Donate to #kidlitforAleppo

I’m participating in #kidlitforAleppo on Twitter through Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2016. If you make a donation to an organization helping in Aleppo, post an image of your receipt (mark out the identifying details or take a screenshot of any part of the e-receipt that doesn’t show your personal information) to my Tweet here. I will randomly choose a winner on Dec. 22.

For a background on #kidlitforAleppo, or to see what organizations qualify, read Dana Alison Levy’s post, “The Stories We Don’t Want to Tell: Aleppo.” (Note: Dana Alison Levy and Rachel Allen came up with the idea!)

By Bernard Gagnon, Wikimedia Commons

The Common Core for Kid Lit Writers

While the Common Core may be controversial in the education world, it is good news for kid lit writers. Since the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) list things kids should know and be able to do at each grade level, they help authors align their books with what kids are learning, and they also enable authors to have valuable discussions with teachers who use their books. In order to accomplish these professional endeavors, it is important for authors to understand how the CCSS came into being, how to read the standards, and how to posit books within the Common Core context.

A Very Brief History of Education Reform and the Common Core

In 1983, a scathing report called “A Nation at Risk” came out that lambasted the American education system. The report cited that educational issues such as high teacher turnover rates, declining test scores, and high rates of illiteracy among adults were threatening the United State’s ability to compete with other industrialized nations. The report drove education to the forefront of politics, and calls for sweeping reforms were made to improve teaching, teacher education, and education standards.

Because education policy is set at the state level, states began to develop their own standards for addressing academic achievement. And, in 2002, George W. Bush signed “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) into law. The goal of NCLB was to raise the level of education for all American children, and it required districts to test students every year in 3rd-8th grade on reading and math and to report their progress.

Since every state had its own standards and tests to measure student achievement, there were obvious difficulties in comparing the data across the country. So, in 2009-2010, a council of state governors and state heads of education worked to develop internationally bench-marked standards that they hoped would be adopted and used by every state. At the time of this post, forty-five states have adopted the Common Core State Standards (Alaska, Minnesota, Nebraska, Texas, and Virginia have not).

What Does the Common Core Say?

The Common Core does not identify how teachers should teach, nor does it limit or state all that can and should be taught. Rather, it’s a list of things students should know and be able to do at each grade level in English Language Arts (ELA) and in math.

Since this post is for authors, I’ll focus solely on the ELA standards, but if you’d like to visit the math standards, the same logic applies. Go here to view the actual ELA standards. Once there, you will see that the standards are broken down in the following manner according to grade level. If you click on one of the ELA strands by grade, a list of standards appears, broken down by subtopic:

For example, in the Reading: Literature strand for Kindergarten, RL.K.1 is the first standard. It states that students should “With prompting and support, ask and answer questions about key details in a text.” The first letter(s) identify the type of standard from the list above (RL in the example=Reading for Literature). The second piece is the grade level (K in the example is Kindergarten). And the final number represents the number of standard (1 in the example means it’s the first of ten standards in the Reading for Literature standards).

Each grade has its own standards, but there are some general pieces of information to note. First, in reading instruction there should be a balance of literature and informational texts. In writing, there is an emphasis on argument and informative/explanatory. Students will also be required to write about sources and to develop high level thinking/problem solving skills at an early age. Even kindergartners will be expected to write narrative, argumentative, and informative pieces. For speaking and listening, both formal and informal speech are required. And with language, students will be required to use and understand both general academic (such as ‘observe’) and domain-specific vocabulary (such as ‘cells’).

How Can Authors Use the Common Core to Promote Their Books?

Authors who are knowledgeable about the Common Core can have mutually beneficial conversations with teachers about their books. Knowing the six strands of ELA standards is a great start. If you’ve written a picture book, chances are you can create lesson activities to meet the Reading for Literature (RL) standards. If you’ve written a nonfiction book, chances are you can create lesson activities to meet the Reading for Informational Text (RI) standards. Should you be lucky enough to go into a classroom, you can use the specific grade-level standards. But, if you’ve written a book and want to be more open-ended, you can refer to the ELA College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards. These are the more general, overarching standards (as apposed to the additional specificity of grade-specific standards. Together the anchor standards and the grade level standards define the skills and understandings that all students must demonstrate by the time of graduation). You can find these anchor standards on the Common Core website.

For example, the first anchor standard for Reading is Literacy.CCRA.R.1 – Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusion drawn from the text.

Just as before, the breakdown is the same: CCRA=College and Career Readiness Anchor standard, R=Reading, 1=first standard.

All this information provided by the Common Core means that writers have the tools on hand to market their books to educators and students. It means authors have the tools to create activities and guides to help teachers use their books in classrooms in a meaningful way. It means authors have the tools to connect with the education world. And that’s very good news, indeed.


  • Bidwell, Allie. “The History of Common Core State Standards.” US News. U.S.News & World Report, 27 Feb. 2014. Web. 25 Nov. 2014.
  • Graham, Edward. “‘A Nation at Risk’ Turns 30: Where Did It Take Us? – NEA Today.” NEA Today. N.p., 25 Apr. 2013. Web. 26 Nov. 2014.
  • Meador, Derrick. “An In-Depth Look at the Common Core.” About Education. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Nov. 2014.
  • “A Nation At Risk.” Archived:. N.p., Apr. 1983. Web. 26 Nov. 2014. <https://www2.ed.gov/pubs/NatAtRisk/risk.html>.
  • Nelson, Libby. “What Is the Common Core?” Vox. N.p., 7 Oct. 2014. Web. 26 Nov. 2014.
  • Scherer, Melissa. “A NATION AT RISK: THE IMPERATIVE FOR EDUCATIONAL REFORM, 1983.” N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Nov. 2014. <https://www3.nd.edu/~rbarger/www7/nationrs.html>.

