How to re-create the “Reading Wars” without even trying…


One of the problems with having “newbies” involved in creating these new standards, especially folks who like to take a “de-contextualized” approach to novel and new situations, is that they don’t know where the land-mines are buried. Most of the discussions around Common Core ELA standards and the exemplars that are starting to show up for co-authors and others, involve secondary teachers, and interestingly many of those are social studies folks who are being asked to take on more reading and reading comprehension duties. The upshot is that a whole lot of people who are “discussing” these standards haven’t been involved in any of the prior discussions about reading instruction, including the standards co-authors (neither of whom are K-12 educators ). Mr. David Coleman has become the “face” of Common Core standards as he goes about the country telling us the “correct” way to teach reading and writing. My sense is that this lack of “context” will eventually lead to another fight about the correct way to do reading instruction, as Mr. Coleman becomes more and more adamant about doing close reading for reading instruction. I’ll address this more at the end of my piece. For now, let’s look at the three questions I had about Common Core ELA Standards versus the current California State ELA Standards:

  1. How do they compare with the current standards;
  2. Are they too narrow, or too broad;
  3. Are they developmentally appropriate, and are some of the exemplars appropriate for elementary;

How do they compare with the current standards?

Overall, at fifth grade, they seem less complex than what is currently required. First, they separate reading into informational text and literature. California keeps them together, but does emphasizes informational text (and calls it that, not expository) in fifth grade. Here is a comparison:

Common Core RL.5.1. Quote accurately from a text when explaining what the text says explicitly and when drawing inferences from the text.

CA ELA Reading Comprehension 2.4  Draw inferences, conclusions, or generalizations about text and support them with textual evidence and prior knowledge.

The Common Core seems more concerned with a skill, quoting from the text, rather than understanding or analyzing. Note the lack of prior knowledge, which is often critical to making inferences.

Are they too narrow, or too broad?

The prior example points to narrow. Here is another example:

Common Core RL.5.5. Explain how a series of chapters, scenes, or stanzas fits together to provide the overall structure of a particular story, drama, or poem.

CA ELA Literary Analysis 3.1 Identify and analyze the characteristics of poetry, drama, fiction, and nonfiction and explain the appropriateness of the literary forms chosen by an author for a specific purpose.
CA ELA Reading Comprehension 2.2 Analyze text that is organized in sequential or chronological order

CA ELA Reading Comprehension 2.5 Distinguish facts, supported inferences, and opinions in text.

The Common Core eschews “genre” and so students just focus on organizational features of the genre and its relationship to the structure of the story. California instead focuses on how the genre and not just structure, but help convey the story and/or author’s message. There is a standard under Reading Comprehension that is concerned with structure of text so I threw that in too. I don’t know how I feel about this, but there was one standard in California that I think is sorely missing from Common Core and a text search did not produce any results at any level or part of the standards — Discern fact and opinion. If we’re preparing kids for college, shouldn’t they understand the difference between fact, opinion, and inference? This is just glaring to me.

Are they developmentally appropriate, and are some of the exemplars appropriate for elementary?

Now, after those last two sections, you might think I’m ready to embrace these new easier standards, but I’m concerned about some of what is going on at the primary level, where some parts of the standards are just plain ridiculous.

Let’s look at Second Grade Writing…

Text Types and Purposes
W.2.1. Write opinion pieces in which they introduce the topic or book they are writing about, state an opinion, supply reasons that support the opinion, use linking words (e.g., because, and, also) to connect opinion and reasons, and provide a concluding statement or section.
W.2.2. Write informative/explanatory texts in which they introduce a topic, use facts and definitions to develop points, and provide a concluding statement or section.
W.2.3. Write narratives in which they recount a well-elaborated event or short sequence of events, include details to describe actions, thoughts, and feelings, use temporal words to signal event order, and provide a sense of closure.
Production and Distribution of Writing
W.2.5. With guidance and support from adults and peers, focus on a topic and strengthen writing as needed by revising and editing.
W.2.6. With guidance and support from adults, use a variety of digital tools to produce and publish writing, including in collaboration with peers.
Research to Build and Present Knowledge
W.2.7. Participate in shared research and writing projects (e.g., read a number of books on a single topic to produce a report; record science observations).
W.2.8. Recall information from experiences or gather information from provided sources to answer a question.

