Disciplinary Literacy with the Common Core State Standards

Over spring break I had the opportunity to attend a one day workshop with Doug Buehl on Disciplinary Literacy with the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). First of all, I must say that Mr. Buehl was an amazing presenter! I was surprised to find out that he is originally a HS Social Studies teacher (yes, you read that right) and had great, practical ways to incorporate the English Language Arts CCSS across other content area courses and make them more meaningful and engaging for students. Mr. Buehl has written several books and you can also find a variety of his articles here that provide you with strategies to implement tomorrow. Now the only thing I wish for is for him to be on twitter so I can continue learning from him each day!

I left this one day workshop with a headache…a good one, because I learned so much! I took a great deal of notes, but will now share with you what I found to be very important as I learned about the CCSS and questions I still have. They are in no order of importance.

Important ideas that I took away from this workshop:

  • The CCSS require us to teach students to read complex text independently, whereas, in the past we may have shied away from complex text due to having a variety of learners in our classrooms. We have learned ways to differentiate in our classrooms for our struggling learners (ex: teacher reading complex text to the class, rely on visuals, etc.) We need to scaffold our teaching for students to be able to learn how to read complex text and make meaning from it. As school leaders, we need to scaffold learning about the CCSS and instructional strategies for our teachers.
  • The CCSS force us to provide our students with standards-based instruction and NOT standards-referenced instruction. What’s the difference, you ask? If you create a fun lesson or plan to teach your favorite unit on apples and then find standards that might fit into it, that is standards referenced. We need to start with the standards to plan our instruction.
  • The Lexile level expectations have been upped. What used to be a 10th grade reading level expectation is now in Middle School. Yikes!
  • Literacy in Math: Mr. Buehl stated that “if you have the inability to read math, then you will have the inability to figure out math.” He then modeled how to read a math definition from a math textbook. He modeled his thinking as he read through the paragraph on integers, picking apart each work he didn’t know the meaning of right away, but pulling his background knowledge to make connections and build his understanding of the paragraph. This took a lot of time, however, he says that if students are never taught to read this then they’re basically carrying the equivalent of a rock with them when they bring the textbook home. They will come back the next day acting like you’ve never taught them about integers. Basically, we need to prepare our students to be able to read/learn on their own.
  • You may be a highly confident reader in one area, but not another. The longer that you are taught a discipline by hands-on and visuals and NOT asked to read/inform yourself, the lower your reading ability in that area would go down.
  • Many English teachers chose their profession, because they love literature, but can no longer continue to teach units on their favorite novels. They need to be teaching the skills for students to be able to independently read and learn.
  • Elementary teachers can’t wait for students to have basic literacy skills before teaching with informational texts. The well-known phrase “learning to read and then learning to read” is a myth.
  • In the report “Reading Between the Lines” on what the ACT reveals about college readiness in reading, you will find that the 2005 ACT shows that only 51% of our high school students are ready for college level reading! What’s worse is when this study looked at data on reading levels in 8th and 10th grade, students were on track for being college ready in reading, but then declined. What happens in high school?! This is why our students need the ELA standards for disciplinary literacy.
  • We cannot hide behind the “they should be able to do this by now” thinking. Especially with the gaps we will have as we implement the CCSS, yes they should be able to do this by now, but now it’s our job to scaffold their learning and get them to where they need to be. Think of where our students will be after a few years of the CCSS!
  • The CCSS no longer allow us to “cover” curriculum each year. We can no longer “cover history,” but teach history. No longer can we do “drive-by” teaching. The CCSS give you the permission to not have to teach everything that the book/curriculum says to cover.

Questions that I still have:

  • I’m grappling with literacy in math. Our school has been using an old math textbook for quite some time that doesn’t lend well to hands-on math for younger students to develop solid number sense and also to develop problem solving skills (which our math book lacks). We are moving to adopt a new math program that has had successful results in many districts (I’ve never heard anything bad about it). I’ve been told that it is different, because it is not just “turning the page in the math book.” I had this thought in the back of my mind as Mr. Buehl spoke about literacy in math and should have asked if he was speaking more to the 6-12 teachers?
  • Grading. I learned some great strategies for teachers in the content areas to implement that allow students to be actively engaged in the content and learn through reading, writing and then speaking with their peers. For many high school teachers strategies like these are going to be very different than traditional methods of read the textbook, take notes in a lecture, and complete a multiple choice test. One of the first questions I know that will come up is on grading…what will they put in their gradebook when students are engaged in a discussion? Yes, I do realize that grading is an entirely different topic that takes up several blog posts (and books), however, how do we get teachers started on implementing these practices if they don’t think it will work (and then get to the grading practices later)?
  • I went to this workshop feeling like our district was far behind on implementation of the CCSS, however, I learned that we’re not in comparison to other districts. We have spent a great deal of our PD time this year as a district focusing on what reading and writing looks like across the grades and disciplines and we’re working on developing common expectations. After hearing from people in other districts, I am confident that this was time well spent. I would love to hear what other districts are doing in scaffolding learning for their staff about the CCSS and how are you moving to implementation?