Research on Writing Instruction Strategies

Image from Nationaal Archief via Flickr [1937]
A friend and mentor suggested I read “Writing Next: Effective Strategies to Improve Writing of Adolescents in Middle and High Schools.” It’s a 2007 report by Drs. Steve Graham and Dolores Perin and funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Alliance for Excellent Education. In it, Drs. Graham and Perin identify eleven effective elements found in current writing instruction. I have summarized these elements (in order of decreasing effectiveness), along with my reactions below:

  1. Writing Strategies — Explicitly teaching students specifics for planning, revising, and editing
    • This seems pretty obvious, and it’s not surprising that it’s the most effective. In order for students to write well, they need to go through phases all writers go through, and they need to be shown what each of these phases look like. The authors provided a few example strategies in the report such as Self-Regulated Strategy Development (SRSD) and Pay attention to the prompt, List the main idea, Add supporting details, Number your ideas (PLAN). Given that good writing takes time, I continue to wonder why standardized tests require timed essays that are fully formed.
  2. Summarization — Teaching students how to summarize texts
    • Practice makes perfect, or at least proficient. Giving students a specific focus like a summary and practice will enable them to produce an adequate summary. (This ties in nicely with #4.)
  3. Collaborative Writing — Students work together in writing
    • I view this as the benefits of a critique group at all stages during the writing process and fits with Gardner’s interpersonal intelligence as well as Vygotsky’s argument for socialization in learning.
  4. Specific Product Goals — Assign students specific, reachable goals
    • If you’re specific in directions and ask for something students are capable of giving, you’re more likely to get quality work in response. Specific objectives and rubrics can help with this.
  5. Word Processing — Using computers and word processors
    • I was a little surprised that using computers appears to be an effective instructional support. While students can spell check and easily add, delete, and move text, I keep hearing from professional writers how they write their stories by hand. I wonder what students will miss by not putting an actual pen to paper; maybe a powerful surge flowing through them, but maybe nothing.
  6. Sentence Combining — Teaching students to construct more complex, sophisticated sentences
    • This reminds me of sentence fluency in the 6+1 traits. I wonder why the authors focused just on this trait. While effective, without ideas, organization, voice, word choice, conventions, and presentation, it’s only one element.
  7. Prewriting — Activities designed to help students organize ideas for composition
    • a.k.a. the first step in the writing process. Perhaps the most rushed through step in writing, and one that shouldn’t be! It allows for more fully fleshed out ideas, and students are more invested in their work when they plan ahead of time.
  8. Inquiry Activities — Students analyze data to help them develop ideas and content for a writing task
    • Anytime you can get students to discover knowledge on their own is a good thing. 🙂
  9. Process Writing Approach — A workshop approach that stresses extended writing opportunities, writing for authentic audiences, personalized instruction, and cycles of writing
    • Unsurprisingly, the effectiveness of this depended upon the training teachers received in the process writing approach since there is a lot to it.
  10. Study of Models — Students read, analyze, and emulate models of good writing
    • This is equivalent to studying mentor texts for gathering ideas on how to shape one’s own writing
  11. Writing for Content Learning — Using writing as a tool to learn content material
    • Unsurprisingly, writing can be effective for learning about various content in different subjects.

While the most effective element was explicitly teaching students writing strategies, it is important to note that all of these elements proved effective, and can be combined to strengthen adolescent literacy development. It is also important to note that many of the effect sizes differed only minimally, so we need to be cautious in interpreting the differences in effect.

What surprised me most was the rank of the study of models (#10). I keep reading about mentor texts. In fact, I contributed two blog entries about their benefits here and here. And, it’s true that they’re helpful in teaching students to write well. But, mentor texts are only helpful if students have the basic writing skills beforehand in order to learn from masters and extrapolate that information into their own work, and when we use them in conjunction within a larger literacy and writing framework.


The report repeatedly mentioned that these elements do not make up a complete writing curriculum on their own. This made me wonder: what does constitute a solid writing curriculum for fourth grade and up? And, what are some additional practices in writing instruction? I’m familiar with the writing process, Writer’s Workshop, 6 +1 traits, and others. But, what else is there? And how do they all tie together with reading, listening, speaking, viewing, and visually representing? And, why is reading still receiving more attention than writing? Obviously, I have some more reading and thinking to do!

A good study should shed light on questions while at the same time inciting more. I’ve only summarized a portion of this report–I did not mention the history of writing instruction, the necessity of writing or the consequences of poor writing, additional methodologies to consider, and more. Click here to read the full report.

In the meantime, do you have a reaction to the findings or my questions? If so, please share your thoughts!

If students are to make knowledge their own, they must struggle with the details, wrestle with the facts, and reword raw information and dimly understood concepts into language they can communicate to someone else. In short, if students are to learn, they must write.”

–the National Commission on Writing, as cited in Writing Next