3 Ways the Common Core’s Literacy Focus is Good for Education

February 4, 2015

By Suraj Gopal

Recently, some politicians have campaigned on the promise to fight the Common Core. However, American teachers, rather than politicians, are best positioned to comment on whether these new standards are, in fact, pushing education in a positive direction.  From my perspective, the standards’ focus on literacy has already brought about a noticeable and positive change in schools, including my own. I’ve seen three main ways that the Common Core’s focus on literacy has benefited students and teachers.

1. Literacy as a foundation of all subjects

New York State standards for high school courses in math appeared a jumble of disconnected ideas before the shift to the Common Core. Now, technical and analytical language forms the basis of instruction; the science faculty at my school has followed the lead of their math counterparts. Not only do students solve equations in algebra and perform labs in living environment, but they also document their work with studious attention to the language they use. In my physics and algebra classes, students have dedicated vocabulary sections in their binders. Throughout the year, they focus on definitions and the high-level language necessary to speak about content. This ever-growing body of work informs their analysis of texts and high-level class discussions centered around content. For example, they must consistently refer to “inverse operations” and “like terms” when they solve equations for a variable and justify answers. 

In my algebra classroom, students do “problem write-ups” at the beginning of new units. They explore new concepts by observing real life phenomena – such as simple and compound interest, the flight of rockets – that behaves algebraically. They write sophisticated math essays that explore and explain these situations. This practice has become a welcome way to break class routines, and it engages many of my students who have never enjoyed math class.

The designers of the new standards clearly understood how important a high level of literacy is in college and professional settings. Over time, students will reap the benefits of this focus, exiting school with a rich background in both content knowledge and academic reading, writing, and speaking.

2. Collaborative planning around academic language

Interdisciplinary lessons have many benefits – they can strengthen students’ understanding of all subjects involved, give teachers a chance to build on each other’s strengths and content, and help students approach topics through multiple lenses. Due to the Common Core’s focus on literacy, these types of lessons occur more frequently. My school, for example, has created literacy goals across subjects. As a result, my grade team implements common practices in all classes. We teach academic vocabulary – such as cause and effect language like “because,” “since,” “due to,” and “therefore” – on the same pacing calendar, and we push students to use common language to articulate their reasoning in all of our classrooms. This common thread makes linking content in interdisciplinary units far easier, while allowing us to highlight differences in usage across classrooms.

3. Common assessment language

One major benefit of the Common Core is that New York’s new assessments in math and English language arts share important language even within different types of questions. At the high school level, the ELA exam requires students to analyze texts based on reading and listening, and to make connections to other literature. On the algebra exam, students must often justify their answers with a written explanation. In both situations, students engage with reading and writing. Language demanding reasoning (“justify”, “explain”, “describe”, “analyze”) recurs throughout the pages of each test. As aspiring graduates approach these exams, they will have repeatedly practiced using academic language, and communicating their points of view across content areas – much as they will be expected to do in college and the workforce.

It may be tempting to view the Common Core as just another education trend that has come and will soon go, but it is naive to look for instant gratification from changes to education policy. The most meaningful and positive advances have been made in the classroom, and those will only be reflected in student outcomes over an extended period of time. Above all, new standards have brought much-needed focus on literacy to American schools, and teachers and students are both better for it.

Suraj Gopal is a ninth grade STEM Special Education Teacher at Hudson High School of Learning Technologies in Manhattan. He also serves as Hudson's UFT delegate, and the varsity boys' soccer coach for his school building's very own Bayard Rustin Titans

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