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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Editor's note: This first post in a three-part series is adapted from the new book Navigating the Common Core With English-Language Learners by Larry Ferlazzo and his co-author Katie Hull Sypnieski, an English and ELL/ESL teacher in the Sacramento City Unified School District.

The Common Core writing standards call for students to focus on evidence-based writing -- specifically argument and informative/explanatory texts in high school, with less time spent on writing "real or imagined" narratives (the elementary and middle school Standards (PDF) suggest that the split be roughly even between the three genres). In reading the Standards and supporting documents (PDF) and listening to their writers, though, one can easily get the idea that they really want teachers and students to focus on writing arguments that are, again, based on evidence from something that students are reading. In other words, students read a text or texts on a topic and develop a position (also called a claim) using the evidence in the text or texts to support their position. This process is different from the one used by many teachers, including us, in the past -- first taking a position and then looking for evidence to support it, usually including substantial personal experience.

Our impression is that, as far as the focus on argument writing goes, the Standards' writers would love to be like the spouse who tells his or her partner on a Monday night that it doesn't matter where they go to dinner -- he or she can choose whatever restaurant for them to go -- while knowing full well that the only one open is the favorite of the spouse who is supposedly being magnanimous. We have nothing against argument, though we also have to say that we also think it's important to introduce our students to a variety of restaurants.

The Standards also call for writing to be well organized -- with a particular audience in mind -- and that revision is an actively-used strategy. In addition, they call for students to work collaboratively on online projects, develop judgment to evaluate the quality of sources found on the internet and elsewhere, and gain an understanding of how to avoid plagiarism. Finally, the Standards call for a "range of writing," from what is commonly called a "quickwrite" to a more lengthy research project -- and anything in between.

3 Key Elements of the Writing Standards

1. Argument

Argument is given great weight in the Standards. The idea is that students will first read a text or texts, examine the writer's explanations and points, and then -- and only then -- develop a claim which they will back up with text-based evidence, as well as acknowledge opposing positions and present counter-arguments. The Standards place great stock in the importance of this kind of rational-based approach, which their writers contrast with the emotional sway of "persuasion." They say that persuasion also often relies on other less "logical" strategies, like using the writer of the text's authority or appealing to the audience's sense of identity or self-interest. Experience in producing evidence-based arguments, say the Standards, is what will truly prepare our students for college and career.

Based on our own experience, we believe that emotion -- for good or bad -- is a key element of how many arguments are made in the world. It would be nice if completely rational ones always carried the day, but that's how things work in the world as we'd like it to be, not in the world as it is. We do tell our students that logic should be the guide for most academic and professional writing. We also tell them, however, that emotion can have an important place in other writing arenas, and it just has to be kept in its place as well.

2. Informative/Explanatory

Argumentative essays are designed to convince the reader of a particular point of view. Informative/explanatory texts, on the other hand, are obviously supposed to inform and explain. As Sgt. Joe Friday would tell witnesses in the popular 1960s TV detective drama Dragnet, this kind of writing starts in a "Just the facts, ma'am" fashion and continues as he investigates to get to the bottom of things. In other words, these kinds of texts help readers understand how things work, why things happen, and what, in fact, did occur. Literary analyses, instructions, summaries, reports, etc. are just a few examples of this kind of writing (PDF). Both informative/explanatory writing, as well as argument essays, can be the result of research.

3. Narrative

Narrative writing, as mentioned earlier, gets reduced by Common Core to 20 percent of student writing output (PDF) when they reach high school, while argument and informative/explanatory both increase to 40 percent. Narratives can be memoirs, autobiographies, anecdotes, or real or imagined stories. They are avenues where students can develop skills to depict visual details, dialogue, and the personalities of different characters. Chicago high school teacher Ray Salazar makes an important point about how the Common Core has impacted his teaching of narrative by suggesting that students need to "focus on making more meaning for the audience than for the writer." He goes on to say that he emphasizes "teaching students to communicate the significance of the experience to others after they understand the significance of the experience for themselves."

What Does This Mean Overall for Writing Instruction in My Classroom?

When we combine all the elements of the writing strands in the Common Core Standards, then, what might it mean for teachers of English-language learners? We would suggest:

  • Focus on the Big Three ideas in the Standards (argument, informative/explanatory and narrative), provide scaffolds such as allowing use of home language (for research and even initial writing) and technology support, and pay less attention to having them develop "flawless" writing with conventions and grammar. In other words, create “meaningful opportunities to communicate rather than mechanical exercises for text production." (PDF)

  • As a corollary to the previous point, in addition to not being a stickler for perfect grammar and conventions, use the same guideline for citations. Provide students with one simple template to use when handwriting, and allow use of automatic citation formatting tools online.

  • Recognize that ELLs will need modeling and guidance -- more than many non-ELLs may require -- before embarking on independent writing projects.

  • Provide many sentence starters for students to use in their writing, and graphic organizers to help support their planning.

  • Look for opportunities to assign collaborative writing projects, or at least make them an option, so that ELLs can more easily get assistance from classmates.

  • Regularly reinforce student use of metacognition so that they can monitor what they're doing well in writing, what challenges they face, and what learning strategies are helping them to most effectively work through those problems.

Part 2 and Part 3 of this series will share more specific suggestions for applying the Common Core State Standards in the classroom through student collaborative writing activities.

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Rusul Alrubail's picture
Rusul Alrubail
Writer on education, teaching and learning. Chief Education Officer at The Writing Project

Larry, this is such a helpful post for ELL teachers. The three categories you mention are so important, they are the core of ELA teaching and often teachers struggle to teach them to ELLs in the mainstream. I think your metacognition point is so helpful as well, it can also provide teacher pedagogical feedback as to how the student is receiving information.

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