All Articles Education Q-and-A: Literacy expert discusses shifts in language arts

Q-and-A: Literacy expert discusses shifts in language arts

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Brenda Overturf is the chair of the International Reading Association Common Core Standards Committee and a literacy consultant, providing professional development and assistance to schools and districts nationwide. She is a former member of the IRA Board of Directors, and has published four books on implementing the English language arts standards. 

What are the biggest shifts in K-12 language arts standards and how will they look in the classroom during transition and post implementation?

There are three major instructional shifts that everyone is talking about, and they’re all meant to make career and college readiness a reality for every student: 1) a focus on more complex text; 2) citing evidence from text when reading, writing or speaking; and 3) building knowledge through non-fiction text. This last one has probably become the most controversial of the three, which I’ll address in a minute.

When we look at the focus on text complexity, and the academic vocabulary that comes along with this more complex text, we can understand why students may struggle with this major shift. Students are now expected to read grade level texts that include more challenging language and structures. They are encouraged to ask and answer questions that require them to read deeply to infer the author’s message in both literary and informational texts. This is a different kind of reading than students may have encountered in the past, and it takes teachers teaching in a new way.

Citing evidence, whether garnering it from written text or understanding how a speaker has supported statements in a speech, requires students to demonstrate how they have drawn conclusions. What are the clues? What does the text say that lets the reader know what a character is like or how the author has supported an opinion? Students not only need to be able to pinpoint the evidence, but also to write about the evidence they found in their reading.

Lastly, the standards require building knowledge through non-fiction. The focus on non-fiction has been misinterpreted to mean that fiction is not important. In fact, asking students to read more non-fiction does not suggest English language arts teachers can only use informational texts; they can introduce literary non-fiction texts like essays and biographies to support the fiction that students are reading. Informational texts help students learn about the world. Most of the reading in real life is non-fiction, but we haven’t always been good at teaching students how to read informational texts so students can learn from them.

These three major shifts combined mean that instruction needs to change, and teachers must pay a lot more attention to the text they are using in the classroom. They have to spend time finding complex texts or use materials that make them readily available, and they have to learn new methods for teaching students to read and write about these texts. What is the upside of this? A lot of teachers in my own state are finding that they are surprised by how much deeper students’ thinking can be. It’s not that teachers weren’t doing a good job of teaching before; it’s just that expectations are a lot higher now with the new standards, and students are rising to that challenge.

What does the common core’s emphasis on deeper learning mean for classroom instruction and teacher preparation?

Instruction has changed in many ways. I see more group work being conducted in the classroom, more interactive and engaging lessons and a lot more discussion than we typically have seen before. Students are thinking and learning together.

In terms of teacher preparation, this isn’t a situation where teachers can go into their classrooms, shut the door and learn it on their own. In Kentucky, we’ve found that because all of our teachers have had to learn the new standards at the same time, they are working much more collaboratively on the entire process. They are working very closely together to prepare lessons and find appropriate resources. They are trying new instructional strategies, sharing what works in professional learning communities and learning from each other.

How will teachers and administrators evaluate student performance differently under the new standards to ensure they are on track for college and careers?

Teachers can use formative assessments in the classroom and really pay close attention to what students understand and how they learn. They can also use assessments that reveal the gaps in student knowledge and what teachers need to do next to support a student’s growth. By working in groups to analyze student assessment data, teachers and administrators can help ensure a student is progressing towards college and career readiness.

To help with the process, it is advantageous for schools and districts to use resources that are built for the common core, such as Curriculum Associates’ i-Ready® and Ready programs. These are the types of resources that will help teachers understand where students are and then move them through online and teacher-led instruction that addresses these new standards.

Brenda Overturf is an author of Curriculum Associates’ Ready® Common Core Reading program.