This is a cross-post from PrincipalJ.net


  1. Mark Barnes said:

    Smart post on a subject I dislike. One thing I can share regarding the writing across disciplines is that I use numerous web tools, such as blogs and social bookmarking apps, like Diigo. If all students are on the same application, along with teachers, it’s easy to create content that integrates multiple disciplines and allows for sharing.

    Another concern is how so much of the reading is headed to nonfiction/informational text, scaring the daylights out of ELA teachers. Here’s another place that tools like Diigo are a huge help. As an ELA teacher, I’ll never turn my back on fiction. My students read daily and commit to 25 or more books of their choosing in a school year. Most of those will be novels.

    In order to meet CCSS guidelines, I have my students locate nonfiction articles on the Internet that relate in some way to novels they read. For example, a student reading Robert Cormier’s, I Am the Cheese, might search for articles on mental illnesses, like anxiety or schizophrenia. They summarize the article and apply it back to the work of fiction.

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post on a frightening subject.

    April 7, 2012
  2. I am dismayed to read your interpretation of the workshop with Doug Buehl on Disciplinary Literacy with the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). You summed up you understanding stating:
    “Many English teachers chose their profession, because they love literature, but can no longer continue to teach units on their favorite novels. They need to be teaching the skills for students to be able to independently read and learn.”
    However, the ELA CCSS clearly state (in a footnote on page 5):
    “The percentages on the table reflect the sum of student reading, not just reading in ELA settings. Teachers of senior English classes, for example, are not required to devote 70 percent of reading to informational texts. Rather, 70 percent of student reading across the grade should be informational.”

    This is a point further clarified in the Myth vs. Facts section on the Common Core Website:
    “Myth: English teachers will be asked to teach science and social studies reading materials.

    Fact: With the Common Core ELA Standards, English teachers will still teach their students literature as well as literary non‐fiction. However, because college and career readiness overwhelmingly focuses on complex texts outside of literature, these standards also ensure students are being prepared to read, write, and research across the curriculum, including in history and science. These goals can be achieved by ensuring that teachers in other disciplines are also focusing on reading and writing to build knowledge within their subject areas.”

    If what you were told during the training session is accurately reflected in your post, then the ELA Common Core Standards are dumping the responsibility for reading all informational texts back into the English curriculum.
    Perhaps the authors of the ELA CCSS should have considered putting the shared responsibility across the curriculum more prominently than in a footnote and a FAQ Myth v Fact page. Maybe then the purpose of including informational texts in ALL subject areas would be clear to the facilitator.
    I am hoping your interpretation is incorrect, and that English teachers will be able to teach their subject area (fiction/literary non-fiction) without having to teach every other discipline’s reading content as well.

    April 7, 2012
  3. Literacy across the curriculum is what we need as educators. Let’s connect to see how we can teach literacy in our unified arts department like: Physical Education, Technology, music, chorus and art?

    April 9, 2012
  4. robert fellinger said:

    A few things really stood out for me in this article.
    First of which is “Start with the standard to plan our instruction.” I agree with this assesment. It is a monumnetal task to do individually. Collaboration with colleagues is the key here. You need a combination of dedicated coworkers and planning time to make a dent in this effort.
    My second thought is teaching skills across the curriculum is key. Life skills – reading, problem solving, collaboration, subject specific terminolgy et.

    April 9, 2012
  5. Thank you everyone for the replies. Mark and Colette-I didn’t mean to communicate that teachers should not teach fiction. The bullet point on English teachers not just teaching a unit on their favorite novel also hits the point that we should not be forcing all children to read the same text…especially fiction. Kelly Gallagher, Donalyn Miller and Regie Routman are authors I have found to be a wealth of information on teaching students where they’re at in literacy and allowing them to have choice in reading fiction. I also love this youtube clip on the topic: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gokm9RUr4ME

    April 9, 2012
  6. Yes, I am familiar with Penny Kittle’s video (made for a reading initiative program) and “Readicide”, “Reading Ladders”, “The Book Whisperer” et al. My 9 grade students may read what they want (8 texts a year) in addition to four assigned texts; my 10th and 11th grade students choose from a selection of 30 + books geared towards thematic unit as well as whole class reads.
    My point was to clarify your statement that ELA teachers “can no longer continue to teach units on their favorite novels” obviously an impression, hopefully incorrect, made on you by Doug Buehl. The ELA CCSS clearly state that English is responsible for teaching fiction and literary non-fiction. For these standards, ELA teachers will continue to teach a whole class novel or play or poem to meet the requirements of the Common Core that students should read complex texts (ie: Shakespeare, “The Grapes of Wrath”, “The Autobiography of Fredrick Douglass”, etc) as students are unlikely to pick up these texts on their own.

    April 9, 2012
  7. Danyelle Maddox said:

    In response to the statement, “the longer that you are taught a discipline by hands-on and visuals and NOT asked to read/inform yourself, the lower your reading ability in that area would go down” I could not agree more. Hands-on and visuals are used because it is recognized that high reading ability in one content area does not necessarily translate to others. Because the content is so abstract, I use visuals to try to make content concrete and help students learn how to use the pictures in the text to understand the content. Reading in the content courses may need to become more specific to content areas to focus on increasing lexiles

    June 6, 2012
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