LITERACY AND THE COMMON COREIf you teach in a state that uses PARCC assessments, then you have probably already reviewed the PARCC Practice Tests, so you know that the writing tasks look like this:


Today, you will read and think about the passage from the novel titled Boy’s Life and the fable “Emancipation: A Life Fable.” As you read these texts, you will gather information and answer questions about comparing themes and topics so you can write an essay….

THEN: You have read the passage from Boy’s Life and “Emancipation: A Life Fable.” Both texts develop the theme of freedom. Write an essay that compares and contrasts the approaches each text uses to develop the theme of freedom.



Today you will research how zoos impact animals. You will read one article titled “The Stripes Will Survive.” Then you will read one passage titled “The Zoos Go Wild” and view one video titled “Lions at the National Zoo.” As you review these sources, you will gather information and answer questions about how zoos impact animals so you can write an essay….

THEN: You have read two texts and viewed one video that claim that the role of zoos is to protect animals. Write an essay that compares and contrasts the evidence each source uses to support this claim. Be sure to use evidence from all three sources to support your response.



Today you will read a passage from a story titled Magic Elizabeth. As you read, pay close attention to the characters as you answer the questions to prepare to write a narrative story of your own….

THEN: In the passage from Magic Elizabeth, the author creates a vivid setting and two distinct characters, Mrs. Chipley and Sally. Think about the details the author uses to establish the setting and the characters. Write an original story about what happens when Sally arrives at Aunt Sarah’s house. In your story, be sure to use what you have learned about the setting and the characters as you tell what happens next.


In short, in the Literary Analysis and Research tasks, students analyze multiple texts and synthesize their findings in essay form. In the Narrative task, they read one piece of literature then, typically, continue the plot, incorporating elements from the original.

So: how can we prepare students to succeed at these tasks? And by “we,” I don’t mean only English teachers. Social studies and science teachers should take responsibility for the Research Writing Tasks.

  1. Train students to read the writing prompt(s) FIRST (i.e., before they read the passages or the questions) and show them how to annotate the passages effectively. Make sure students know how to annotate differently for different genres. Students need to practice using the online annotation tools, which are merely highlighters, at this point, though perhaps the technology will evolve. Until then, students should also take notes on a separate piece of paper while reading on-screen passages to simulate PARCC online testing conditions. PS—There is nothing on the PARCC Website to suggest that students cannot use blank scrap paper, and quite honestly, I don’t know how anyone could do well on these tasks without writing some notes.
  2. Model how to work through the writing task(s). Teach pre-writing organizational strategies. Students need to know that how you pre-write depends on the genre. Not everything requires a Venn diagram!
  3. Engage students in guided practice. When selecting passages for practice, consider “old” passages (which students have previously read and demonstrated comprehension of) in the early stages so that students can concentrate on their writing skills and so that you can see where their writing strengths and weaknesses appear.  As you move into more independent practice, add “new” passages so that you can see how students handle the work when they have to decipher passages from scratch (especially texts of varying complexity). Keep moving toward “new” passages so that students will gain, ultimately, authentic practice in completing the assessment. Below are suggested progressions to illustrate this approach.

Gradual Release for Literary Analysis and Research Writing Tasks:

Who Does? Passage 1 Passage 2


Gradual Release for Narrative Writing Tasks:

Who Does? Passage 1
You Do* OLD
You Do NEW
You Do NEW

*Depending on how things go, students might need additional “We Do” practice.

If you have any questions, comments, or thoughts about this post, please chime in!


Posted in Annotation, Assessment(s), DBQ Approach, Literary Analysis Writing, Narrative Writing, PARCC, Research Writing, Resources, Test Prep, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment



Next week I will be presenting FREE workshops at Barnes & Noble stores in Staten Island (NY), Eatontown (NJ), and Clifton (NJ).  The official title for these workshops is “Transforming Common Core Standards into RPM (Rigorous, Purposeful, Measurable) Units, Lessons, and Objectives.”

Here’s the blurb:

How can we write curriculum units and lessons that help our students meet and exceed the Common Core Standards? In this workshop, participants will analyze the Reading Standards for Informational Text and learn a process for unpacking the Common Core Standards that enables teachers to design RPM (Rigorous, Purposeful, Measurable) units, lessons, and objectives. Participants will practice this approach and take away practical ideas, handouts, and strategies that they can use immediately to accelerate student learning.

To register for any of these events, please see below:

Oct. 13, Staten Island (NY) Barnes & Noble
Details here:

Oct. 14, Monmouth Mall Barnes & Noble (Eatontown, NJ)
Details here:

Oct. 16, Clifton (NJ) Barnes & Noble
Details here:

I hope to see y’all there!


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LITERACY AND THE COMMON COREIf your state is using PARCC Assessments, please note that PARCC recently (on Sept. 25, 2014) updated the session testing times.

