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.