The University of North Carolina at Greensboro
School of Education

An Introduction To The Common Core State Standards For English Language Arts

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS), like most content standards, are designed to provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn. They are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers. The CCSS are not intended to define all that can or should be taught; they are not intended to be a curriculum. Rather, they are intended to provide guidance on the core content needed for curriculum development.  Neither are the CCSS intended to define how teachers should teach, the nature of advanced work beyond the core, or the interventions needed for students well below grade level.  Finally, they do not define the full range of support for English language learners and students with special needs.


The concept of college and career readiness is a driving force behind the CCSS.  College and Career Readiness (CCR) or “Anchor” standards for the end of 12th grade were developed first.  They then served as the basis for the development of the K-12 standards, which are intended to be learning progressions that lead to achievement of the CCR.

The development of the CCSS was led by the states, not a federal agency, under the auspices of the National Governors’ Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO).  As a state-led initiative, the CCSS are designed to improve on current state standards by creating fewer, clearer, and higher level standards.  The CCSS are also internationally benchmarked to help ensure that all students are prepared to succeed in global economy and society.


There are, of course, many reasons for the widespread support for the development and implementation of common standards at this point in state and national efforts to improve education.  Perhaps the most compelling is strong evidence of the inequities created by the tremendous variability observed in policies and procedures related to curriculum, instruction, and assessment across states.  Among the areas in which it has been demonstrated that states vary widely are the content and quality of state standards, the alignment of state standards with the assessments used to measure student achievement, the quality of these assessments and the criteria used for determining “proficiency” and, ultimately, the alignment of state standards, assessments and the “delivered” curriculum.  In addition, it is expected that common standards will help address issues of student mobility and the need to prepare students for a different world of work in today’s global society; hence, the attention to college and career readiness.


The CCSS-ELA consists of several documents.  The main body of the CCSS-ELA includes introductory material and the standards themselves.  The standards are presented separately for each area of the language arts—Reading, Writing, Speaking and Listening, and Language.  Within each of these areas, there are two types of standards.  First, there are the “College and Career Readiness” or “Anchor” standards.  These standards are the same for all grades, K-12.  Second, there are grade-level standards, which “unpack” the Anchor Standards at each grade level.   A unique feature of the standards in grades 6-12 is the addition of Anchor and grade-level standards in reading and writing in the subject areas—history/social studies, science, and technical subjects.

In addition to the introductory materials and standards, the CCSS-ELA documents include three Appendices.  Appendix A elaborates on text complexity, foundational reading skills, and a skills progression for language development.  Appendix B provides sample reading texts and performance tasks, and Appendix C provides samples of quality writing at each grade level.  These appendices are integral to understanding and implementing the standards.


The CCSS-ELA provide an integrated view of English language arts.  There is integration of all of the areas of the language arts (reading, writing, listening/speaking, and language) across grades K-12 and integration between two areas of the language arts (reading and writing) across the subject areas of history/social studies, science, and technical subjects at grades 6-12. It is important to note that the 6–12 reading and writing standards in history/social studies, science, and technical subjects are not meant to replace content standards in those areas but rather to supplement them. States may incorporate these reading and writing standards into their standards for those subjects or adopt them separately as content area literacy standards.

The integrated view of ELA presented by the CCSS contrasts sharply with the heavy emphasis that has been placed on reading in recent years almost to the exclusion of other areas of the language arts and other subject areas in the K-12 curriculum.  When reading is part of an integrated model, the emphasis changes dramatically from the “big 5″, which have dominated curriculum and instruction for the last decade or more—phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.  Within the CCSS-ELA, phonemic awareness, phonics, and fluency are addressed primarily in the “foundational skills” addendum to the K-5 standards.  Vocabulary is highlighted in the Language strand, and comprehension is emphasized throughout.  Add to this the emphasis on reading and writing in the disciplines at 6-12, and there is likely to be a major shift from an over emphasis on decoding to comprehension of and learning with and from oral and written language.