Check out this page for details:

Or you can download this PDF: PARCC – Spring 2015 Test Administration Update – 2014-09-29.

Also, this latest PARCC newsletter promises that new practice tests will be posted on the Practice Tests Web page “in the fall and winter.” Stay tuned!

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LITERACY AND THE COMMON COREIf your state is using PARCC Assessments, please note that PARCC recently (on July 29, 2014) updated the writing rubrics.

Check out this page:

Here are the new rubrics:

Grade 3

Grades 4-5

Grades 6-11

Also, if you do not currently subscribe to the PARCC Newsletter, which periodically provides such updates, you can sign up here:

As things continue to evolve, it’s a good idea to stay in the loop!


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LITERACY AND THE COMMON CORERecently I received an Email message from a reader who wanted to know what to include in an “ideal” first unit.

In my new book, Literacy and the Common Core, I offer a sample 5th-grade unit that can be adapted easily for most middle grades.[1] While not a complete unit plan, it will give you a sense of direction:

WEEK 1: (RIT 5.1, RIT 5.4)

  • Teach the Comprehension Process. See The Literacy Cookbook[2] and the TLC “Comprehension 101” page for details.[3]
  • Teach 4 key critical reading skills (paraphrasing, inference, vocabulary in context, inferring main idea). Students practice paraphrasing and inferring from various texts. See The Literacy Cookbook[4] and the TLC “Comprehension 101” page for details.[5]

WEEK 2: (RIT 5.2; W 5.2)

WEEK 3: (RIT 5.2, 5.7, 5.8; SL 5.1, 5.2, 5.3; L 5.1, 5.3, 5.4, 5.5, 5.6; W 5.2)

  • What are the central ideas in this text? How are these supported? (I Do, We Do, You Do)
  • Repeat with multiple texts (from print and digital media).
  • Introduce Socratic Seminar (See The Literacy Cookbook[7] and the TLC “Socratic Seminars” page for materials and a recipe) and students practice discussing the texts.

WEEKS 4 and 5: (RIT 5.5, 5.6; SL 5.1, 5.2, 5.3; L 5.1, 5.3, 5.4, 5.5, 5.6; W 5.2)

Using multiple texts focused on the same topic/event/person/idea:

  • Identify the genre and structure [mini-lessons on genre and structure]
  • Compare and contrast the structures/genres of the different texts.
  • Compare and contrast different points of view.
  • For each text: What are the central ideas, and how are they supported?

WEEK 6: (RIT 5.5, 5.6, 5.9; SL 5.1, 5.2, 5.3; L 5.1, 5.3, 5.4, 5.5, 5.6; W 5.2 and 5.9b)

Use multiple texts to build an argument: Given a question, refer to the different texts to respond to the question in writing (for practice/homework) and in Socratic Seminars.

In addition, here are two other factors you should consider when planning this first unit:

[1] Sarah Tantillo, Literacy and the Common Core: Recipes for Action (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2014), 104-5.

[2] Sarah Tantillo, The Literacy Cookbook: A Practical Guide to Effective Reading, Writing, Speaking, and Listening Instruction (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2013), 7-13.

[3] The TLC “Comprehension 101” page can be found at

[4] Sarah Tantillo, The Literacy Cookbook: A Practical Guide to Effective Reading, Writing, Speaking, and Listening Instruction (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2013), 13-43.

[5] The TLC “Comprehension 101” page can be found at

[6] Sarah Tantillo, Literacy and the Common Core: Recipes for Action (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2014), 131-144.

[7] Sarah Tantillo, The Literacy Cookbook: A Practical Guide to Effective Reading, Writing, Speaking, and Listening Instruction (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2013), 125-136.

[8] Isabel L. Beck, Margaret G. McKeown, and Linda Kucan, Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction (New York: The Guilford Press, 2002).

[9] Sarah Tantillo, The Literacy Cookbook: A Practical Guide to Effective Reading, Writing, Speaking, and Listening Instruction (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2013), 28-36.

Posted in Argument, ELA Common Core Standards, Evidence, Grammar, Inference, Lesson-planning, Literacy and the Common Core BOOK, Main Idea, Nonfiction, Paraphrasing, Reading, Reading Informational Text, Resources, Roots, Socratic Seminars, The Literacy Cookbook BOOK, TLC Website Resources, Unit-planning, Vocabulary, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment


LITERACY AND THE COMMON COREIf you are teaching To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, you will want to see Frank W. Baker’s “film study guide” online. In response to my recent TLC post, he sent this link for me to share with y’all:

Here is his contact info if you would like to thank him personally:

Frank W. Baker
media literacy clearinghouse
Author: Media Literacy In The K12 Classroom (ISTE)
Follow him on twitter: @fbaker

Posted in ELA Common Core Standards, Media Literacy, Resources, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD | Tagged , , | Leave a comment


LITERACY AND THE COMMON COREIf you’re looking for ideas and resources for how to teach Common Core media literacy standards, check out Frank W. Baker’s excellent series of MiddleWeb posts on close reading and media literacy, including:

Part 1: Close Reading and What It Means for Media Literacy

Part 2: Close Reading: Visual Literacy through Photography

Part 3: Close Reading of Advertising Promotes Critical Thinking

Part 4: How to Close-Read Films and Videos

Note: Part 4 refers to To Kill a Mockingbird, A Raisin in the Sun, and Titanic.

