Common Core and ELLs: Key Shifts in Language Arts and Literacy (Part II)

In this article written for Colorín Colorado, ELL expert Susan Lafond provides an overview of the ways in which Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts and Literacy differ from the standards that states currently use. She also discusses the ways in which these shifts will impact ELL instruction. Part I of this series offers a user-friendly introduction to the standards.

The Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts (ELA) and Literacy are rigorous, internationally benchmarked, and aligned with college and work expectations. They also differ in many respects from the ELA/reading standards that many states currently use. Most notably, they set requirements not only for English language arts but also for literacy across the content areas in history/social studies, science, and technical subjects.


The literacy standards in the content areas are intended complement the content standards, not supplant them. The K-5 standards are cross-disciplinary; grades 6-12 for ELA and for literacy in the content areas foster the idea of a shared responsibility for literacy development.

In addition, the instructional shifts of the Common Core set high expectations for teachers if they are to be truly aligned with the standards in terms of curricular materials and classroom instruction. EngageNY, a collaborative platform for teachers in New York, discusses these shifts, which require teachers to:

  • Expect active participation of all students
  • Facilitate the learning process rather than disseminate the information
  • Make their content literacy expertise visible to all
  • Create carefully structured situations that allow students to solve problems independently
  • Encourage students to draw on their abilities to discover answers by themselves rather than rely on adults to supply the facts

To understand what these changes will look like in the classroom, let's take a closer look at the shifts and what they mean for both teachers and students.

What Are the Shifts?

Shift 1: Balancing Informational & Literary Texts (K-5)

Students read a true balance of informational and literary texts. Elementary school classrooms are, therefore, places where students access the world — science, social studies, the arts and literature — through text. At least 50% of what students read is informational.

What the Student Does…What the Teacher Does…
Build content knowledgeBalance informational & literary text
Exposure to the world through readingScaffold for informational texts
Apply strategiesTeach "through" and "with" informational texts

Shift 2: Knowledge in the Disciplines (Grades 6-12)

Content area teachers outside of the ELA classroom emphasize literacy experiences in their planning and instruction. Students learn through domain specific texts in science and social studies classrooms — rather than referring to the text, they are expected to learn from what they read.

What the Student Does…What the Teacher Does…
Build content knowledge through textShift identity: "I teach reading."
Handle primary source documentsStop referring and summarizing and start reading
Find evidenceSlow down the history and science classroom

Shift 3: Staircase of Complexity

In order to prepare students for the complexity of college and career ready texts, each grade level requires a "step" of growth on the "staircase". Students read the central, grade appropriate text around which instruction is centered. Teachers are patient, create more time and space in the curriculum for this close and careful reading, and provide appropriate and necessary scaffolding and supports so that it is possible for students reading below grade level.

What the Student Does…What the Teacher Does…
Re-read textsTeach more complex texts at every grade level
Read material at own level to enjoy readingGive students less to read in order to further in depth
Tolerate frustration with textSpend more time on more complex texts
 Provide scaffolding & strategies to students
 Engage with texts with other adults

Shift 4: Text-based Answers

Students have rich and rigorous conversations which are dependent on a common text. Teachers insist that classroom experiences stay deeply connected to the text on the page and that students develop habits for making evidentiary arguments both in conversation, as well as in writing to assess comprehension of a text.

What the Student Does…What the Teacher Does…
Find evidence to support their argumentFacilitate evidence-based conversations about text
Form own judgments and become scholarsPlan and conduct rich conversations
Conducting close reading of the textKeep students in the text
Engage with the author and his/her choicesIdentify questions that are text-dependent, worthwhile, and stimulate discussion
 Spend much more time preparing for instruction by reading deeply.

Shift 5: Writing from Sources

Writing needs to emphasize use of evidence to inform or make an argument rather than the personal narrative and other forms of decontextualized prompts. While the narrative still has an important role, students develop skills through written arguments that respond to the ideas, events, facts, and arguments presented in the texts they read.

What the Student Does…What the Teacher Does…
Generate informational textsSpend less time on personal narratives
Make arguments using evidencePresent opportunities to write from multiple sources
Organize for persuasionProvide opportunities to analyze and synthesize ideas
Compare multiple sources Develop students' voice so that they can argue a point with evidence
 Give permission to reach and articulate their own conclusions about what they read

Shift 6: Academic Vocabulary

Students constantly build the vocabulary they need to access grade level complex texts. By focusing strategically on comprehension of pivotal and commonly found words (such as "discourse," "generation," "theory," and "principled") and less on esoteric literary terms (such as "onomatopoeia" or "homonym"), teachers constantly build students' ability to access more complex texts across the content areas.