The CCSS-ELA document does not define literacy, reading, or English Language Arts directly—but it does provide some relevant insights about the fundamental nature of reading and literacy.  The closest thing to definitions are statements about the “vision” of what it means to be literate in the 21st century (p. 3) and a “portrait” of what students who are college and career ready in ELA “look like” (p. 7).

 “Students who meet the Standards readily undertake the close, attentive, reading that is at the heart of understanding and enjoying complex works of literature.  They habitually perform the critical reading necessary to pick carefully through the staggering amount of information available today in print and digitally.  They actively seek the wide, deep, and thoughtful engagement with high-quality literary and informational texts that builds knowledge, enlarges experience, and broadens world views.  They reflexively demonstrate the cogent reasoning and use of evidence that is essential to both private deliberation and responsible citizenship in a democratic republic” (pg. 3)


The developers of the CCSS-ELA and two consortia designing state assessments to measure achievement of the standards describe the key shifts in curriculum and instruction in terms of Complexity, Evidence, and Knowledge.  Complexity is defined as regular practice with complex text and its academic language.  Evidence consists primarily of reading and writing grounded in evidence from literary and informational text, and Knowledge refers to the building of knowledge through engagement with content rich text.  These shifts require curriculum and instruction focused on texts worth reading, tasks worth engaging in and integrated teaching and learning.  Integrated teaching and learning includes integration across the areas of the language arts (reading, writing, listening/speaking, and language), integration of grade level standards within and across the areas of the language arts, and integration of English language arts with subject matter instruction.


Below are some key points from each of the language arts strands in the CCSS-ELA.

Reading There are 10 College and Career Readiness (CCR) or “anchor” standards for Reading, which apply to all grades K-12.  These standards are grouped into four topics–Key Ideas and Details, Craft and Structure, Integration of Knowledge and Ideas, and “Range of Reading and Level of Text Complexity.” Attention to text complexity comes from concerns that today’s high school graduates are not prepared to learn with and from the materials they encounter in college or the workplace, either in terms of their knowledge base or their ability to engage successfully with complex texts.  As a result, the CCSS-ELA provides information about the factors that influence text complexity in Appendix A and exemplar texts at different grade levels in Appendix B. The exemplar texts are not intended to be a required reading list.  However, the CCSS-ELA do require specific types of reading content for all students, including classic myths, foundational U.S. documents, “seminal” works of American literature, and Shakespeare.  Although this requirement is not actually embedded in the grade level standards until high school, it does have implications for the types of materials students need to be reading in the elementary grades.

Other aspects of the Reading standards worth noting include the attention to close, independent reading and learning to provide evidence from a text or texts to substantiate the ideas or information gained from reading.  The emphasis placed on these dimensions of reading require that students learn to self-monitor their reading and use “fix-up” strategies when they run into difficulties.  Increasing student engagement and interest in reading will also be essential to improving their ability to read complex texts independently.

Writing The Writing strand of the CCSS-ELA also consists of 10 CCR standards, which are grouped into four topics–“Text Types and Purposes”, “Production and Distribution of Writing”, “Research to Build and Present” and “Range of Writing.”  The CCR standards for writing focus heavily on students’ learning to engage in significant amounts of research and writing about the sources they are using to gather information.  They also place emphasize students’ writing arguments and informative or explanatory essays across the curriculum.  This emphasis begins right at the kindergarten level with students learning to write “opinion” pieces.

It is expected that writing will be assessed in most states through the performance tasks being designed by the two assessment consortia developing new state assessments.  One consortium is proposing that students complete three performance tasks–research simulation, literary analysis, and narrative.  The other consortium is proposing a single performance task, which would include one of three different types of writing–argumentative, informational/explanatory, and narrative.  In both cases, the tasks involve “writing to sources” rather than writing to independent prompts, which has been the norm in state and national assessments up to this point in time.

Speaking/Listening The Speaking/Listening strand of the CCSS-ELA consists of 6 CCR standards grouped according to two topics–“Comprehension and Collaboration” and “Presentation of Knowledge and Ideas”  These standards emphasize academic discussion in individual, small group, and whole class settings. They also emphasize formal presentations.  The assessment consortia plan to address these standards as part of the larger assessments systems they are developing–i.e., beyond the end of year summative assessments.  It is fairly easy to imagine how these standards can be addressed in the context of integrated instruction involving a range of performance tasks.

