Blogs About Reading

The Common Core Classroom

Emily Stewart, M.Ed.

Guest blogger Emily Stewart, M.Ed., is a third grade teacher at Murch Elementary, a public school in Washington, DC. During the 2012-2013 school year, Emily will be sharing the real-world strategies, challenges, and successes of implementing ELA Common Core standards in her classroom.

Creating avenues: helping below-level learners with the Common Core

February 21, 2013

We know them. We LOVE them. Our kiddos who fall just below that bar — the bar that the Common Core is challenging us to raise, day after day. I wholeheartedly believe that the Common Core is creating a climate of collaborative, critical thinkers that are raising the bar for THEMSELVES. But we still have our Tier II and Tier III punkins who need an extra boost.

Research is showing that many of our below-grade-level learners are actually successful in math with the new Common Core, because there are multiple avenues to come to an answer in the real world situational problems. However, in ELA we must create the avenues for our students. Creating these avenues is entirely about scaffolds.

Let me preface by saying that the developers of the Common Core do not want students to be dependent on crutches, like they have been for so long. It's depth (not breadth) that we're looking for. Instead of teaching all of the different nonfiction features in isolation, we must teach students how to use these text features, and how to utilize them to their advantage. So we must choose scaffolds that will give us the most bang for our buck. Some of these scaffolds will be ones you've heard me mention in previous blogs, and some might be ideas you've already incorporated in your classroom. Either way, these scaffolds should provide students with choice and flexibility, so that the supports meet the children's needs, and not the other way around.

The thinking behind the question

There are many different types of thinking: compare and contrast; main idea and details; finding the theme; analyzing characters; sequencing; cause and effect, etc. They all stem from our Common Core Standards. However, we must teach kids which type of thinking they are being asked for in different types of questions. Part of this process is making sure to spiral different thinking throughout the year. For example, if students are exposed to finding the main idea and details in September, don't wait until March to ask them to do this kind of thinking again — right before the state assessment. Constant exposure to different types of thinking, being applied to different types of text, will help to ensure student mastery. The other part to this strategy is making sure that the questions are asked in different ways. Instead of always asking for the main ideas and details of a text, students can be asked to find, for example, "the main point of the article and evidence to prove it." The thinking is the same, but students are exposed to different ways of asking the same question.

Graphic organizers

If you can't tell already from previous blogs, I am a huge proponent of graphic organizers. I truly believe that when students have the opportunity to organize their thinking, they can visualize what they need to produce. This is especially helpful with below-grade-level learners because it helps them to feel successful and "in charge" of their response, rather than overwhelmed. Lately, my students have been taking our district formative assessments, and they haven't been doing too well on their constructed responses. I was frustrated beyond belief! We read complex text, organize our thinking based on a question, and then write a response at least once or twice a week! Why on earth is this not sticking? So I was talking this through with my ever-brilliant mom (a principal that has truly helped to mold me as an educator) and she asked, "What do their organizers look like before they write their constructed responses on the test?" Such a simple question! Why have I not been asking myself the same thing?!? The answer is not so simple … they don't have them! Why, you ask? I keep passing out scratch paper for the math portion of the test, but not the ELA. They aren't organizing, so they don't know where to go after their topic sentence!

The most important thing to keep in mind when implementing graphic organizers is to not constantly give students the same organizer for the same thinking. There are multiple organizers for comparing and contrasting, main idea, and details, etc. Students should have the opportunity to find the organizer that works the best for them, not for us! This allows students multiple avenues to get to the same thinking!

Some of my favorite graphic organizers are called Thinking Maps. The theory behind them is to help students organize their thinking based on the verb: compare/contrast = double bubble map; sequencing = flow map; cause and effect = multi-flow map, etc. From the organizer it is incredibly easy for my kids to take their ideas and construct a response. You have to be trained to use them, but they are an absolute must! Music to my ears is when a student says, "Well let's just use a bubble map, since we are finding traits to define the character!" Happy teacher …

Complex text

A few months back I wrote a blog on complex text. The tricky thing with complex text is that it's, well, tricky. Complex text should be tricky to read — that's the complex part of it. Instead of differentiating the complexity, we must teach students avenues to understanding it. The scaffolds empower students to feel successful with the complex text, instead of being given a lower level text. Differentiating text should be saved for guided reading, and complexity of text is a perfect way to allow students to hear each other's thinking. The help for lower level learners comes through the questions that are scaffolds to the text. The questions must start at the lower levels of Bloom's Taxonomy and move up to the Synthesis level. Lower level learners must have the lower questions to build and gather information upon, in order to synthesize the new information.

Creating avenues for our lower level learners is essential in the new world of the Common Core. The key is to create the avenues, and let students choose the path that is right for them!


I have a Masters in Education as well, and sadly, I, as well as most of my colleagues feel that Common Core is an obliteration of the learning process. It does not encourage an individual to use his or her own strengths to find and answer or solve a problem, but rather just the opposite. It stifles creative learning by assigning extremely specific parameters while using vague and confusing language to do so. Children who have successfully achieved skills, are being convinced that they are insufficient and their confidence is being challenged and beaten down. Furthermore the "ground breaking" standards are no different than earlier standards. They are just disguised in ideological agenda and pushed at an extremely accelerated rate. It's heartbreaking to see children be labeled as "below-level", when in fact, they are just exhibiting age appropriate learning styles and being punished by an out-of-touch politically formed curriculum. I am disgusted as an educator and as a parent.

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