What the Student Does…What the Teacher Does…
Use high octane words across content areasDevelop students' ability to use and access words
Build "language of power" databaseBe strategic about the new vocabulary words
 Work with words students will use frequently
 Teach fewer words more deeply

Key Shifts and ELLs

What does this mean for English language learners?

Related Resources


For more information about the CCSS and ELLs, take a look at our Common Core resource section.

The shifts have important implications for ELLs. Most importantly, ELLs need to be involved in the learning and taking part in a way that allows them to experience hands-on, student-centered learning. By having ELLs simply watch the other students interact, they are relegated to a position that will not maximize their time spent in the classroom.

That works hand-in-hand with the second expectation for planning classroom instruction, which is that ELLs need to be fully engaged in the learning process. Students learn best by doing. Working in cooperative groups or peer tutoring are two ways that involve students in the learning process.

It's also critical to remember, however, that while learning in collaborative groups is beneficial, an opportunity to be accountable for one's own learning is also needed for ELLs. In order to challenge students, teachers need to carefully craft a supportive environment and design ways that allow students to take risks, grapple with real-life situations, and problem solve as they will be expected to do whether at college or on the job. (For more on helping ELLs become more independent learners, see the "Language Instruction" playlist of Dr. Diane August's video interview.)

In addition, the Standards establish a shared responsibility for literacy development across the disciplines, not just for the ELA teacher. Teachers of ELA, history/social studies, science, and technical subjects are expected to "use their content area expertise to help students meet the particular challenges of reading, writing, speaking, listening, and language in their respective fields." This means that content and literacy are taught simultaneously, providing ELLs with the opportunity to strengthen their literacy skills as they acquire content knowledge.

Finally, these shifts remind us that students have learned at a young age that most questions asked in school have only one correct answer. And the keeper of that answer has been the teacher. We know that students have greater retention of information when they have the opportunity to discover the answer themselves versus simply being told the answer. The process leading to the answer enhances the comprehension of concepts, which is why doing an experiment is far more powerful that watching someone else do it.

Final Thoughts

It is clear that helping ELLs (and their English-speaking peers) adjust to these shifts will provide new challenges for educators and for the students themselves. Teachers, paraprofessional aides, and administrators will have to be creative in finding the most effective way to deliver engaging instruction and professional development. By better understanding what the shifts mean and how the mastery of this new approach will benefit our students, however, we can take the first important steps to helping our students succeed with the Common Core State Standards.

About the Author

Susan Lafond, a Nationally Board Certified Teacher in English as a New Language (EAYA ENL), has 20 years of combined experience teaching ESL and foreign language. She currently works as a professional development assistant for educators with New York State United Teachers (NYSUT). She serves on AFT's ELL Educator Cadre, as well as an expert practitioner and advisor to Colorín Colorado, developing and editing materials for the web site. Her success with high school students was featured on the site in their From the Heart section. She participated in a webcast for them that focused on supporting ELLs in content classes. In 2006, she traveled to Beirut, Lebanon as a turnkey teacher trainer for the Lebanese Syndicate on behalf of AFT.

Susan was appointed to the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) English as a New Language Standards Committee in February 2009 to review and revise the existing English as a New Language Standards and most recently participated as a member of the ELA Work Team for the Common Core State Standards Initiative. She won the Union College Excellence in Teaching Award and the Employee Recognition Award in her own district.

Common Core Video Series by EngageNY

This 15-part series, made with the New York State Education Department, shows how to implement the Common Core for ELA/Literacy and Math in schools and classrooms.

Common Core Instructional Shifts on EngageNY

This document from EngageNY offers an overview of the shifts required in the Common Core English Language Arts and Math standards.

The English Language Arts Standards: Key Changes and Their Evidence

This video created by the writers of the standards shares five critical shifts from earlier standards: text complexity; analysis, inference and evidence; writing to sources; mastery of writing and speaking; and academic vocabulary.

Achieve the Core

Achieve the Core shares its condensed version of three shifts as well as tips for getting familiar with the shifts. Additional tools for implementation are also provided.

The Balance of Informational and Literary Texts in K-5

Standards author Susan Pimentel discusses the ways in which the standards balance informational and literary text for elementary grades.

Literary Non-Fiction in Grades 6-12: Opening New Worlds for Teachers and Students

Standards author Susan Pimentel discusses why literary non-fiction plays such a key part in the Common Core.

Knowledge in the Disciplines

This video featuring standards author David Coleman discusses ho thew ELA Standards apply and require mastery across several disciplines.

Writing to Inform and Make Arguments

This video features Susan Pimentel, one of the authors of the Common Core State Standards, discussing the ways in which the standards address the skill of writing to inform.


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