Persuasive writing starting in second grade, and the group research reports in W.2.7 start in Kindergarten. That’s a pretty heavy cognitive load for 7 year olds. Here is what California currently requires:

Organization and Focus
1.1 Group related ideas and maintain a consistent focus.
1.2 Create readable documents with legible handwriting.
1.3 Understand the purposes of various reference materials (e.g., dictionary, thesaurus, atlas).
Evaluation and Revision
1.4 Revise original drafts to improve sequence and provide more descriptive detail.

Using the writing strategies of grade two outlined in Writing Standard 1.0, students:
2.1 Write brief narratives based on their experiences:

  a. Move through a logical sequence of events.
  b. Describe the setting, characters, objects, and events in detail.
2.2 Write a friendly letter complete with the date, salutation, body, closing, and signature

From friendly letters to writing opinion pieces… that’s a mighty big leap. It reflects the Common Core practice of having kids do the same thing through the years in K-12, just changing in lexile level and complexity. It’s sure to be popular with the current emphasis on STEM, but in 5 years when folks are decrying that kids can’t write a decent friendly email…

I’m also very concerned about overall reading instruction, and the elimination of pre-reading activities, and replacing that with cold reading instruction which I’ve already blogged about  here.

Overall thoughts…

When I think about it, the roll-out of the Common Core ELA standards has been its own exemplar of the standards. First they’re dropped in all their pared-down vagueness and left it to us to figure out (sounds like cold reading doesn’t it). As with all “new” programs, terms are changed and switched around (persuasive writing is now opinion, expository becomes informational) to make it clear that this is a whole new paradigm. Folks spend some time figuring out what it all means and start developing their own examples. The authors sense a loss of control, so they wade out of the waters of setting standards, and into the shark pit of instructional delivery. Having not lived on the “coast” (worked in education) they don’t realize where they are heading. Maybe they did not intend to direct all this energy on getting folks to do cold reading to the primary grades. Coleman seems to think that primary reading instruction is fine in this video, he’s more worried about those 8th grade NAEP scores, but I and other elementary teachers are wondering. That jump in 2nd grade writing standards makes me think they do want to change primary language arts instruction, but have no idea what they are doing. My own sense is we are headed for a new round in the reading wars, and Coleman being a neophyte has no idea what he’s set off, unlike his compatriots on the math side who have worked on K-12 curriculum before.

There are other forces out there now mucking about in this. My district is making a push towards Balanced Literacy in elementary that embraces some older whole language components (novel study), and some from Common Core. The only problem, they have not provided the resources to go along with these programs, and lord knows there is NO money for new texts, etc. from the state. A recent discussion at a meeting I attended had a group of teachers whose fall back position was Open Court (our reading program) is great, why change things (it’s not — but I’m not about to jettison it for no program and no materials). I expect a series of skirmishes to break out over the summer, just like fireworks for the Fourth of July.

Other posts in this series:

The Standards:

California English Language Arts Standards

Common Core State Standards for English-Language Arts, Adopted August 2010

9 Comments to

“How to re-create the “Reading Wars” without even trying…”

  1. March 26th, 2012 at 5:28 pm      Reply Tom Hoffman Says:

    Nice post. In my reading the CA ELA standards seemed like some of the most similar to Common Core overall. One key way the CC proponents seem like neophytes is the sense that if they could get state leadership to buy in, that was the big step. It is really the easiest part. Nobody was even paying attention at that point, and people are only just starting to.

    And everything before the tests come out is just prelude.

    • March 26th, 2012 at 6:25 pm      Reply alicemercer Says:

      For someone who went through the last round of “Reading Wars” I can see the minefield that they are stepping into, and it’s clear they have NO idea what’s coming down. I’m buying popcorn.

      That’s interesting that you think that CC most resembles California Standards. To me, they seem like a the state standards after plastic surgery; they’re thinner, but I’m not convinced their “prettier”. Their pulling out a lot of inference, but California is proof that higher standards don’t equate to higher student learner, etc.