Language The Language strand of the CCSS-ELA consists of 6 CCR standards grouped according to three topics–“Conventions of Standard English”, “Knowledge of Language”, and “Vocabulary Acquisition and Use”.  The CCR standards for Language include an emphasis on “Vocabulary Acquisition and Use.” These standards place a heavy emphasis on acquiring and using general academic and domain-specific words and phrases. They also relate to the shifts in Complexity and Knowledge described previously, as they are best addressed in the context of the knowledge building that is expected to arise from engagement with content rich text.


It bears repeating that while rigorous standards are essential for increased equity and excellence, by themselves they are insufficient for achieving these goals.  Educators must be provided with professional development, resources, and time to adjust classroom practice.  Curricula and instructional materials need to be aligned with the standards in substantive ways.  Assessments must be developed that inform curriculum and instruction as well a measure student progress.  And, federal, state, and district policies will need to be reexamined to ensure they support alignment of the CCSS with student achievement.

At the time of this writing, 46 states and DC have joined together to form 2 assessment consortia–Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) and the Partnership Assessment for College and Career Readiness (PARCC).  New assessments are slated to be ready in 2014-15 and are expected to consist of multiple types of summative, interim, and formative measures that take advantage of innovations made possible by computer adaptive assessment.


The CCSS-ELA need to be understood and implemented within the context of an integrated view of English language arts.  As noted in the document, “While the Standards delineate specific expectations in reading, writing, speaking, listening, and language, each standard need not be a separate focus for instruction and assessment.  Often several standards can be addressed by a single rich task” (pg. 5).  We are currently in a time when there are more standards than we can possibly address in our instruction.  If the ELA CCSS are implemented as intended, there should be increased opportunities to integrate ELA skills and processes with subject matter content, which should work to the benefit of both teachers and students.

Online Professional Development

About Dean Karen Wixson:

KAREN K. WIXSON is Professor and Dean of the School of Education at University of North Carolina Greensboro.  Previously she was Professor of Education at the University of Michigan where she served as Dean from 1998-2005.  Prior to receiving her doctorate in reading education at Syracuse University, she worked as both a remedial reading specialist and a learning disabilities teacher. Dr. Wixson has published widely in the areas of literacy curriculum, instruction, and assessment in books and journals such as Reading Research Quarterly, The Reading Teacher, Elementary School Journal, Review of Research in Education, and theHandbook of Reading Research. She also co-directed the federally funded Michigan English Language Arts Framework (MELAF) standards project, and served as Co-Director and Principal Investigator of the U.S. Department of Education’s Center for the Improvement of Early Reading Achievement (CIERA). She has been a long-time consultant to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading tests, and recently served as a member of several National Research Council (NRC) committees, and as a member of the extended work for the Common Core ELA standards.  She has served as a member of the Board of Directors of the National Reading Conference and the International Reading Association (IRA) and as Co-chair of the IRA Commission on RTI.

In addition, Dean Wixson has served on many national panels and presented at conferences regarding Common Core Reading standards.

Recent Publications:

Wixson, K. K. (2013).  In Conclusion:  Implementing the Common Core Standards Successfully in Grades 3-5.  In Morrow, L., Wixson, K., & Shanahan, T. (Eds.)  Teaching with the Common Core Standards for English Language Arts, 3-5:  What Educators Need to Know (pp. 187-200.  New York:  Guilford.

Lipson, M.Y. & Wixson, K. K. (2013).  Assessment of Reading and Writing Difficulty,5th Ed.  Boston:  Pearson.

Morrow, L., Wixson, K., & Shanahan, T. (2013).  Teaching with the Common Core Standards for English Language Arts, 3-5:  What Educators Need to Know.  New York: Guilford.

Morrow, L., Shanahan, T., & Wixson, K. (2013).  Teaching with the Common Core Standards for English Language Arts, PreK-2:  What Educators Need to Know.  New York:  Guilford.


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