Five or so years into the process of learning about and transitioning to Core, I can nearly recite the key shifts of the ELA standards in my sleep. But does my teaching reflect the required changes? What do these shifts really mean? What do they look like in my high school English classroom? I recently embarked on this reflection exercise and will share my thoughts about each shift this three-part blog series.
- How do my students and I regularly practice with complex texts and their academic language?
In early January I attended the Washington Core Advocates convening in Seattle. The goal of this training was to inspire participants to go back to their areas of influence armed with new knowledge and understandings and to act as catalysts for change. I walked away with many great ideas, but a month later I am still thinking about text complexity and how I can continue working toward this shift with all of my classes.
Presenters at this training used the graph below referencing ACT data to make the case that, quite simply, our students need more experience with complex texts (sign up for a webinar about this topic here or additional details can be found here). We can teach students reading strategies as well as tools for analyzing texts, but being able to do either with complex texts seems to be the game changer, what is actually most important. Indeed, the ability to read complex text differentiates college-ready readers from those who may need remediation to be successful in their post-secondary studies. It logically follows then, that for students to be able to read complex texts, they have to be frequently exposed to them in our high school classrooms. Teaching students how to wade through the often dense academic language of complex text is a key to success in this arena.
So how am I doing with this? Have I made this shift?
I have always taught Tier 2 courses for struggling readers as well as standard and even honors level classes. The level of the course determined the complexity of the assigned texts. I didn’t question using simplified or rewritten versions of original texts to teach struggling readers; in fact, it was a relief to do so.
Also, when I first started teaching, vocabulary packets were all the rage. My English department eventually moved away from that in favor of teaching vocabulary in context, and my efforts were at best spotty. Students would predict vocabulary meanings, confirm them using the text and a dictionary, memorize their definitions, and take a test. I did not strategically select the words, instead relying on the textbook publisher.
I sometimes still use simplified texts as a starting point, to build basic understanding or background knowledge, but I now completely recognize the importance of helping students grapple with complex text. I am no longer afraid of assigning difficult readings, calling on various strategies for helping students understand gist of what they have read. Armed with overall ideas, we zoom into parts of The Crucible or Brave New World, closely reading to really understand a character’s struggle or the author’s purpose, for example. I notice that students are intimidated at first, but they work through it with wonderful resiliency and are proud when they have “conquered” a difficult text.
I am also aware of the importance of identifying and spending time and effort on those tier 2 vocabulary words, the ones that show up in multiple sources and disciplines. I am in the process of defining a system that works for me. One of my PLC’s recently read about Vocabulary’s CODE in The Core Six: Essential Strategies for Achieving Excellence with the Common Core. I have always done well in helping students connect with new vocabulary, but that is the easy part. I have added a row called “Vocab Focus” to my online lesson planner and strive to practice incorporating organization, deep processing and exercising elements into my lessons each day.
Am I doing this correctly? Is this enough? What do I need to do better? These are questions I constantly ask myself on my journey toward full-implementation of the new standards. I am encouraged by what my students are able to produce now versus a few years ago when this was brand new, and I look forward to seeing how continued work with this shift will pay off.
How are you embracing this shift in your work?
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