Changes and Challenges Brought by Common Core (1): English Literature Arts


Worried by the fact that their children are falling behind globally in academic abilities, the US government has come up with a set of national standards that specify what students are expected to achieve in Math and English (English Literature Arts, ELA) from kindergarten through 12th grade. The standards are referred to as the Common Core.

Compared with the traditional curriculum and teaching methods used, the Common Core standards emphasize critical thinking and analysis rather than rote learning. Its aim is to ensure that public school students all over the country generally learn "the same things" (according to New York Times), while it is also designed to reduce the high remediation rates at universities and cultivate more competitive students for jobs which demand high levels of skills.

Up till now, 45 states in US have applied the Common Core in school teaching, but when people found from the test results of reading and math released by the New York State (one of the early adopters of Common Core) that the students pass rate is below 1/3, controversies over such new national standards flooded into many mainstream American media again.

The Hechinger Report, a private-funded unit of Teachers College at Columbia University, has summarized some significant changes that will be taking place in both English classrooms and Math classrooms once the Common Core standards are introduced.

(1)     English

In the past, ELA classes at American schools used to concentrate on literature (like Huckleberry Finn and Great Gatsby). The Common Core English standards require a mix of literature and informational texts (like speeches and articles). Students now need to write arguments and essays based on evidence from the reading texts rather than personal reactions and experiences. As most schools are accustomed to assigning reading materials to students at their reading level, the Common Core states that all students must read the same "complex" text regardless of their reading level.

David Coleman, one of the co-writers of the English standards, holds that students should not be provided with context on what they are going to read before they start reading, and nor should they be taught pre-reading strategies. He suggests that teachers ask students more specific questions instead of having them focusing on the main idea, character or structure when they read. Coleman also criticizes the popular practice to assign students "just-right" books so as not to frustrate them. He believes that teachers should use "techniques" like close reading (for instance, studying how one vocabulary word is used in the text for a whole class period) to help students get through more complex texts. Coleman also says that the class should move more slowly through reading materials.

The ultimate idea of the English standards, as concluded by the Hechinger Report, is to help students understand how to talk and write about reading materials using evidence.

Some English teachers have worried that the favor for historical or scientific texts would outweigh traditional important literature, but the co-writers of the standards clarified that literature would not lose its importance, as novels like Huckleberry Finn are still crucial in Common Core standards. Many critics doubt if it is appropriate for English teachers who are trained in literature and literacy techniques to present informative material that once was a part of history class or science class.


(Go on to read: Changes and Challenges Brought by Common Core (2): Math)

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