The Kind of Writing that Common Core Demands


As writing teachers, we’ve always known that writing is, as stated by Stephen King (2012), “thinking through the end of a pen” and that writing supports academic achievement across all subject areas.  With the adoption of the Common Core State Standards, writing has finally become central in our national efforts to improve education, and students must write more than ever.  Now, in addition to learning how to skillfully compose text to inform and persuade, students must use writing as a tool for analyzing complex texts and for deepening understanding of content area material.  

In this month’s newsletter, we will be discussing some of the more challenging demands placed on student writers by the Common Core State Standards and offer some suggestions for meeting these demands.  

If you use any of these ideas in your classroom, we’d love to hear back from you and find out how they worked and how you tweaked them to fit with your grade level and students.

Good luck and let’s get those students writing!  


The Common Core:  New Standards, New Teaching

In a recent Kappan article, Michael Smith, Jeffrey Wilhelm, and James Fredricksen explain why they are enthusiastic about the Common Core English Language Arts standards: “They emphasize writing convincing arguments about issues that matter, clear and comprehensive informational texts that can do meaningful work in the world, and compelling narratives that foster an understanding of oneself, others, and the world…”  But, say the authors, traditional formulaic writing instruction won’t prepare students for the new standards because it doesn’t develop “the robust conceptual and strategic knowledge that transfers to new composing situations.” 
The solution:  students must engage in five kinds of composing so they will develop five kinds of knowledge about writing.
  • Practicing — Rather than writing to a cold prompt, Smith, Wilhelm, and Fredricksen believe students should be allowed to practice extensively “in miniature” so they can develop the procedural knowledge necessary to become expert writers.  “The trait we commonly call talent is highly overrated,” they say.  Expert performers in any field get that way through lots of practice.  If students are going to learn how to write arguments to support claims, teachers need to get them practicing developing claims that are both defensible and controversial.  They’ll also need practice at finding evidence that their audience will accept, connecting the evidence to the claim, and anticipating the audience’s possible objections.  
  • Gathering material — Brainstorming is not enough to gather information for a piece of writing, say the authors.  That assumes the information students need to write is already in their heads–not true in many cases!  Students have to read, interview, survey, and design experiments to get the stuff they need to write well.
  • First-draft composing — This is necessary “to help students overcome the fear of the blank page, a problem that plagues even professional writers,” they say.  “Many students are stymied by composing their first words.  So we have to give them lots and lots of opportunities to get started, many more than the characteristic one or two a quarter.  We also have to help them be alert for how their drafting can help them refine their thinking and clarify their purposes.”
  • Final-draft composing — This is the revising, polishing, and publishing phase.  “We need to teach them how to read their work with the eyes of their intended audience and to make the changes necessary to address that audience’s assumptions, knowledge, and needs,” say Smith, Wilhelm, and Fredricksen.
  • Transfer — This is the most serious issue for teachers, they say, because knowledge and skills don’t automatically transfer to other settings.  “Teachers need always to think about how what they do today prepares students for their next class, their other subjects, their composing outside school, their future education, and their lives outside school.” Thus, according to the authors, it’s important “to reflect on what they wrote and to articulate the procedural knowledge they employed so they can transfer that knowledge to their subsequent writing.”

Finally, Smith, Wilhelm, and Fredricksen emphasize that “the Common Core and the assessments designed to measure them call for much more than the formulaic writing and thinking that too often characterizes school efforts to meet existing state standards.”  

Smith, M., Wilhelm, J., & Fredricksen, J.  (2013). The common core: new standards, new teaching. Phi Delta Kappan. 94(8), 45-48.


Common Core Lesson Plans

  1. The Common Core Writing Academy recommends two sites that share free Common Core lesson plans.
  2. Share My Lesson from the American Federation of Teachers has a significant resource bank for the Common Core State Standards, covering all aspects of the standards.
  3. The Better Lesson website now has over 3,000 free, publicly available lessons across all content areas and standards and is adding hundreds more each week. 
  4. Grammar Help for Students
  5. The No Red Ink website allows teachers to create customized assignments to target their students’ grammar challenges. Students can also sign up and track their progress, and they can even customize the exercises to include their favorite entertainers, sports idols, and movies.

     Lessons That Change Writers  

    Lessons That Change Writers contains over a hundred of Nancy Atwell’s best writing mini-lessons along with the theory behind each lesson.

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