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How the Common Core standards are changing reading instruction

Some of the standards’ practical shifts include more nonfiction, more text-dependent questions, and placing more attention on making sure students are focused on arguments rather than persuasion.

What will reading instruction look like under the Common Core State Standards? Much attention has been paid to the idea that the standards place more emphasis on reading informational texts, as opposed to literature—but advocates of the new standards see them as a chance to help students develop a deeper understanding and appreciation for learning.

This shift will require “more complex, deeper thinking in not just what you teach, but how you teach it. How you do it is going to be significantly different,” said Jeff Williams, a reading recovery teacher leader and K-12 literacy teacher in Ohio’s Solon City Schools. Williams is a member of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE).

As teachers move through the standards, Williams said, they realize that the standards are not isolated and that they relate to one another in different bands and patterns.

“What they ask us to do is to make sure we are getting students to think, and getting them to see how those strands of literacy—reading, writing, and communicating language—are really intertwined,” said Sarah Brown Wessling, an NCTE member, 2010 National Teacher of the Year, and a high school English teacher and standards coordinator in Iowa’s Johnston Community School District.

Some of the standards’ practical shifts include more nonfiction, more text-dependent questions, and placing more attention on making sure students are focused on arguments rather than persuasion.

“To get students to do what the [Common] Core asks them to do, we as teachers have to be the lead learners, model what learning processes look like, and be able to really get students to think—and in order to do all of those things, I have to be a constant learner myself,” Wessling said.

Wessling’s tips for school leaders include:

  • Know what Common Core resources exist, and determine the difference between good resources and those that are less reliable. “Everything claims to align to the Common Core, but that doesn’t make it a good resource,” she said.
  • Give teachers time to collaborate rather than working in isolation.
  • Cultivate a culture in which teachers can take risks and make mistakes. “If we create environments in which teachers are afraid to do something wrong, they may only rely on surface strategies,” she said.

For teachers, Wessling advises:

  • Choose a fair entry point for students, and create steps to help students reach the Common Core’s ultimate learning goals, given their skills and abilities at the outset.
  • Reach out and collaborate, whether it’s with other teachers you work with, through professional organizations, or through other methods of outreach and professional support.

“For a lot of high school English teachers, we were trained to be teachers of literature … but I don’t think we’ve been particularly skillful at helping students become adept at managing information,” said Morgan Dunton, president of the NCTE Assembly of State Coordinators of English Language Arts and also the ELA specialist and mid-coast regional representative at the Maine Department of Education.

Dunton said the Common Core standards “challenge the perception about what informational texts are” and represent “the next step in the evolution of literacy instruction.” She said teachers will need to emphasize the close reading of text, gathering evidence, using it effectively, and understanding “what information is and how it permeates our lives.”

Guidance from the IRA

The International Reading Association (IRA) has put together a set of Common Core guidelines to help educators understand issues “that have proven to be especially confusing or challenging to implement.” Here’s a summary of these issues.

Use of challenging texts:

  • The standards increase the number of challenging texts that students must read, but those texts must be taught and supported properly.
  • Educators should not increase the levels of texts that are used in kindergarten and first grade reading lessons.
  • Students should receive instruction in the reading of texts written at a variety of levels. “The Common Core State Standards specify the levels of text that students need to be able to read effectively by the end of school years,” the guidance says. “However, this does not mean that all as- signed reading should be at these levels.”
  • Teachers must have professional development opportunities to make sure they’re able to teach and support students properly.

Foundational skills:

  • These skills include phonological awareness, phonics, and fluency.
  • The standards mandate the early, systematic, and explicit teaching of foundational skills.
  • Educators should teach all aspects of English and language arts simultaneously and in a coordinated manner in kindergarten, first, and second grades.


  • Instruction should engage students in high-quality texts that they read closely and critically.
  • Educators should use research-proven reading comprehension strategies that use gradual release of responsibility approaches.
  • Teachers should be ready and able to help students apply strategies when they are reading especially difficult or challenging texts.

“Specifically, the [standards] stress the importance of teaching students to engage in ‘close, attentive reading.’ This means that students must learn to engage independently in critical reading, determining what a text says explicitly, making logical inferences, and analyzing a text’s craft and structure to determine how those affect the text’s meaning and tone, evaluating the effectiveness or value of the text, and using the information and ideas drawn from texts (often referred to as ‘evidence’) as the basis of one’s own arguments, presentations, and claims,” according to the IRA’s guide.


  • Vocabulary instruction and strong vocabulary skills are particularly important for English language learners and those from low socioeconomic backgrounds.
  • Vocabulary teaching is usually “explicitly linked to reading comprehension, but the [standards] provide this explicit emphasis within the Language strand of the standards where it is easily overlooked.”
  • Educators should look for vocabulary development references throughout all of the standards.
  • Word-solving strategies and teaching individual words both should be employed as instructional methods.
  • All subjects throughout the school day can offer chances for vocabulary development.


  • Students should have opportunities “to write in response to reading across the curriculum.”
  • Educators should incorporate both print and digital texts in reading requirements.
  • Teachers should have professional development to learn how to teach students how to write the kind of texts required by the standards.

Disciplinary Literacy:

  • This involves teaching reading and writing across other disciplines such as history and science, and focuses on the way that reading and writing are used within each specific discipline.
  • The standards require that students in grades 6-12 learn disciplinary literacy.
  • Content teachers in each discipline will have to collaborate with English and language arts educators.

The standards “require equal outcomes for all students, but they do not require equal inputs. Vary the amounts and types of instruction provided to students to ensure high rates of success,” the report says. “Monitor student learning, and provide adjustments and supplements based on that information.”

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