Common Core: What It Actually Means for Kids

In part three of ‘The Future of Common Core,’ Peg Tyre examines the controversial shift in how kids will be taught reading and writing.
The Common Core Standards will impact how reading and writing is taught in school. They will change some, but not all, of the books kids read in class. (Photo: Denver Post via Getty Images)
Apr 30, 2013
Peg Tyre is the author of two bestselling books. She has written for The New York Times and The Atlantic.

In this four-part series, award-winning reporter Peg Tyre examines how the controversial Common Core Standards will impact American education. We’ll explore the sweeping new goals of the initiative, how teachers are preparing for the changeover—and what's causing critics to sound the alarm.

As the Common Core goes into effect, two of the most immediate changes parents may notice, especially in the early grades, are a new emphasis on nonfiction reading and a push to get students of all ages to sharpen their analytical writing skills.

In early elementary school, children will be asked to read (or for kindergarteners and first graders, have read to them) more of what is called “expository and informational texts.” Sounds ominous, right?

Not to worry just yet. Those chilling terms actually refer to nonfiction books, ones about plants, planets, and baseball players, as well as books about history—presidents, prairies, and Puritans.

Why the change? In many schools, reading in early elementary school revolves solely around fiction. And while that’s great, research suggests that for children to expand their reading comprehension—to squeeze meaning out of increasingly sophisticated texts—children need to build up their vocabulary.

Reading books that reflect their experiences, or help them develop an emotional vocabulary, are good, but so are books that expand their knowledge about the world around them.

What is the link between reading comprehension and nonfiction? Well, it turns out that children better comprehend material when it is concerning subjects with which they have some familiarity.

For example, a child could decode the compound word “everglades.” They would divide up the word and sound out “ever” and then “glades.” But if he/she had never heard of the word used to describe those swamps in Florida, what would he/she make of the word? Nothing.

Reading more books about science, sports, nature, battles, politics, religion, art, music, and culture builds knowledge and improves reading comprehension. So around fourth grade, when kids move from learning to read to reading to learn, they are fully equipped to succeed.

Shortly after the standards rolled out, the call for more nonfiction reading set off a brief firestorm of controversy. The standards suggested a 50/50 split between fiction and nonfiction in all the materials kids read in elementary school, and a 70/30 split favoring nonfiction in high school.

This caused many English teachers who recite poetry in the shower, worship Shakespeare, and like so many of us, reached our maturity while continuing to identify strongly with Scout in To Kill A Mockingbird, to fret that they would be forced to teach boring nonfiction instead. Which turns out not to be true.

Under the Common Core, high school students have to read 70 percent nonfiction across the entire curriculum. So, if your child’s high school history teachers assigns regular nonfiction reading (and I hope he/she does) and your child’s science teacher assigns some nonfiction reading (and again, I hope he/she does), your child’s English teacher will be able to pretty much teach the books she has always taught—with some minor tweaks.

The Common Core is meant to change the diet of reading that high schoolers are served up and provide them with less young adult novels like ‘Twilight.’

What research tells us is that aside from some classics, the overall reading level of books assigned in high school has dropped substantially.

The Common Core is meant to change the diet of reading that high schoolers are served up and provide them with less young adult novels like Twilight and A Boy Called It, and more of Martin Luther King, Jr’s Letter from Birmingham Jail and Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Gravity in Reverse: The Tale of Albert Einstein’s Greatest Blunder, which will inform them about the world.

As for writing, well, the Common Core calls for a lot less self-expression (what would you feel if you got bullied?) and more persuasive, expository writing (which explains things) and analytic writing, which examines ideas.

From kindergarten, teachers will ask their pupils to come up with an opinion and some reason for it. (I liked this book because…) And in later years, learn to write that in well-turned paragraphs.

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