Three Instructional Shifts: Simplifying the Common Core & De-Mystifying Curriculum

November 25, 2015 Les Lynn Argument and Literacy, Argumentative Writing, Assessment, Common Core, The Debatifier

by Mike Schmoker and Carol Jago

Simplifying and De-Mystifying Instruction

The English Language Arts Common Core could have no less than a transformational effect on American education.  But this will only occur if (ironically) we recognize that the actual lists of standards themselves are the weakest portion of the Common Core documents. Done right, the ELA Common Core has the potential to right the ship of literacy, to facilitate, at long last, the creation of coherent curriculum in every course and to rescue us from the fads and pseudo-­‐literacies of recent decades. This would thus eventuate in the greatest proportion of college and career-­‐ready students in our history.  The keys to its success are clarity and simplicity.

As many are beginning to recognize, the true strength of the (still-­‐evolving) Common Core is found in the ancillary documents and appendices that accompany the standards.  Imperfections notwithstanding, the general emphases contained in these documents describe authentic, traditional literacy far better than their state-­‐level predecessors.  Despite some occasional over-­‐reach, the appendices go a long way toward clarifying what students need most and have always needed: abundant opportunities to engage in close reading of large amounts of high quality, complex text, combined with opportunities to engage in discussion and writing grounded in text.

But alas, the actual standards—the grade-­‐by-­‐grade lists themselves—are not much help here.  Not only are they poorly written and confusing; they actually divert us from the essence of authentic literacy (Schmoker and Graff 2011).  As Daniel Willingham and others have demonstrated, this is the primary problem with the ELA Common Core:  the pretension that language arts can be subdivided into an exhaustive, atomized taxonomy of separate skills (Willingham 2009), many of them indecipherable (Schmoker and Graff 2011).  The impulse to generate such lists is an unfortunate holdover from the first iteration of state standards, which manifestly failed us.
The better (if unofficial) news is this: that the architects of the Common Core are now distancing themselves from the committee-­‐generated pablum of the lists.  To their credit, they are inviting us to focus, instead, on the following simple “instructional shifts.”

  • Building knowledge through content-­rich nonfiction and informational texts
  • Reading and writing grounded in evidence from text
  • Regular practice with complex text and its academic vocabulary

Make no mistake: these basic shifts-­‐-­‐implemented across the curriculum—represent a radical return to genuine literacy.  If they are even reasonably well-­‐implemented, they will change the face of education.  Combined with the judicious use of the CCSS appendices and suggested texts, they will allow us to make rapid progress toward the goal of college and career preparation for all.  Moreover, these shifts will demystify, and thus expedite the completion of a project which could have more impact on the quality of American education than any other reform, bar none: the creation of coherent, content-­‐rich curriculum in every course (Marzano 2003; Hirsch 2009; American Educator 2010/11).  It would accomplish this, in part, by returning literacy-­‐-­‐and texts themselves-­‐-­‐from the periphery to the center of curriculum.

Here’s how, starting with English language arts, we could implement the Common Core and create coherent, literacy-­‐rich curriculum across the disciplines.  Importantly: there are endless variations on the following.  Please regard these only as attempts to clarify, and to demonstrate how virtually any school or district can begin this work immediately.

Curriculum in English and Language Arts

Instead of attempting to create a curriculum that “covers” the bewildering array of discrete standards in the Common Core, start, instead, with a careful review and discussion of the three shifts listed above.  Then begin assembling a good balance of highc quality, adequately complex texts that can be  reasonably taught within a 9c month, 36c week school year.  These—not skills—are the soul of your curriculum.

Let’s assume, for instance, that we have about seven actual weeks to work with each grading period, given the various exigencies that emerge (testing, remediation, assemblies etc.) and to leave some extra time for self-selected reading and teacher’s discretion.  That gives us about 35 days to work with each quarter.

We could start with books, plays or novels—e.g. one fictional work and one nonc fiction book or  biography each nine weeks. These would be carefully selected for their literary merit, complexity and appeal.  We might devote 10 to 15 days of class time to each book.  That gives us adequate time for close reading, “embedded” vocabulary instruction, plenty of discussion, informal writing and perhaps one extended interpretive essay—or a short research paper.

There is time for all these things.  That’s  because, per the Common Core, we are no longer devoting time to pseudo-literate activities like making book jackets, watching movies or completing skills-based worksheets.

That leaves us about two or more weeks for other readings each grading period: time to study, discuss and write about multiple speeches, articles, poems or short fiction.

Now let’s add another element—the straw that stirs the drink:  good questions and prompts that ensure, and are the basis for purposeful reading, discussion and writing, grounded in the texts, i.e. entire books, chapters or shorter works.  These should be generated deliberately, over time, by teacher teams, whose collective insights will result in the most appealing, high quality discussions and writing assignments.

