A Common Core Catechism

Timothy G. Morrison

The Common Core State Standards have exerted a great influence on education practice in recent years. Common Core academies are held to inform and prepare teachers, Common Core assessments are being created, and the new Utah Core has been approved. What does all this mean for teachers and students? To address issues of the Common Core, I thought it might be helpful to use the format of a catechism.

A catechism is a summary of essential principles presented in the form of questions and answers, which is often used for instruction. When I grew up in Tacoma, Washington with my twin brother, Mark, our two best friends in sixth grade were named Larry and Grant. We played together, invited each other to birthday parties, and had sleepovers at each other's houses. But every Thursday after school Mark and I went to primary because we were LDS, Larry went to catechism because he was Catholic, and Grant went to the park to play football because he was Lutheran.

You may be familiar with the idea of a catechism through the New England Primer (Harris, 1777), the first reading textbook printed in America. Eighteenth century children were taught to say the names of the letters of the alphabet, read a few common syllables, and read verses from the Bible or other religious material. Part of the New England Primer was formatted in catechism style. Here's an example:

Question: What is the chief end of man?
Answer: Man's chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.
Question: What rule hath God given to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him?
Answer: The word of God, which is contained in the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, is the only rule to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him.

Inspired by this work, I thought it might be a good idea to follow the example of the New England Primer and create a catechism for the Common Core to help us better understand it.

Question: What is meant by the Common Core State Standards?  
Answer:

The Common Core State Standards comprise a set of consistent, clear student expectations to help ensure that all students are college and career ready in literacy no later than the end of high school. Note that the standards relate to expectations for students, not for teachers.

Question:  Who developed the Common Core?
Answer:

The Common Core was created under the leadership of the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers (2010). These organizations are not tied to the federal government, and the Common Core was not developed as a result of federal mandate.

The Common Core was developed over a very brief period by two major writers -- David Coleman and Susan Pimentel. Coleman is an education entrepreneur who has been involved in developing instructional and assessment products and was recently named President of the College Board. Pimentel is an education consultant and adviser. Neither has been a significant contributor in the field of literacy education and research in the past, and neither is considered to be a researcher in the field today.

Question:  Is the Common Core a national curriculum?
Answer:

Although the Common Core State Standards were not developed by and are not required by the federal government, they have been individually adopted by 45 of the 50 states, so they are being used pretty much nationally.

Because of the widespread use of the standards and the national conversation that is occurring about them, as well as the assessment tools being developed based on them, the Common Core State Standards may very well turn out to be a force that will influence development of teaching materials and assessment tools nationally.  

Question:  What subject areas do the standards cover?
Answer:

The English/Language Arts Common Core consists of three sets of related standards: (1) Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects K–5; (2) Standards for English Language Arts 6–12; (3) Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects. So in brief, standards exist for elementary teachers, secondary English teachers, and secondary content area teachers. There are also standards for mathematics.

In the K-12 language arts, standards are in place for reading (both narrative/literature and informational text), writing, speaking, listening, and language, as well as foundational reading standards for children in kindergarten through third grade. Phonological awareness and phonics expectations are addressed in the foundation standards. Vocabulary standards are included in the language section. Handwriting (manuscript and cursive) is addressed in the Common Core only for Kindergarten and first grade.

When publication of student writing is mentioned, use of technology is emphasized.  

Question:  What do the standards say about teaching all this?
Answer:

The standards define what students should be expected to know and be able to do, but they do not tell teachers how to teach these things. However, the Common Core authors have distributed Publishers' Criteria for the Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts and Literacy, Grades 3–12 and another publication for grades K-2 (http://www.centeroninstruction.org/revised-publishers-criteria-for-the-common-core-state-standards-in-english-language-arts-and-literacy-k2-and-grades-312).

These publications provide guidance for publishers and curriculum developers as they work to make the Common Core practical in classrooms. For example, Coleman and Pimentel recommend that teachers use "short, self-contained texts that students can read and re-read deliberately and slowly to probe and ponder the meanings of individual words, the order in which sentences unfold, and the development of ideas over the course of the text" (p. 4).

