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Old Standards v. Common Core: A Side-by-Side Comparison of English Language Arts

Understanding how the new standards will improve reading comprehension for students:

The Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts are designed to ensure students fully understand what they read, and can effectively talk and write about it. These are the fundamental reading comprehension skills needed to succeed throughout elementary, middle and high school, college and beyond – regardless of career path.

While the old standards focused on simply expecting students to recite facts learned through reading textbook passages, the new standards expect students to read books and textbook passages that are more challenging than what was previously read in each grade level – including reading more original writings whenever possible, such as President Abraham Lincoln’s “The Gettysburg Address” or Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”  Students are then asked to show a deeper understanding of this material than has previously been required of them, demonstrating greater critical thinking and analytic skills.


Kindergarten and 1st Grade Example

The passage below is an example of the kind of text that was read in 2nd or 3rd grade under past standards. Under the English Language Arts Common Core Standards this text is expected to be read at the Kindergarten and 1st grade level.

Frog and Toad Together, by: Arnold Lobel
Frog was in his garden. Toad came walking by.

“What a fine garden you have, Frog,” he said. “Yes,” said Frog. “It is very nice, but it was hard work.”

“I wish I had a garden,” said Toad. “Here are some flower seeds. Plant them in the ground,” said Frog, “and soon you will have a garden.”

“How soon?” asked Toad. “Quite soon,” said Frog.

Toad ran home. He planted the flower seeds.
“Now seeds,” said Toad, “start growing.”

Toad walked up and down a few times. The seeds did not start to grow. Toad put his head close to the ground and said loudly, “Now seeds, start growing!” Toad looked at the ground again. The seeds did not start to grow.

Toad put his head very close to the ground and shouted, “NOW SEEDS, START GROWING!”

Frog came running up the path. “What is all this noise?” he asked. “My seeds will not grow,” said Toad. “You are shouting too much,” said Frog. “These poor seeds are afraid to grow.”

“My seeds are afraid to grow?” asked Toad. “Of course,” said Frog. “Leave them along for a few days. Let the sun shine on them, let the rain fall on them. Soon your seeds will start to grow.”

That night, Toad looked out of his window. “Drat!” said Toad. “My seeds have not started to grow. They must be afraid of the dark.”

Toad went out to his garden with some candles. “I will read the seeds a story,” said Toad. “Then they will not be afraid.” Toad read a long story to his seeds.

All the next day Toad sang songs to his seeds. And all the next day Toad read poems to his seeds. And all the next day toad played music for his seeds.

Toad looked at the ground. The seeds still did not start to grow. “What shall I do?” cried Toad. “These must be the most frightened seeds in the whole world!” Then Toad felt very tired and he fell asleep.

“Toad, Toad, wake up,” said Frog. “Look at your garden!” Toad looked at his garden. Little green plants were coming up out of the ground.

“At last,” shouted Toad, “my seeds have stopped being afraid to grow!”

“And now you will have a nice garden too,” said Frog. “Yes,” said Toad, “but you were right, Frog. It was very hard work.”
Student task before Common CoreStudent task with Common Core
Students retell the main events (e.g., beginning, middle, end) of Frog and Toad Together, and identify the characters and the setting of the story.Students compare and contrast the adventures and experiences of Frog and Toad in Frog and Toad Together, and participate in collaborative conversations about their comparisons.


2nd and 3rd Grade Example using American Literature – Charlotte’s Web

One of the ways that teachers teach young children how to read is by reading aloud to them. It helps them learn information that they may not be able to read and understand by themselves. Children can focus on the words and the pictures, which will help them when they try to tackle rich written content on their own. An example of a book that would be read aloud to second or third graders is Charlotte’s Web. It’s the story of a little girl named Fern, who loves a piglet named Wilbur, and his friend Charlotte, who is a spider who lives in the barn with Wilbur.

Each read aloud session includes a teacher-led discussion among the class, where the teacher asks questions and students ask each other questions. They may talk about what a narrator is, and how conversations between characters are not part of the narrator’s role. They will discuss Wilber and Fern and the setting of the barn yard. All to get students actively thinking about the story.

Reading aloud is not a new way to teach reading. What is new is that the discussion that follows is more in depth, and more rigorous. Below are some questions that the teacher may ask after she finishes a chapter or the book:

Charlotte’s Web, by E. B. White 
Old ExpectationNew Expectation
Who is telling the story in Charlotte’s Web?

How does Wilbur feel towards Charlotte at the end of the story? How do you know?
What is your point of view about Wilbur?