      You can see that they really want to emphasize writing and putting much more higher order thinking there (rather than in reading comprehension). Douglas Reeves seems to be the curriculum guru de jour in that area, and the thinking is that you improve reading and reading comp through writing. I’m seeing a lot of that with these standards.

  2. March 27th, 2012 at 2:39 am      Reply dogtrax Says:

    I like how you lay out the comparisons, Alice, and make note of the differences. (one thing to keep in mind is that too many states had fuzzy standards, if any at all, and that is what has led to the Common Core development).
    In our work at my school around our new standards (influenced by Common Core), the expectations of younger grade students quickly became one of those hotbeds of discussions. It is a lot to ask out of a young writer, and the complexity quickly jumps in those younger grades.
    I agree with Tom: until we see the assessments, we won’t really know where to place the emphasis in the standards. Yes, many teachers teach to the test, particularly now that teaching evaluation is getting tied to those scores.
    You note the emphasis on writing. In our old state standards, it seemed that just about everything revolved around reading. Writing (never mind listening and talking) were relegated to the sidelines (in my opinion). Our new standards push writing forward, although perhaps not always in the ways I would like.
    Thanks for all the posts. You have me (and hopefully others) thinking.

  3. March 27th, 2012 at 1:24 pm      Reply Della Palacios Says:

    Standards are minimal student expectations. Whether they are Common Core Standards or _____’s State Standards, they are minimal expectations. They are a business idea set out to standardize something that should never be standardized. Basing entire curricula around minimal student expectations is a mistake. Standards do not recognize individual abilities, talents and gifts. No matter what form they take- no matter the author-

    standards. limit. learning.

    • March 27th, 2012 at 7:14 pm      Reply alicemercer Says:

      My issue is that these standards end up being the ceiling rather than the floor. I’ve been teaching in a standards-based world for so long, I’m trying to imagine life without it. Thanks for the comment!

  4. March 27th, 2012 at 5:45 pm      Reply joewood77 Says:


    Interesting perspective. I’m actually quite excited about the CCSS for the following reasons.

    – The acknowledgement (and hopefully PD) that content-area teachers are involved in literacy instruction as well. As a former science teacher I could have used support on how to effectively teach reading and writing within the context of using these literacy practices as a scientist. Instead I was sent to Houghton-Mifflin training and told to “incorporate this.”
    – The authentic use of some digital reading and writing – more would be better.
    – They have wiggle room. As you noted the CCSS aren’t as fine-grained as our current standards. Hopefully, this will allow teachers to have some autonomy over their instructional practice and we will see a shift way from programatic ELA instruction. I’m actually already seeing this occur in San Juan with the incorporation of Writing Workshop and Balanced Literacy over the past few years.

    When the testing is announced, we may see changes in the way in which CCSS are implemented. However, in the meantime I’m excited to see groups of teachers coming together to lead the way on bringing this work into their classrooms and school sites during this transition window. For example, Area 3 Writing Project is organizing meaningful professional learning on the topic as we write!


    • March 27th, 2012 at 7:12 pm      Reply alicemercer Says:

      You’re right, what has happened in the past with scripted programs is not working, but that does not make this the answer. I’m not seeing wiggle room for a couple reasons:

      1.They seem to be telling us “how” to teach rather than sticking with “what” to teach — with the involvement of publishers, they will soon have complete vertical control of instruction;

      2. I wonder how this will affect programs like NWP, which is a research-based. One of the programs that I saw adopted from NWP at a local school was “genre” study. There is NO mention of genre in Common Core. It doesn’t exist. You could add it (have the kids do a “research” project, but how many teachers will sign up for a training on something not covered in the standards…at all?

      3. Until we see the assessments, this is all speculative, you having hope, me having doubts.

  5. April 16th, 2013 at 9:58 pm      Reply Tracy Says:

    NCCS has social studies teachers teaching fact versus opinion in 7th and 8th grade. I don’t know where I stand on the common core but I do know that a lot of providers are going to make money on workshops.


  1. Thinking of PARCC and the Common Core

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