and prepare young people for college and careers. They do not prescribe curricula. Rather, they provide guidelines for designing curricula that will afford students, wherever they live, access to the same rich content. (Learn more about Common Core implementation in your state.)

The Standards for English Language Arts (ELA) are divided into three main areas:

  • reading (informational and literary texts)
  • writing (narrative, informative/explanatory, and argument/opinion)
  • speaking and listening. 

While the Standards do not vary much from grade to grade, students will be asked to display an increasing amount of sophistication in their reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills. Here are some basics to help guide you in your classroom.

Balancing texts

The ELA Standards emphasize the integration of informational texts on a range of topics into your classroom. This is designed to help students build knowledge and vocabulary. In addition to literature, students will read a variety of text types across content areas. In short, they will have to read more.

One way to incorporate different text types into your instruction is to pair novels, stories and poems with nonfiction articles, letters, and texts on the same topic. This will allow for rich connections and higher levels of thinking. Reading widely within topics or themes will also expose students repeatedly to key academic and domain-specific vocabulary. (See our glossary here.)

Since finding resources can be challenging, we’re here to help. Scholastic offers a nonfiction booklist organized by grade bands and themes, and can programs and instructional materials that have been designed for the Common Core.  

Text complexity, reading aloud, and text-based questions

The ELA Standards are designed to expose students to increasingly complex texts from year to year. This means that they will be required to read texts above their comfort level. One of the best ways to help them grapple with challenging texts is to read aloud. Since reading comprehension lags behind listening skills in young people, you can read aloud texts that are more difficult than those students could handle independently. Reading aloud has added benefits for English Language Learners. 

Walk students through first and second reads of a text to cultivate effective close-reading habits. Highlight vocabulary and ask questions about the text. Read our tips for crafting evidence-based questions.

If students show interest in a particular topic, they may be willing to tackle tougher texts that relate to it. Similarly, reading texts at their comfort level will prepare students for more challenging texts on the same topic. 

First and foremost, nurture a love of reading. Although students will need to graduate to increasingly complex texts each year, they should be given time to choose and read books for pure enjoyment. This is especially true for reluctant readers and students with special needs. 

Three modes of writing

The Standards require students to become proficient in narrative, informative/explanatory, and argument/opinion writing. Students are expected to write frequently and to quote from the materials they’ve read. They should also compare and contrast texts, integrating information from materials of varying viewpoints, genres, and themes.

Argument writing is given special emphasis in the Standards since it is an essential skill in college and the workplace. In class, you can model making claims and providing evidence to help students understand the facets of a strong argument. You may also wish to create graphic organizers that allow students to make their own claims and cite supporting evidence. 

New assessments

Two consortia, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career (PARCC) and Smarter Balanced, are creating computer-adaptive assessments that will be administered in the 2014-15 school year. The new assessments are designed to reflect a student’s ability to meet the standards for his or her grade. They will require young people to understand and analyze complex texts. Even the multiple choice questions will demand skills such as making inferences, identifying main ideas, and analyzing text features. Other items on the assessments will involve performance tasks, writing and synthesizing information from several texts. 

To learn more about the assessments, visit PARCC and Smarter Balanced.