The Publishers' Criteria also includes recommendations on the proportion of writing genres students should experience:

  • In elementary school, 30 percent of student writing should be to argue, 35 percent should be to explain/inform, and 35 percent should be narrative.
  • In middle school, 35 percent of student writing should be to write arguments, 35 percent should be to explain/inform, and 30 percent should be narrative.
  • In high school, 40 percent of student writing should be to write arguments, 40 percent should be to explain/inform, and 20 percent should be narrative.
Question: How are these standards different from other standards?
Answer:

The answer you will receive to that question will depend on the individual you talk to. I believe that the Common Core State Standards include fewer, clearer, and higher expectations than previous standards. One of the most important differences, I think, is that these standards expect students to write using three specific genres: narrative, informational, and opinion writing.

Question: Opinion writing? I thought it was argument writing or persuasive writing.
Answer:

All three terms are used in the Common Core documents. Over the course of their K-12 education, students are expected to develop the ability to write to change a reader's point of view or to bring about some action. The Common Core developers want kids to be able to analyze evidence from several sources and then advance an evidence-supported claim. In grades K-5 the focus is on writing opinions that are supported by reasons and elaborations. The word opinion is used in the K-5 standards to represent this kind of writing, not the words argumentative or persuasive.

Question: Are you sure?
Answer: Yes, but the terms argumentative and persuasive are used in the 6-12 language arts standards. The expectation is that students should be able to write logical arguments as preparation for the writing that colleges and employers will require.
Question:  With all this new emphasis on information and opinion writing, what about narrative writing, the writing process, and writing workshops? Are they doomed?
Answer:

We will not have to throw out everything we have known and practiced. We know that writers need chances to revise and improve their writing. They need chances to organize their writing and express themselves in purposeful ways. But when we teach writing following the Common Core standards, we also need to teach children in more explicit ways than we may have taught in the past.        

As we acquaint children with various forms of writing, we need to show them how to organize informational text and how to frame an argument. We may need to do some whole class and small group shared writing to model for students how to write in genres that may be new to them, especially children who struggle or are English language learners.

Many children will need to see clear examples of informational and opinion writing and then have chances to follow those examples in their own writing. This doesn't sound like the traditional writing workshop we have followed in the past.

Question:  That's what I was thinking. So it seems like we're throwing out process writing. 
Answer:

Not really. Process writing implies that writing takes time and usually involves creating more than one draft. Even when we show students examples of writing in different genres and then have them follow those examples, children will still need to treat writing as a process.

They will still revise their writing to make it more closely match the model. They will still need to conference with others about how they can write their opinions more clearly and how they can better explain something in informational writing. They will need to carefully select precise and powerful words to convey their ideas.  

Question:  That seems to be a big deal.
Answer: It is. But that's not all. The Common Core also emphasizes text complexity -- the idea that students must be able to comprehend texts of steadily increasing complexity. 
Question:  I've heard about that. In the Common Core kids aren't supposed to read anything that is below their grade level, right?
Answer:

This is a common misunderstanding. Just passing their eyes over grade level text or hearing complex text read to them will not necessarily increase kids' abilities to understand grade level text. The Common Core instructs how to match students with appropriate text by using quantitative and qualitative measures, as well as allowing for reader and text considerations.

The Core emphasizes that students need to increase sophistication in their reading comprehension abilities. So while the goal is for children to read increasingly difficult and complex text, to do so they must be able to more carefully and accurately read text that is accessible to them. 

Question:  What do you mean?
Answer:

As children read text that is carefully matched to their abilities and interests, they will deepen their understanding of that text, and as their skill level and thoughtful strategy use increases, their comprehension abilities will increase, so they will be able to deeply read increasingly difficult text.

Question:

So we want kids to read text at their individual levels to help them become able to read more complex text?

Answer:

Yes. When they can deeply read text at their current level, they will progress to read more and more difficult and complex text. The focus should be on how deeply students process text instead of how hard the text is to read.

Question:  So the big idea is to get kids to understand text more deeply?
Answer:  Yes! We as teachers need to help our students go deep with text.
Question:  Go deep with text?
Answer: Yes, go deep with text.
Question:  But what do you mean by going deep with text?
Answer:

Here's what the Common Core says students need to be able to do:

  • Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from text
  • Analyze how and why individuals, events, and ideas develop and interact over the course of a text
  • Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, which includes determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, as well as analyzing how specific word choices shape meaning or tone
  • Read and comprehend complex literary and informational text independently and proficiently (National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers, 2010, p. 10)
Question:  Well that sounds overwhelming.
Answer:  That is a long list of important skills. But I believe the Common Core gives us permission to do things with text we have wanted to do in the past but have felt we didn't have time to do.
Question:  Like what?
Answer:  Like closely reading and discussing text. Like having students think about what they read in different ways. This type of reading will prepare students to be successful when they take those new tests. 
Question:  Close reading. I've heard about that. Isn't that a new Common Core idea?
Answer:

Close reading is not described as an instructional tool in the Common Core, and it's not a new idea. But people are talking about close reading as a way to help students achieve the expectations of the Common Core.

