Common Core and Informational Text

As of September 2016, 38 states are using the Common Core English Language Arts (ELA) Standards. Compared to previous standards, Common Core places increased emphasis on informational text, recommending that 50% of the text read in elementary school, 55% of the text read in middle school, and 70% of the text read in high school be informational. Informational text is a subset of nonfiction that informs the reader about the human or natural world.

The Common Core informational text requirement encompasses not just texts used in English class, but texts used in other subject areas as well, including history, art, science, and technical subjects. Thus, informational text in each subject areas should align not only with standards for that subject, but also with Common Core Standards.

The organizations that produced Common Core have provided guidelines for development of texts and activities that align with the standards, for grades K-2 and 3-12. The guidelines for grades 3-12 include criteria for the development of texts and activities for history/social sciences, science, and technical subjects. I briefly summarize these criteria here.

Guidelines for text development

1) Texts should have the appropriate level of complexity. Common Core stipulates that students should be exposed to texts with a “staircase of increasing complexity” as they progress through the grades, so that by the end of high school they are able to comprehend text necessary for success in college and career. Toward this end, all students should be exposed to grade-level text, regardless of ability. ESL students and students who are behind should be provided with extra support materials to help them decode the text, and students who are ahead should be provided with more advanced reading. All students should be provided with strategies for decoding difficult texts.

Information about the level of complexity at which students need to demonstrate comprehension in each grade is provided in ELA Standard 10. Information on how text complexity should be measured is provided in Appendix A.

2) Text should increase the student knowledge base. Content should be carefully designed to provide information that is useful and relevant and that is worthy of instructional time. Content should also be designed to engage student interest.

3) Students should be exposed to texts that vary in length and format. Exposure to short texts that can be read thoroughly multiple times allows for practice of close reading skills. Exposure to longer texts facilitates development of stamina and the ability to extract pertinent information from a large volume. Besides written text, students should also be exposed to visual media, including video.

4) Students should be exposed to content that enriches their academic and domain-specific vocabulary. Academic vocabulary, defined in Appendix A of the ELA Standards, includes words such as formulate and specificity that are found in complex text across disciplines. Domain-specific vocabulary includes words such as lava and aorta that are associated with a particular subject area. Strategies should be provided for decoding unknown words and, when appropriate, vocabulary should be defined. ESL students should also be provided with tools to decode high frequency words that may be unfamiliar.

Guidelines for development of questions and activities associated with text

1) Early questions and activities should be designed to gauge and facilitate student understanding of text. Students should not rely on prior knowledge or experience to answer these questions; rather, they should be able to answer the questions solely based on close reading. Scaffolding should be provided to show students what an appropriate response looks like. These early questions should be designed to ensure that students understand text before being asked to move on to more complex activities in which they are asked to compare multiple texts and to evaluate a thesis.

2) Later questions and activities should ask students to integrate information from multiple sources, make inferences, and evaluate a thesis. Multiple sources may include journal articles, visual media, and quantitative data (for example, data from student experiments). Students should able to evaluate information found in the various sources and draw conclusions. Activities should include student writing, with emphasis on accuracy and precision.

What is Three-Dimensional Learning? An overview of Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS)

As of October 2016 Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) have been adopted by 18 states. In developing these standards, the National Research Council created a framework that identifies key scientific concepts all students should learn by the end of high school. These concepts are divided into three dimensions, which I briefly summarize here:

Dimension 1: science and engineering practices: methods that scientists use to advance scientific knowledge, and that engineers use to design and build models and systems.

Dimension 2: crosscutting concepts: concepts that have application over all domains of science.

Dimensions 3: disciplinary core ideas: have central importance in one of four core disciplines (Physical Sciences; Life sciences; Earth and Space Sciences; and Engineering, Technology, and Applications of Science).

All three dimensions are meant to be applied to performance expectations, which describe what a student should be able to do when a lesson is complete.

On the NGSS website, performance expectations are grouped together by disciplinary core idea or by topic. Beneath each category of performance expectations is a list of dimensional concepts that may be applied to these expectations.

The National Science Teachers Association provides the following guidelines for developing a performance expectation into a NGSS lesson:

1) Choose one Disciplinary Core Idea (Dimension 3) that aligns well with the performance expectation. Think about real-world objects or events associated with the idea.

3) From the list of crosscutting concepts (Dimension 2), choose one as a focal point for your lesson.

4). Integrate the performance statement and three dimensional statements into a learning performance statement, which is a blueprint for a specific lesson plan or module.

All of this is a bit abstract, so I’ve decided to model the process of developing a learning performance statement from a performance expectation.

My chosen performance expectation, 4-PS3-3 from fourth grade physical science, can be found on page 23 of the NGSS Combined Topic PDF, under the topic energy. This expectation states that students should be able to “Ask questions and predict outcomes about the changes in energy that occur when objects collide.”

Of the disciplinary core ideas listed under energy, PS3.B: Conservation of Energy and Energy Transfer, aligns most closely with this performance expectation. And what real-world objects come to mind when I think of objects colliding? Pool balls.

A scientist would study object collisions through experimentation that could easily be duplicated in the classroom, so I choose “Planning and carrying out investigations” as a Science and Engineering Practice.

The energy transfer that occurs during the collision of pool balls is an example of Cause and Effect, so I choose this as my crosscutting concept. I am ready to write my learning performance statement:

Students will design and conduct an experiment in which they observe the change in motion that occurs when a moving pool ball strikes a still ball, and from this change in motion they will deduce what type of energy transfer occurs.

