Common Core Standards and its impact on literacy

Elementary children running

As states across the country begin to administer tests aligned to Common Core State Standards, many people are still trying to understand the standards and the impact on students. There are passionate conversations happening at the school level among teachers, administrators, parents, and students trying to learn what these new standards are designed to achieve.

To help further these conversations and foster greater understanding, especially in the disciplines of reading and writing, we have asked Pam Allyn, world-renowned expert in home and school literacy connections, to conduct a four-part podcast series. She will help clarify the origin of the standards, as well as, how they help to build the skills needed for students to be engaged citizens today and in the future.

In this podcast, Pam explains how the common core standards are meant to guide learning experiences, not to constrain the creativity of teachers or students. Pam explains, “So sometimes when teachers get anxious, and for good reason, they wonder, ‘Uh oh, am I going to be constrained?’ We should rest easy that the standards, if you read them carefully, you will see that they are pretty flexible. If you have something special that you like to do in your classroom each day or that you like to do something really creative, or you like to read a certain book with your children, there is plenty of breathing room for all of that.”

Listen in as she describes how the standards are being used to develop critical thinking and reasoning skills as well as good written and oral communication skills. This installment is the first of four podcasts. In the coming weeks Pam will talk about the “four doors” of the standards, the art of close reading, and the strength of assessments.


(See below for full transcript)

Listen to the second podcast: The Four Doors of Common Core State Standards.

Listen to the third podcast: The Art of Close Reading.

Listen to the fourth podcast: Assessments and their Strength to Improve Literacy.

About Pam Allyn
Pam Allyn

Pam Allyn

Pam Allyn is a world-renowned literacy expert, author, and motivational speaker. She is the founding director of LitWorld, a global literacy initiative serving children across the United States and in more than 60 countries, and LitLife, a cutting-edge consulting group working with schools to enrich best practice teaching methods and building curriculum for reading and writing. She has written many books including an English/Language Arts Core Ready series that offers teachers ideas to make the most of their time in the classroom.

Pam received the 2013 Scholastic Literacy Champion Award, and is Scholastic’s Open a World of Possible Ambassador. She is a spokesperson for BIC Kids, championing BIC’s 2014 “Fight For Your Write” campaign. Pam was selected as a mentor for the 2013 Bush Institute’s Women’s Initiative Fellowship to help young Egyptian women develop leadership skills. She was chosen as an inaugural W.K. Kellogg Foundation Fellow in April 2014, becoming a part of a national cohort of 20 fellows focusing on racial healing and equity. She is on the Advisory Boards of the Amherst College Center for Community Engagement, James Patterson’s ReadKiddoRead, the Pearson Foundation’s We Give Books, and the Millennium Cities Initiative Social Sector.


Podcast Transcript

Host: Welcome to today’s podcast. I am Lauren McDonough, editorial director for Pearson’s Teaching & Learning blog. I am thrilled to announce the first podcast in our four-part series on Common Core State Standards featuring world renowned literacy expert, author and motivational speaker, Pam Allyn. In today’s podcast, Pam will give us an overview of the Common Core Standards and their impact on teachers and learners in today’s classrooms. Pam?


Pam Allyn: Thanks so much Lauren and thanks to everybody who is listening, and to all of you teachers, administrators, librarians, technologists, and parents and children, and everybody out there, who is interested in learning more about the Common Core Standards.

So I am just going to take a few minutes to share with you some top-line thoughts about the standards and to give you a little bit, almost like a cheat sheet on them for those of you who are busy practitioners and want to have kind of the big idea and the big picture. I want to dig a little more deeply about how the standards have already impacted public education and how they can impact the way that we engage with our students in the classroom, and the way that we think of literacy overall.

The first thing that I will say about the standards is that they were designed and developed with the idea in mind that they would be a flexible framework for teachers and for students to be able to think about literacy over the course of many years of a child’s learning life. So, I am going to focus on literacy because that’s my thing, but there is, of course, the math component of the standards, but for today we are going to really focus on literacy and how the standards define literacy too, which is also in and of itself really interesting.

When the standards were first introduced, it was the governors’ commission that came together and said, “Look the problem in all these states–we are a lot of governors here–we are really interested in having conversations that will help us to move our own state forward.” So they were never intended as a federal initiative in any way shape or form. It was really a way for people to collaborate and leaders of states to actually say, you know, when we are sitting down at round tables talking about education lets have a language we can use to talk across the different kinds of challenges we are facing, because even though each state is very special and very different, the amazing thing about childhood literacy and young adult literacy is that actually no matter where you go or what country you are in, or city you are in, rural, urban, or suburban, there are very strong patterns of development in literacy. So the standards try to identify research-based patterns of literacy development that you can see across time and identify as goals, markers, and benchmarks for students as they go through their years.

