Category Archives: Common Core Standards

What kind of writing should kindergarteners and first graders be able to do?

The ability to write well comes gradually and in stages.  This skill is a synthesis of many writing skills, each building on one another.  Here is what I see in practice and what the Common Core State Standards recommends for kindergarten and first graders.

  • In kindergarten children learn to write letters and words, and some advanced students may write sentences.  They might write with phonetic or invented spelling, backward letters, missing punctuation and haphazard  capitalization.  They use a combination of upper case and lower case letters.  They like to draw a picture of what they are describing.
  • The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) ask kindergarteners to “use a combination of drawing, dictating, and writing to compose opinion pieces in which they tell a reader the topic or the name of the book they are writing about and state an opinion or preference about the topic or book; use a combination of drawing, dictating, and writing to compose informative/explanatory texts in which they name what they are writing about and supply some information about the topic; and use a combination of drawing, dictating, and writing to narrate a single event or several loosely linked events, tell about the events in the order in which they occurred, and provide a reaction to what happened.”
  • In first grade children’s writing ability varies widely, but teachers expect students to write in sentences by the end of the year. They might draw a picture at the top of a paper and then write one or more sentences under the picture telling what the picture means, and using many of the errors which kindergarteners use.  Many of the rules of writing and spelling are fluid for a first grader, but they are becoming formal than for kindergarteners.
  • The Common Core State Standards recommend that first graders “write opinion pieces in which they introduce the topic or name the book they are writing about, state an opinion, supply a reason for the opinion, and provide some sense of closure; write informative/explanatory texts in which they name a topic, supply some facts about the topic, and provide some sense of closure; and write narratives in which they recount two or more appropriately sequenced events, include some details regarding what happened, use temporal words to signal event order, and provide some sense of closure.”

As you can see, a wide gap exists between what many children can do and what the CCSS expect them to do.  For more on the Common Core State Standards, go to http://www.corestandards.org/ELA-Literacy/W/K/.

Citing evidence is an important writing skill

Citing evidence used to be a skill learned in high school, but with the Common Core State Standards, it has moved to middle grades.  This is because of the Common Core’s emphasis on problem solving.  But it is also because reading critically is an important life skill.

commoncoreenglishlanguagestantards

Click on the above graphic to open the pictured web page.

  • Here is the standard for ninth, tenth, eleventh and twelfth grade literature reading: ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.1
    “Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.”

“Cite several pieces of textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.”  (The only difference between high school and middle school standards is the degree of reporting textual evidence.)

  • Here is the standard for sixth, seventh and eighth grade social studies: ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.1  “Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources.”

Middle school students I tutor need to be able to read a selection and answer a question based on the reading.  The students are expected to cite two or more lines of evidence from the reading when they answer the question.

With practice, most are able to do it.  But some students encounter problems, namely

  • Using in their answers information they know is true but which is not given in the reading passage.
  • Taking two sides of an argument when they are expected to choose only one.
  • Citing not enough evidence to thoroughly support their answer.
  • Citing evidence okay but not showing how the evidence supports the answer.
  • Talking about the text in general without actually citing evidence.
  • Writing evidence as direct quotes, without adapting it to the student’s sentence structure. This can include copying pronouns without identifying what they mean.
  • Not paraphrasing.

How to overcome these problems?

  • Emphasize the difference between a guess or hunch and evidence.
  • Model the difference between strong and weak evidence.
  • Make sure students can explain why evidence they choose supports their answer.
  • Practice paraphrasing.
  • Practice using nouns when pronouns are not clear.
  • Practice, practice, practice.

Did the Common Core eliminate cursive handwriting as something kids need to learn? I can’t believe it!

The Common Core requires legible manuscript (printing) in kindergarten and first grade, but after that there are no standards relating to handwriting.  Learning cursive writing is not required.

In fourth grade, the Common Core requires students to be able to keyboard or type a full page at one sitting.

However, the Common Core developers have encouraged individual states and school districts to modify the standards as is appropriate for their populations.  Some states have included handwriting.  In California, kids need to learn printing in second grade and cursive in third and fourth grade.  Massachusetts requires legible handwriting of any kind in fourth grade.

Does your state require children to practice handwriting?  You can find out by going to your state’s department of education and searching for the state-required curriculum.  You may find that your state has adopted the Common Core as a whole, in which case handwriting will not be taught after first grade.

But that does not mean you can’t augment your child’s learning.  Teacher supply stores sell booklets on how to write in cursive.  Or you can go online to find such materials.

One good reason for children to be able to read and write cursive is to be able to read documents from the past.  The original Declaration of Independence and US Constitution were first written in cursive as were all documents before the 1860’s when the typewriter started being used.

Another reason is that teachers in higher grades and college often write notes, worksheets and sometimes tests in cursive.  A seventh grader told me that when her science teacher wrote some notes on the white board, few students in the class could read them.  The same teacher wrote a thank you note to members of a team she coaches, and the students needed to ask their parents to read the note to them.

Until word processing became popular in the 1980’s, most private correspondence, diaries, journals and manuscripts were written in cursive.  How awful not to be able to read great-grandpa’s post cards home from WWII or great-grandma’s recipes in her hand.

