A Closer Look at Common Core Language Arts
As I read through Common Core State Standards (CCST) descriptions of their English Language Arts standards, there were two things that bothered me most. This is just me personally, everyone is free to be bothered by a lot of other stuff in there…and there’s plenty to irk. But for me, the fact that “primary or secondary sources” are acceptable references is shocking. Maybe even worse is enforcing argumentative, informational, and instructional writing standards – a.k.a. technical writing – at the expense of creative expression. Creative writing beyond narrative is entirely up to your teacher. Forget it, Mr. Walt Whitman, you’re standing in American Literature is optional. And welcome Wikipedia, you are now a viable secondary reference source for academic papers.
Primary Sources Should Be Valued
On the Common Core website, corestandards.org, having students refer to “primary or secondary sources” is consistently used in describing how argument and informational writing should be taught. Primary reference sources are the most reliable, of course, because they contain the ideas in original form or source. The source itself is verifiable. You can find background information on the authors, their education, their level of expertise, etc. As for Wikipedia…well, good luck trying to find out who wrote that tidbit of information you consume as fact. Secondary reference sources may be watered down and compromised versions of original ideas. They can be someone else’s interpretation of the original text.
Teaching junior high and high school students that original sources are always best is important for those very good reasons. Making secondary sources acceptable is like using a nonfiction personal narrative piece of writing as a reference in a scientific paper.
New Emphasis On Technical Writing
The change of focus in reading, writing, and speaking for grades K-12 is called “Key Shifts in English Language Arts.” There are three main areas of change, listed here as it is on their website:
1. Regular practice with complex texts and academic language
Emphasis is placed on the progressive development of reading comprehension of increasingly complex texts. Students are not given reading lists at the beginning of the year, but rather, sample texts. Vocabulary and “conventions” (grammar, spelling, punctuation) are taught in their own “strand” within the contexts of academic writing, reading, and speaking.
The standards include certain critical types of content for all students, including classic myths and stories from around the world, foundational U.S. documents, seminal works of American literature, and the writings of Shakespeare.
Teachers are able to choose the literature they want to teach from the sample texts provided. However, “because college and career readiness overwhelmingly focuses on complex texts outside of literature, these standards also ensure students are being prepared to read, write, and research across the curriculum, including in history and science.”
So, you’ve just been told that there’s not a lot of room for your literary heritage in the Common Core world. Literature is now some kind of hobby or sidebar in the classroom. Chances are your children will never know Mark Twain. They will not read J.D. Salinger. Toni Morrison will be a distant memory. No one will be spooked out by Edgar Allen Poe or Ray Bradbury. So long Where the Red Fern Grows, A Raisin in the Sun, The Call of the Wild, White Fang, Black Pearl, Flowers for Algernon, Of Mice and Men….and the list goes on. What was once an important piece of childhood previously will be no more.
2. Reading, writing, and speaking grounded in evidence from texts, both literary and informational
Emphasis is placed on students’ grasp of information, arguments, and details of a text rather than personal responses of any kind. Students should be able to answer “text dependent” questions. A student’s previous experience and opinion “alone will not prepare students for the demands of college, career, and life.”
“Student Narrative” writing is used throughout Common Core’s English Language Arts programs, but it is expected to be oriented towards effective argumentation, information, and persuasion. Forget it if you’re interested in literary writing – in creating characters and worlds and intrigue. If your kids have a knack for writing, technical manuals are their future. But they probably won’t mind, since they don’t get the exposure to proper literature….what else would writing be?
3. Building knowledge through content-rich nonfiction
Common Core believes that students must be immersed in information about the world around them to be prepared for college, career, and life. To do this, nonfiction, informational text samples are used increasingly from Kindergarten to high school graduation. In K -5 the 50% informational texts center on history/social studies, sciences, technical studies, and the arts. In grades 6-12 the emphasis shifts to 70% focus on informational texts and “literary nonfiction”. Literary nonfiction uses narrative (story) and literary technique to write about factual persons, places, and events.
Literary nonfiction is meant to be rooted in fact and not written in the “service of craft” (i.e. writing skill). It’s in the service of information, not good story-telling. It doesn’t seem to matter what the focus of the literary nonfiction text is…only that it’s not literature. So instead of learning about morality, justice, or the evils of racism from To Kill a Mockingbird, they can read about the details of leather tanning…very useful when you’re preparing for college, career, and life, right?
So there it is. That incredible imagination of your four year old is not supported by her Common Core Standards curriculum….nor is literature, thought, or experience. And forget it if she has an opinionated reaction in 5th grade to a sample text from a science lesson or history lesson and wants to write something about it. She has to live and write within the boundaries of the single text before her…no thought from outside its confines is permitted…nothing learned previously is allowed. If there is no evidence in the text, there is no room for it. It cannot exist.
Take a moment. Think about it. What options are there for your child in this rigid language arts program? Why should his thinking be limited to the single text in front of him? How can he grow as a student…as a person…as a human if he’s taught his prior knowledge doesn’t matter…to only work with the evidence in the text? And will those technical texts ever teach him one of the most important lessons of all…to actually enjoy reading?
Read up on Common Core. Make sure you’re well informed. It’s going to be up to you to fill in the gaps where the Language Arts Program falls short…way short.
What are your thoughts on your child’s reading materials under the new Common Core standards?