In the past, I think, without this document we have been a little bit stuck in the sense that, you know, if you have a great third grade teacher, or if you have somebody in the fifth grade who happens to be really interested in literacy in the content areas, or in first grade you have a teacher who just happens to love personal narratives, you are a little bit at the whim of people’s own individual tastes. While that is great because we want the teacher’s voice to be in there, it is also for the child and we are really thinking about the child here. It is important for us to think about them as being on a journey, that they come to school, hopefully they get to go to pre-k and then they get to come to kindergarten, first grade, second grade. Even if we want them to get passed third grade, which was a big stumbling block already for too many children in this country. Once they go all the way to twelfth grade, we want them to feel like they are on a journey that is deliberate and meaningful, and where people have kind of a big picture idea of what does tend to be the norm for children turning eight, turning nine, and turning ten. That is really the intention of the standards, to really create a road map, a benchmark, a journey that would make sense for the child.

So sometimes when teachers get anxious, and for good reason, and they wonder, “Uh oh, am I going to be constrained?” We should rest easy that the standards, if you read them carefully, you will see that they are pretty flexible. If you have something special that you like to do in your classroom each day or that you like to do something really creative, or you like to read a certain book with your children, there is plenty of breathing room for all of that. What the standards are saying is that by the end of the year here is something you should be able to do, whether it is writing an essay, and having some parameters around that, or you should be touching on different writing types. Those are all really important things that for a child are hugely important because we want to make sure that we are making a commitment to that child by the time he or she leaves high school. And that is really what I think the standards do, is they are a real equity document in the sense that they are making a commitment to the child who becomes a young adult, then becomes an adult, and so we guarantee you your literacy right by the time you leave twelfth grade.

Sometimes that does feel, perhaps, slightly constraining for us as teachers, who aren’t used to any constraints in a certain way around curriculum or around the outcomes of what each grade level should be. In a way, I would hope that everyone listening feels a little excited about them too that there is enough flexibility in there, there is enough openness in there, so it’s not going to take your voice away, but it is also going to give you a bit of way to say, “Ok, that is a blueprint, I can have a vision for where we are going. So, that’s number one.

Number two is the way the standards define literacy, which is something that I also find very inspiring. The standards define literacy as reading, writing, speaking, listening, and language use. I just love that because I feel like that really puts a new era definition on literacy. It is actually a definition that in one way shape or form, for example, the United Nations has used over the course of years, where they will really make a point to say that speaking and listening is also a part of literacy. The real dramatic point of that is that if it is the case we have to make sure we direct children and give them enough time in the classroom to be speaking and listening, in addition to reading and writing. And that is kind of a big shift for teachers who in some ways, I think we have, oftentimes, it has been mostly our voices that have been heard in the classroom. I am guilty of this, just as all teachers are. What the standards do is say, “Let’s be really conscious of this, and let’s really think about the roles of speaking and listening, and that our students have to practice speaking and listening skills, just as much as they practice reading and writing.”

The same for language use, I love that language use is important to the standards, the grammar, vocabulary, all of those wonder conventions we use. Language is not something that we can just snap our fingers, and expect that our students are going to somehow miraculously can figure out, but that we have to teach some of this explicitly. I think that is something very special in the standards.

In terms about thinking of ways we can be inspired when thinking about reading and writing, one of the big, big ideas of the standards is this idea that reading is like breathing in, and writing is like breathing out. That is huge in the sense that reading isn’t just like one part of the day, and writing is some random other part of the day. Reading happens, and then writing happens, and they are interactive with each other. They are integrated. They are connected. The one breathes in, the other breathes out. They are in sync with each other, and that means curriculum has to change. The curriculum you used to use where reading happened, and then another time writing happened. That is not going to work anymore. The standards are really, really encouraging, no, actually demanding that reading and writing be more integrated, more connected, more holistically connected to content areas too, because you are never just reading, and you are never just writing in the content areas. You almost are always doing a bit of both.

In terms of what this does for teachers, and Common Core’s relationship to the teachers, one is that we have to be very assertive about asking for professional development opportunities. What the standards do is they help us to think more professionally about our careers, and there is a higher level of critical thinking, I think the standards is requiring of us, and from our students, of course. I think the change for us is we have to say, “Look, we need professional development, not because there is something wrong with us, but because this is a very serious document for very serious times. We want to make sure all of our children catch up. I have 30 kids in my class, and perhaps, 50 percent of them are English language learners, or maybe I have some struggling with special needs, and I got some kids exceeding the standards in my class, and that means I need professional support.” Again, I want to reiterate that doesn’t mean there is something wrong with me as a teacher. For me, my professional development was when I started realizing teaching was going to be a career for me, not just a holding period before I launch into something else, like the Peace Corp or something. But it is really a permanent, sustainable, force in my life. That happened when I started to do a lot of professional learning of my own.