How is it different from Fern’s point of view about Wilbur?

How is it different from the narrator’s point of view?
The old expectation requires students to state that the narrator is telling the story, and give one example to show that Wilbur loves Charlotte.

In order to be successful in this task, the student only has to give an example that shows that Wilbur loves Charlotte. He doesn’t have to understand why Wilbur loves Charlotte. This example could be as simple as Wilbur telling Charlotte that he loves her.
The new expectation requires students to understand and explain that characters see the “world” differently. The reader learns about Wilbur and Charlotte and Fern from the narrator, but also learns about each character by what they say to each other, and how they act in certain situations.

In order to be successful in this task, the student has to have listened to the teacher and engaged in the rich classroom discussion that occurs after each chapter has been read. He has to think about why Fern sees Wilbur in a different way than the Narrator does, and explain that.


2nd and 3rd Grade Non-Fiction Example

The two passages below are an example of the kind of text that was used in Grades 2-3 to teach old standards, compared to the kind of text that will now be used under the new Common Core State Standards for English.

Two Texts: Apollo 11 
Grades 2-3 Text Sample before Common CoreGrades 2-3 Common Core Text Expectations
July 16, 1969. Cape Kennedy, Florida.
A huge white rocket towers against the blue sky. It is thirty-six stories high. It weighs over six million pounds. It is called the Saturn V. It is the biggest, most powerful rocket ever built.

Today it is going to make the dream of centuries come true. It will send three men where no human being has ever been before. To the moon!

A few miles away almost a million people crowd the highways and beaches. Small boats full of excited people dot the ocean. They have all come to see the launch. People are not allowed any closer. The danger of an explosion is too great.

Around the planet millions more people are watching their television screens. Everyone wants to share in the longest, most incredible voyage in history.

As launch time approaches, three astronauts in gleaming white spacesuits walk toward the huge rocket. Their names are Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, and Michael Collins.

The men get into an elevator. They ride up to the top of the launch tower. There, at the very tip of the rocket, a spacecraft is waiting. It is called Apollo 11.
High above there is the Moon, cold and quiet, no air, no life, but glowing in the sky.

Here below there are three men who close themselves in special clothes, who—click—lock hands in heavy gloves, who—click—lock heads in large round helmets.

It is summer here in Florida, hot, and near the sea. But now these men are dressed for colder, stranger places. They walk with stiff and awkward steps in suits not made for Earth.

They have studied and practiced and trained, and said good-bye to family and friends. If all goes well, they will be gone for one week, gone where no one has been.

Their two small spaceships are Columbia and Eagle. They sit atop the rocket that will raise them into space, a monster of a machine: It stands thirty stories, it weighs six million pounds, a tower full of fuel and fire and valves and pipes and engines, too big to believe, but built to fly—the mighty, massive Saturn V.

The astronauts squeeze in to Columbia’s sideways seats, lying on their backs, facing toward the sky—Neil Armstrong on the left, Michael Collins in the right, Buzz Aldrin in the middle.

Click and they fasten straps. Click and the hatch is sealed. There they wait, while the Saturn hums beneath them.

Near the rocket, in Launch Control, and far away in Houston, in Mission Control, there are numbers, screens, and charts, ways of watching and checking every piece of the rocket and ships, the fuel, the valves, the pipes, the engines, the beats of the astronauts’ hearts.

As the countdown closes, each man watching is asked the question: GO/NO GO? And each man answers back: “GO.” “GO.” “GO.” Apollo 11 is GO for launch.
*In this passage, the text is organized in the order the events happened. It is straightforward and easy to understand. The sentences are short and simple, and state the facts in a concrete fashion. The purpose of the text is clear: to describe the setting of the Apollo 11 launch.*In this passage, the organization of the text is generally in the order the events happened, but connects some events in a less obvious manner. The sentences are longer and include some challenging constructions. The purpose of the text is implied, but not too difficult to identify based upon the context: to describe the setting of the Apollo 11 launch.

Not only is the text more challenging, the task presented to students after reading such a passage is more difficult too.

Grades 2-3 Student Task before Common CoreGrade 2-3 Common Core Student Task
What was the spacecraft called?What is the author trying to convey when he says, “these men are dressed for colder, stranger places. They walk with stiff and awkward steps…”? Use information from the text to explain your answer.
Why were people across the planet watching their television screens?What makes this voyage an important event in history? Use information from the text to explain your answer.
Who were the three astronauts on the spacecraft?