Although this learning performance statement is brief, it combines the performance expectation with all three dimensions and can be used as a basis for writing exposition, prompts for designing experiments, and assessments.

An Overview of Learning Standards

All humans have the ability to learn, and some of this learning takes place without outside intervention. A baby, for example, can learn to crawl without anyone showing her how. But humans learn best through a process of facilitated learning called education. Formal education is facilitated learning that occurs in a structured environment, such as a school.

If you are writing content to be used in a formal education setting, it should align with the relevant learning standards, which, according to the US department of education, are “a set goals for what students should know and be able to do while learning academic content.”

Learning standards are typically categorized by subject area and by grade, and encompass what a student should learn in the course of a semester or year. A curriculum is what’s taught in the classroom, and its purpose is to help students achieve learning standard goals.

Learning standards may be subdivided into smaller learning objectives, which are goals that may be achieved in a single class period or a single unit. Assessments are measures of student performance. Most people equate assessments with tests, but student performance may also be assessed through student-produced lab reports, writing, speeches, and films. Educational content, including trade nonfiction books, should be written so that each section of exposition and each assessment meets one or more learning objective.

As of the year 2000 each US state had independently developed its own set of learning standards. The resulting lack of consistency led to a push to introduce national standards in various K-12 subject areas, including English Language arts, mathematics, science, information technology, social studies, health and physical education, dance, media arts, theater and visual arts. National standards have been developed for higher education as well. A brief description of each standard and a link to the relevant website is provided below.

Of these standards, only Common Core has been adopted by a majority of states (42 as of this writing, and 5 US territories). Common Core standards encompass math and English language arts. Next Generation Science Standards, which encompasses science, has been adopted by 18 states.

Since the national standards have not been adopted by all states I’ve also included links to standards for the four largest states (California, Florida, New York, and Texas). These four states have the most students, so educational content is typically written to meet the standards of these states as well as the national standards.

Common standards for K-12

English Language arts & mathematics
Common Core State Standards Initiative
developed by: the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices
adoption: Currently adopted by 42 states, 4 US territories (American Samoan Islands, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, US Virgin Islands) and the District of Columbia. Have not been adopted by Alaska, Indiana, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Puerto Rico, South Carolina, Texas, or Virginia. Minnesota has adopted the ELA standards only.

science
Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS)
developed by: the National Research Council, National Science Teachers Association, American Association for Advancement of Science, Achieve
adoption: Currently adopted by 18 states (Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington) and the District of Columbia.

social studies
National Curriculum Standards for Social Studies (NCSS)
developed by: the National Council for the Social Studies

information technology
Education Technology Standards
developed by: International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE)

dance, media arts, music, theatre and visual arts
National Core Arts Standards
developed by: National Coalition for Core Art Standards

health and physical education
Health Education, Dance, Physical Education and Sport Standards
developed by: Shape America/Society of Health and Physical Educators

health
National Health Education Standards
developed by: Centers for Disease Control

Common standards for higher education
Council for the Advancement of Standards in Higher Education (CAS)

Standards of the largest states
California 
Florida 
New York
Texas

What is a Science Educational Writing?

“I am a science educational writer.” This, my standard response to the inevitable cocktail party question, “What is it that you do?” always elicits a blank look, so I’ll begin by explaining what a science educational writer does.

According to the Oxford dictionary an education is an enlightening experience. A science educational writer then, produces content that enlightens the reader, not just about the current state of scientific knowledge, but also about the scientific process.

Both children and adults are consumers of science educational content, which may be delivered in many different formats. Books, magazines, videos, apps, curricula, and podcasts all may contain science educational content.

I stumbled into the field of science educational writing accidentally, by completing an online survey. At the time I taught college biology and the purpose of the survey was to assess my interest in adopting a new textbook. A final question on the survey asked, incidentally, if I would be interested in contributing content. Yes, I said, and sent in some samples.

The lead editor liked my writing, but informed me that all of chapters had already been assigned. She then mentioned, incidentally, that she liked the figures accompanying my text. When I told her I had made one of the figures myself she hired me as scientific art advisor, a role in which I was responsible for supervising artwork development for the entire, forty-seven chapter textbook.

I learned a lot from my stint as scientific art advisor, but there was still a lot I didn’t know, a point that was driven home some time later, when a hiring manager for another project emailed me to ask, “Are you familiar with Bloom’s taxonomy?” I wasn’t, but Google was, enabling me to send an affirmative response a few minutes later. I got the job. Thanks, Google!

For a long time I considered science educational writing a stepping stone to another, more traditional writing venue, such as journalism or grant writing or medical writing. But the educational assignments kept coming: another biology textbook, and interactive physical science curriculum, virtual labs, test passages and assessments. Finally, it dawned on me that this is what I do. I am a science educational writer, and there is nothing I would rather be.

I am now intimately familiar with Bloom’s taxonomy, which is a method for classifying educational goals, and with other educational concepts including NGSS (Next Generation Science Standards) Dale-Chall (a readability formula), item (a question), and distractor (a wrong answer).

It me took a long time to amass this knowledge and I had to do it piecemeal, by reading up on various concepts as the need arose. I decided to start a blog to provide a one-stop source for finding information about science educational writing. Through feedback and suggestions I also hope to increase my own knowledge base, and to make some friends along the way.