Close reading is a concept from literary criticism that refers to carefully interpreting a brief passage of text over a sustained period. To engage in close reading, teachers choose a specific passage (usually a short story, picture book, or excerpt from a longer passage) and analyze it with their students in fine detail, as if with a magnifying glass. Teachers then comment on and discuss with their students points of style, specific vocabulary, relationships among ideas, and their own reactions as readers. It's one way to go deep with text with kids.

Question:  So how do you do it?
Answer:

There are lots of ways to closely read text. What you do depends on what your students need and what the text has to offer.

  • An example of close reading by a 9th grade teacher can be found online at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TkK8jnaJnj4. This teacher and her class are reading Robert Frost's poem "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening." As they discuss the poem, the students demonstrate a deep understanding of the passage through the comments they make.
  • Another example that can be found online shows a fifth grade teacher going deep with text with his students (https://www.teachingchannel.org/videos/reading-workshop-overview). The teacher can be seen modeling, explaining, and supporting his students as they read a common text.
  • A third example of deep reading demonstrates a second grade teacher helping her students read text carefully. (http://fortschoolspcl.squarespace.com/2nd-grade/).

In all three of these examples students are shown how to draw inferences, cite evidence from the text, draw conclusions, understand connections across text, and deal with the complexity of vocabulary as they are challenging texts.

Question:  So talking about what they read will improve comprehension?
Answer:  Yes, talking about what they are reading will focus kids' attention on the important aspects of the text and will lead to better overall understanding of it. And they'll start looking for those elements in other texts they read.
Question:  Using evidence from the text is a big thing in the Common Core?
Answer:

Yes. One expectation in the Common Core is that students will use evidence from the text to support their ideas in discussion. When they do, they can see connections among ideas that they may not have seen initially.

 Many of the most important text-to-text connections that readers make are within the text. Some connections are fairly simple ones that are needed to understand text.

For example, at the beginning of the book The Three Princes (Kimmel, 1994), the author writes, "Princes from all over the world sought her hand in marriage, but the ones she liked best were three cousins: Prince Fahad, Prince Muhammed, and Prince Mohsen." When I have read this book to some students, they have misunderstood this sentence, thinking that the three princes and the princess were all cousins. In fact, the princes are related to each other, but none is related to the princess.

Question:  I thought text-to-text connections meant you thought of another book that related to the one you're reading.
Answer:

That's one kind, but the most important kind of text-to-text connections are found within the text. Look at the part of The Three Princes when the princes realized that the princess was dying and they needed to get back fast.  The author has Prince Mohsen say, "The princess needn't die. My orange can cure her . . . But how can I reach her in time? Even if I rode all night, I could never arrive by morning." He wants readers to make an important connection with a part of the text a few pages earlier: "The next morning the three princes rode out together. They traveled across the desert for many days until they came to a place where the path branched off in three directions."

Although some students will make a connection like that, many will not. When you take the time to show students -- or better yet have them show you and others -- how to make those connections, everyone will get better at understanding the text.

Question:  Because they're going deeper with text.
Answer:  Right! They're going deeper with text. When you go deep with text in ways like this, children will deepen their understanding of text.
Question:  So you think the Common Core is here to stay?
Answer:

Yes. I think the direction the Common Core provides for us can give us all direction in our work with children. The path will be difficult in places, and many of us will stumble at times, but I think the path of the Common Core is headed in the right direction.  

Timothy Morrison is an associate chair of the Department of Teacher Education at Brigham Young University where he teaches courses in literacy education. He also serves as the president-elect of the Utah Council of the International Reading Association.

 

References

Harris, B. (1777). The New England primer. Boston, MA: Edward Draper. 

Kimmel, E. A. (1994). The three princes. New York, NY: Holiday House.

National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of State School Officers. (2010). Common Core State Standards for English language arts and literacy in history/social studies, science, and technical subjects. Washington, DC: Authors.