In terms of what we do in the classroom, I think, bringing reading and writing closer together, trying on new curriculum, curriculum we have never used before, best practices that like this whole idea of integrating content area, and literacy. All of that is really big. So, you need support. In terms of that professional development should come from people on the outside, for sure, but also from your colleagues. You know, really asking for faculty meetings where you talk about the standards; you can dig into one of the standards, or you can bring student writing samples, and work off of them and talk about them. Or you can try new technology using Google docs and other kinds of things that really enhance the writing instruction in the classroom, as well as reading instruction. Those are the kinds of things we need to practice with other adults. That is where the role of professional development is so powerful to the standards.

In terms of preparing to implement standards or if you feel you have already implemented them, and you want to go to the next level, I would say a couple things about implementation. One is that, I think, curriculum is one piece of it. So if you have adopted a new curriculum or have been thinking about it, which you probably should be because I would like to see everyone use curriculum that has been developed hence the standards and not before the standards, is that the standards are encouraging us to really, not only think about curriculum, but also think about best practice. So what does it mean to work in small groups? What does it mean to confer one to one with my students? What does it mean to have my students doing independent reading every day, and I am conferring with them around those curricular point? What is it also that I am doing as a teacher that can be more differentiated for my students? And that is where conferring, and small group instruction come in, in order for us to be able to prepare well, we have to practice that. And that where again, I think professional learning is so important practicing with your colleagues at faculty meetings or at lunch sessions. Also practicing with them with students inviting a colleague into the classroom, and say, “Listen, I really admire you as a colleague, and I was wondering if our principal would get you some coverage, and come in for 30 minutes and help me lead a small group. I would like to see what you do with a couple of my most struggling kids.” In my mind, the best implementation is to get some learning partners, and make sure you don’t feel lonely.

In terms of just a couple more things about the standards, as you can see I am very excited about them, is thinking about new strategies around the standards. Some of the new strategies really do have to do with technology and I am a big fan of tools and resources reminding people that the pen is a technology, a post-it note is a technology, that also the tablet is a technology, as well as these tools that companies like Google and Apple and others have to offer. But they are only as good as we are in terms of thinking about our students as learners, and if the curriculum that you are using is an adoption across your district, or is a series of professional books that perhaps only your school has adopted. The new strategies around any of this curriculum is really all about can we best differentiate for our students’ needs. So, if I have a lot of English learners in my class, what kinds of technologies can I use to support them? Some of these technologies are free. Some of them are just about record keeping, and making sure that we can talk to our students after class. There are really great apps and websites for that, which most of the time don’t cost anything. A real cost here is just for us take more time, a little extra time, to make sure that we assertively require professional support for ourselves. So that we don’t ever feel stressed out.

And then finally just to bring us to a close, thinking about our students. Our students really want to be core ready. When I say core ready, what I mean by that is that not only college and career readiness, but also knowledge ready because whatever our students end up doing they are doing right now. They are looking online for ideas, they are texting friends, they are reading novels, they are looking at graphic comic books, they are looking at video game manuals. That is what reading is in the new era. Writing is writing blogs, and writing text messages, putting a note up on Instagram, or writing a thank-you note to their grandparents. All of those things are actually, the more things change, I wouldn’t say they stay the same, but I would say there is a lot for a child to be familiar with about those things. Reading and writing still matters, that we love to communicate as human beings. What literacy is all about is communication, and it is a way to say, “I am here, and I have a story to tell, and my story is important. And not only, but that I am going to listen to other people’s stories, that I am going to be looking out at the world, and seeing myself as more of a global citizen.”

So, with that being said, I am going to bring us to a close, and I am just going to say don’t be afraid of the standards. We are here and I am very proud to be a part of, as an author, at Pearson. It is very important to me that any work that I create, any curriculum that I write be paired with support, and I know Pearson believes that and so much around teaching, around literacy leadership, whether you are an administrator, a librarian, or a parent. Our children really want to be core ready. They want to be a part of the big shift. They get it. And I think, sometimes when we sort of make things negative, we lose that energy that the children have. I want us to be positive about the standards because I think they are the single greatest innovation in public education in the last 25 years.

So, good luck, and let’s keep posted and, let’s be bold and fearless for the new era. Thank you very much for having me.
Lauren: Thank you so much Pam, and thank you listeners. This ends today’s podcast for the Teaching & Learning blog.