This question came in from a reader asking specifically about some units proposed by the Education Department in Louisiana. I'm sharing my response with everyone because I think the confusion in Louisiana is general across the nation.
The Education Department in Louisiana (Louisiana Believes) has a scope and sequence that teachers can use to teach the CCSS in ELA. Teachers have informed me there are too many standards in each ELA unit to teach in order to effectively teach them. Of the 10 standards in each of the following: reading literature, reading information, and writing, most of them are listed in each ELA unit. Teachers are aware that students should be proficient in all ELA standards for their grade level.
What are your thoughts regarding teachers focusing on 3-5 ELA standards per unit and continuing to work with these standards throughout the rest of the units? They will be teaching the remaining ELA standards as they apply to the text. Focus standards in each unit will continue to be taught and students will continue to work with them throughout the year. By the end of the year, they will have taught and students will have worked with all ELA standards in their grade level with the goal of students being proficient in all ELA standards for the grade level.
In your opinion, would it be effective for teachers to do this?
I have taken a look at the Louisiana material and I can see why teachers are confused. The lists of books are useful, but many of the assignments seem not to be especially connected to Common Core (writing one’s own story based on the pictures in a storybook does not constitute writing from sources, for example). In terms of your specific question…
First, although CCSS has fewer standards than were evident in past state standards, they are still overwhelming. Listing pretty much all of the standards for each unit is pretty worthless as a management approach. Let’s get some control of this.
I think it is imperative that teachers understand that there are not 20 reading comprehension standards at each grade level, but only 10. CCSS shows how these 10 standards look in literary and informational texts, hence the confusion that these constitute 20 separate standards. There are also 10 writing standards, and these overlap in important ways with the reading standards (see items 7-8-9). My point is that it will be helpful to see these lists in the most economical ways possible. Fewer standards will give you greater purchase on the entire set. The Louisiana materials--by listing each standard repeatedly for each unit--magnifies the problem of too many items to focus on; it should be striving to reduce the load, not increase it.
Second, the categories are as important as the individual standards (since the categories reveal the purposes of what are in each set). The Louisiana plan misses this key point and it is part of the reason the guidance is so overwhelming. For example, the first three reading standards emphasize that readers need to be able to grasp the “key ideas and details” of the texts they read. They should, for instance, be able to summarize what they read, or answer questions about what the text said explicitly or implied. Looking at these categorically will help you to see them in a more coherent way. The Louisiana materials encourage a more fragmented approach, and teachers are overwhelmed by all the little pieces.
Third, it is important to understand that standards are not synonymous with curriculum (something that CCSS has stressed repeatedly). If you are trying to teach students to make sense of a text’s key ideas and details what do you need to teach to get them there? It might be helpful to teach them to identify a main idea or how to paraphrase; or some kind of note-taking might help. By just matching outcomes with texts/assignments, the whole idea of curriculum has been washed away. Louisiana’s guidance neglects this basic point—again, confusing things.
However, despite those complaints, Louisiana is correct in its approach that units—and even individual lessons—will need to address multiple standards. The structure of the comprehension standards is less a detailed list of disparate items than an organized set of cognitive moves one might make in trying to understand a text. Students are to be taught to identify key ideas and details while reading, to analyze how an author conveyed those ideas, and to evaluate and connect/compare texts with other “texts.” While I don’t think it makes sense to try to instantiate each of the 10 comprehension items every time students read, it might make sense to instantiate at least one standard from each category during a close reading (that would require attention to at least three standards per lesson/text).
Which standards to address will vary from text-to-text. But this variation should not be linked to some pacing guide or curriculum guidance. It should be linked to the specific texts or tasks students are engaged with. Individual standards will match better with some texts or reading circumstances. For example, if a unit includes only a single text, you might have the students evaluate it in some way, but you probably wouldn’t have them comparing it with other texts.
But remember, not every lesson will be the focus of close reading. The idea of mixing in other readings/exercises/lessons in which students practice a particular comprehension strategy or analyze particular aspect of a text can be mixed in, too. Research shows that such lessons can bear fruit. While such analysis or practice is not included in the standards (because this analysis or practice is not an outcome), it can be an important avenue to ensuring that students reach the standards.
As students read various texts across the school year, they will practice particular standards in varying combinations depending on the demands of the specific texts.