Written responses to test questions can be made faster with cursive than with printing.  This might not seem important when children are little, but writing a complete essay in 25 minutes for the SAT is another matter.  Sometimes students will have electronic notepads to take notes, but when they don’t, they will appreciate the ease of note-taking in cursive.

A few minutes a day practicing one letter at a time is all it takes to learn cursive.  Yet that knowledge opens another world to children, as does reading music, Braille, sign language or numbers.

How to teach writing—what the research says

After analyzing 250 important research studies on how to teach writing, researchers found three constants:

  • The more time students write, the better writers they will be.
  • Writing on a computer, rather than by hand, leads to better writing.
  • Teaching grammar doesn’t help.

student thinking about what to write

Let’s look at each of these correlations with good writing.

Spending more time writing improves student writing. It’s common sense that the more time you spend honing a skill, the better you become at it. Yet research shows that after third grade, students spend little time in class writing. Why?

The more students write, the more teachers need to read, to respond to and possibly to grade. The paperwork becomes overwhelming. Teachers are unwilling to spend hours every night reading student writing.

Also, many English teachers love literature and want to teach it. But they are not writers. They had little instruction in how to write when they were in school, and their teacher training didn’t focus on it. They can’t teach what they don’t know.

Composing on a computer leads to better student writing. Once a student becomes familiar with the keyboard and functions, writing on a computer goes much faster than writing by hand. You can move phrases, sentences, and even paragraphs around by swiping, cutting and pasting. Spell check indicates spelling errors, and software alerts you to grammar errors as well. A dictionary is a click away. Want to check on idioms or figures of speech? Another click away.

All this work is called revising, and as every professional writer knows, it is the key to good writing. When it becomes easy for students, they are willing to do it.

Yet most schools still ask students to write using pencil and paper. Why?

Maybe teachers believe students “cheat” when they let software provide correct spelling and grammar. How can teachers check for plagiarism if students can download someone’s writing? Or maybe teachers think that because computer technology is not available to all students, to level the playing field they should ask students to use a technology that is available, pencils and paper.

Learning grammar by diagramming sentences or by listening to distinct lessons on how to use apostrophes does not improve writing, according to the research. But teaching certain kinds of grammar, such as usage, does help. The old-fashioned kinds of grammar lessons most children have in school do not improve students’ writing.

Why? Perhaps children do not see the connection between grammar activities and writing. Correcting worksheets by adding commas or coordinating conjunctions is not the same as writing. Maybe if the students’ own writing were used to demonstrate grammar errors and solutions, the students would recognize the connection between grammar and their own writing. But that is not the way grammar is taught.

Researchers at Arizona State University and Arcadia University led by Steve Graham, who conducted this research, found few rigorous studies on the teaching of writing compared to thousands of studies on the teaching of reading. However, with the greater emphasis on writing brought on by the Common Core Standards, more research on student writing is sure to come.

RACE for better student answers to questions requiring evidence

If you are looking for a way to help students write better responses to questions about a reading selection, RACE might be the answer.  RACE is a method of responding to questions requiring evidence.  Responding to these kinds of questions is required by Common Core Standards.

RACE stands for four ideas:

  • Restate the information in the question.
  • Answer the question.
  • Cite evidence to support your answer.
  • Explain how the evidence supports your answer.

An example might help you understand this method better. Suppose a high school student has just read from her textbook about the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 and the actions of southern states immediately after his election.  Then she is asked to answer this question, citing information from her text:

Did Abraham Lincoln’s election as President of the US lead to the Civil War?

Restate:  Yes, Abraham Lincoln’s election as President of the US did lead to the Civil War.

Answer:  Right after his election, many states seceded and eventually attacked the US.

Cite Evidence:  According to the passage, Lincoln was elected in early November 1860 and took office in March 1861. The legislatures of seven southern states, including South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana, Florida and Texas, voted to leave the US during the winter of 1860-1861. They did this because Lincoln had a reputation as anti-slavery. In February 1861 they formed the Confederate States of America. About a month after Lincoln took office, on April 12, 1861, a US fort called Ft. Sumter was attacked by Confederates. After that attack, Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee and North Carolina also seceded. Congress declared war on the Confederacy.  Lincoln was President a little more than a month when the Civil War began.

Explain how the evidence supports your answer: Before Lincoln was elected, the US was one country and no states had seceded. Within five months after he was elected, seven states had seceded, and then weeks later, four more states seceded, and Ft. Sumter was attacked.  The Civil War began. Lincoln’s election as president directly led to the Civil War.

Can this method be used with younger children too? Yes. Consider this third grade question:

Are fossils in the rocks on top older than fossils in the rocks on the bottom?

Restate: No, fossils in the rocks on top are not older than the fossils in the rocks on the bottom.

Answer:  Fossils on top are usually formed last and fossils on the bottom are usually formed first.

Cite evidence: Fossils are found in rocks.  These rocks form when layers of mud pile up with shells and bones stuck in the mud. The mud on the bottom becomes hard rock millions of years before the mud on the top does.

Explain how the evidence supports your answer: If you look at the Grand Canyon, the fossils in the rocks down near the river are much older than the fossils in the rocks near the top. That’s because rocks on the bottom and the fossils in them formed first. Rocks on the top and the fossils in them formed  later.

This method of answering questions requiring evidence is being taught in Georgia public schools where I live.