When students read non-fiction articles on provocative topics, we can encourage—and model — close  reading on the basis of questions like this:

In this article on the pros and cons of nuclear energy, which evidence in the text best supports the side you will take in your argument?

Here’s how all of this might look for first quarter of 6th grade:

6th Grade English Language Arts

FIRST QUARTER   (a total of about 35 days of instruction)

For all readings: embedded vocabulary instruction, taught before and during the reading
Novel: Tom Sawyer (Twain) (10 – 15 days)

Non-Fiction book: Jim Thorpe: Original All-American (10 – 15 days)

Daily discussions/short or longer writing assignments (3 days)

2 News/Mag articles (pro-con): Children and Video Games (3 days)
“Playing with Violence” (American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry)
“Video Games Don’t Cause Children to Be Violent” (M. Gallagher)

1-­‐2 speeches, e.g.  Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat (Churchill) (3 days)

Several poems: author studies; informal interpretive writings; oral interpretation (4 days)
“The Road Not Taken” (Robert Frost)
“If” (Rudyard Kipling)

Rubric Focus

For the Quarter:

“Write arguments to support claims and interpretations with clear reasons and relevant evidence”

“Organize reasons and evidence logically” (from Common Core writing criteria)

Formal Papers

  • 3-­‐5 page literary analysis on any text/s read this quarter
  • 3-­‐5 page argumentative/research paper on any non-­fiction text/s read this quarter

It’s that simple.  Every year, every grading period, could consist of variations on the above.  David Liben is one of the architects of the ELA Common Core.  He is convinced that such curriculum, built around something like the “three instructional shifts,” would afford our students with world-­class English and content area instruction.

Let’s look at how we could incorporate these new (but actually very traditional) emphases as we build equally simple, high-­‐quality curriculum in the content areas.

Curriculum in the Content Areas

Curriculum in the content areas would be surprisingly similar, and equally straightforward.  There would be the same emphasis on inquiry-­‐driven analysis, discussion and writing, all grounded in close reading of carefully selected, content-­‐rich texts.   And students would primarily learn the vocabulary which is “embedded” within these texts.  For each course, teams would establish minimum guidelines for the number and length of formal research papers to be completed each semester, e.g.  one three-­‐to-­‐five page research paper each semester.

But unlike English, the texts would be selected largely on the basis of their connection to the essential content standards for each course.  These topics—whether in social studies, science or math-­‐-­‐must be carefully selected; our state standards documents often contain more standards than can be reasonably taught within the school year.  If we want students to succeed, we have to be willing to reduce the number of content standards, and the bevy of so-­‐called thinking skills.  We have to ignore the less essential standards (Marzano 2003).  This is especially paramount when we recognize that literacy must now become a much larger component of core curriculum; far more time must be allotted for students to learn essential content through frequent opportunities for purposeful reading, discussion and writing.

Over time, teams will want to collaboratively develop and refine the inestimably important questions and prompts for those readings.  Wellc designed questions will promote close reading and ensure  interesting, successful discussions and writing assignments, grounded in careful analysis of text.

Science curriculum would be similar.  It would also contain a schedule of units or topics and science-­‐related readings and questions, with frequent opportunities for discussion and writing—all of it grounded in close, careful reading of texts, diagrams, charts and data displays (which are integral to science text and understanding).  This is precisely the kind of literacy-­‐based science education now being advocated by science and literacy experts (see Alberts; Shanahan and Shanahan; Gomez and Gomez; Zmach; Hapgood and Palincsar in Schmoker 2011, pp. 168-171).  Science curriculum, however, might include an additional column for labs and experiments, carefully matched to the units and topics to promote deeper understanding.

Math curriculum — similarly — would have columns for topics, textbook pages or other readings (to be used by teachers and to be read by students themselves) as well as questions or prompts which would  be used as the basis for close reading, discussion and writing about math.  As Lynn Steen points out, students gain immeasurably from regular opportunities to read, talk and write as they routinely develop “quantitative arguments” in their math classes (Steen, 2007).

Art, Music and other performance-­oriented electives would include required readings (albeit fewer of them) with discussion and writing.  These texts could focus on artists, musicians, artistic and musical epochs — or critiques of art and music.

More could be written here, but this is where we should start.  Will we ever learn that too much complexity and detail only confuses, complicates and delays implementation (Buckingham 2005)?  For now, let’s move forward confidently to create clear, content-rich curriculum that abounds in the most enduring forms of literacy.  In this way, our efforts will put us on course to educate students more
knowledgeable and literate than any previous generation, regardless of where they attend school.


Mike Schmoker is a writer, speaker, and consultant.  His most recent book is FOCUS: Elevating the Essential to Radically Improve Student Learning (ASCD 2011).  He can be reached at

Carol Jago has taught middle and high school in Santa Monica, CA for 32 years and is past president of NCTE. She is the author of With Rigor for All: Meeting Common Core Standards for Reading Literature. She can be reached at



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