Life-long Learning

Teaching to the Core: What Does Good Language Arts Instruction Look Like?

Parents often wonder what good teaching looks like in the classroom. Now that the Common Core is being implemented in all SFUSD classrooms and across the state it becomes more and more important for parents and educators to build an understanding of how good instruction looks.

There are three key shifts in the new Common Core English Language Arts standards

Reading a balance between fiction and non-fiction texts.

In the past, the English standards favored stories, novels and other non-fiction. District adopted text books reflected this in that most of the books children read in class during Language arts time was spent reading stories, novels, poems and other types of non-fiction. Students only encountered fiction in Language Arts classes in science, and social studies.

Reading, writing and speaking about texts

When educators talk about this they often say that there is a new focus on “referencing the text” or “finding evidence” in the text. In the past, many educators focused on asking students questions like: “How do you feel about this text?” or “What does it remind you of?”. These are great ways to get students to connect with what they are reading. Educators agreed that students needed more practice supporting their new learning by using quotes, facts and plot details pulled from the text itself.

Exposure to “academic language” and complex texts

Previous standards did not provide any guidance for teachers about our expectations for the level and complexity of language in the texts students were expected to be able to read.

Two factors that educators consider when judging the complexity of a text:

  • Academic language is another way to talk about vocabulary. Science reports or news articles are good examples of texts that contain a lot of specific academic language.
  • Text complexity refers to the sentence structure in a text or the quality and amount of figurative language. Shakespeare’s plays are a great example of text that is very complex and rich with figurative language.

It is important for students to be able to understand increasingly complex texts so that they will be successful in college and career. With the previous standards, many educators defaulted to “easier” texts with limited vocabulary. In this way, many educators were technically “addressing the standards” (e.g. identify main ideas from a text.) yet failing to prepare students for college and career pursuits.

Read more about the “key shifts” in ELA and Math in this document: Common Core Shifts at a Glance  from

So what does good Common Core instruction look like? How do I know if this is happening in my child’s class?

Teaching is a practice. It is helpful to define educational concepts. Nonetheless, it is when we put them into practice that we see what they really look like in the classroom.

in that regard, a colleague of mine recently shared a great video from the Teaching Channel that highlights what good instruction looks like when it is aligned work with the new standards (Thanks Jeff!). Please note: for teachers who have been doing this type of teaching all along, there will now be added encouragement, resources and support in serving students in the way these teachers have known was best.

Check out the video and let me know what you think in the comments below. You will have to click on the picture or link below as I have not yet figured out how to embed this type of video.:

Asking and Answering Questions About Soil


Related reads: Common Core Math is Changing with Way we all Think about MathParent-Friendly Answers to Your Common Core Questions

Parents, does this look like the teaching/learning that is going on in your child’s classroom? Teachers, what would you like parents to know to support you in doing this kind of work?

3 thoughts on “Teaching to the Core: What Does Good Language Arts Instruction Look Like?

  1. I think you’ve laid this out quite clearly in terms of the shifts. I would just add that the CCSS also calls for language arts skills to be integrated in other subjects. After all, is there an academic discipline which doesn’t require reading, writing, listening, speaking, research, etc.? So, while it’s true that English classes are likely to incorporate more non-fiction than they used to (a broad generalization, admittedly), it’s also hopefully true that students will be speaking more in math class, or writing more in science classes. I saw all of these shifts, at least partially, in four of the five classrooms I visited this week. I was in a 9th grade English class where students were researching human rights groups; an 11th grade science class where students were revising essays about an experiment; a fifth grade class where students were writing paragraphs about science experiments; a 11th grade English/History class where the lines are blurred as students study historical periods and literature together. I invite anyone interested to read more about my travels through California schools at my personal blog ( or my EdWeek Teacher blog. I’m also trying to crowd fund this work and would love it if you’d take a look at my video, here:

    1. Thanks for adding this. I agree. At the elementary level, this may not seem like much of a big shift because teachers have always taught across various content areas and already think of themselves as teachers of reading and writing. At the middle and high school levels though, this will be a major shift for many Math, science, and social studies teachers, who previously thought that teaching reading and writing was “the English teachers’ responsibility.”

  2. I agree that kids can be way more challenged. My son has to be in a special group and get harder homework because his classmates are barely learning their letters. I do my part and teach him extra in the evenings, and we find challenging worksheets for him to do. I think a big factor is making learning seem fun and not a drag. He really likes learning!

    I read a book that said a great way for teachers to learn is to have a more seasoned teacher sit in in a classroom and take notes on the teacher in action. That way the teacher can improve.

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