PS: If you don’t already subscribe to MiddleWeb, which focuses on teaching and learning in grades 4-8, I highly recommend it!


Posted in Analyzing the Common Core Standards, Close Reading, ELA Common Core Standards, Media Literacy, MiddleWeb, Resources, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Teaching TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD? Here are some tools…

LITERACY AND THE COMMON COREI’ve met a bunch of folks recently who are planning to teach Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird this year, and several have been kind enough to share their resources.


1) First, there is a whole book devoted to the subject, by my friends Susan Chenelle and Audrey Fisch!

Here is a blurb from their flyer:

“IF YOU ARE TEACHING TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD NEXT YEAR, now is a great time to order the first volume in our series, Using Informational Text to Teach To Kill a Mockingbird, and start thinking about how it can enhance your study of Harper Lee’s classic novel while helping you meet the Common Core standard for informational text. Click here for more details about this book full of classroom-ready units.

“IF YOU ARE THINKING ABOUT REVAMPING YOUR CURRICULUM, check out our website and our blog for strategies for finding great informational texts to use in any unit and then setting your students up for successful engagement with them. We also offer ideas for teaching key vocabulary in meaningful and engaging ways and how to use multimedia with written informational texts in the classroom. Check out our sample units based on TKAM as well as our “Text to Text” feature on A Raisin in the Sun on the New York Times Learning Network, for models.”


2) Second, check out Socratic Seminar Questions on To Kill a Mockingbird from Jamie Sterlacci at Great Oaks Charter HS in Newark. For more information on how to run Socratic Seminars effectively, check out the TLC “Socratic Seminars” page.

In a future blog post, I will say more about teaching novels in general. For now, if you haven’t seen the dozens and dozens of resources on the TLC “Analyzing Literature” page and the “Literary Response Paper Guide” page, I highly recommend you check them out!

Finally, if you have any TKAM materials to share, please chime in or Email me at

Posted in Curriculum, ELA Common Core Standards, Nonfiction, Novels, Reading Informational Text, Reading Literature, Resources, Socratic Seminars, TLC Website Resources, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


[This post is adapted from my recently-released book, Literacy and the Common Core: Recipes for Action (Jossey-Bass, 2014), and it appeared in slightly different form as a MiddleWeb Guest Article on July 20, 2014.]

In Reading without Limits, Maddie Witter advocates for reading instruction that includes a mixture of shared, guided, and choice/independent reading,[1] and I support this approach. Identifying books for the latter two categories is fairly straightforward (albeit dependent on your budget): you need leveled, high-interest books. But how should we select the books that every student must read? While we want students to fall in love with reading through text choices that excite and interest them, we also need to cover some ground in each grade—skills and content—and ensure that students are adding to their background knowledge base. When selecting texts that everyone in the class will read—especially in high school—it’s important to expose students to certain classics so that they don’t arrive at college wondering who Shakespeare is. E.D. Hirsch has written extensively about the importance of building cultural literacy and its role in strengthening literacy, period.[2] In this same vein, The Literacy Cookbook explains how prior knowledge drives the comprehension process.[3] It’s a process of accumulation: Reading relies on and builds knowledge, which then improves comprehension, and more reading builds more knowledge and more comprehension.

Another factor that should influence selections is text complexity. The College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading speak to this issue very directly with Standard #10 (in the category of “Range of Reading and Level of Text Complexity”): “Read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently.”[4] The standards at each grade level specify the grade level or band of text complexity at which students should be reading. For example, in grade 5, Reading Informational Text Standard #10 is “By the end of the year, read and comprehend informational texts, including history/social studies, science, and technical texts, at the high end of the grades 4–5 text complexity band independently and proficiently.”[5]

The importance of pushing for text complexity cannot be overstated. Research (particularly by Jeanne Chall[6] and Donald Hayes[7]) has shown that the recent dumbing down of textbooks is correlated with a drop in SAT scores. Reflecting on Chall’s findings, Marilyn Jager Adams observes, “If students had neither practiced nor been instructed with reading materials as hard as the SAT passages, then one could hardly expect them to read the latter with competence and confidence.”[8] Adams argues for vigilant use of rigorous reading materials, noting that “the challenge … lies in organizing our reading regimens in every subject and every class such that each text bootstraps the language and knowledge that will be needed for the next.”[9] In other words, you shouldn’t start with the most rigorous texts, but you should organize instruction in ways that ensure your students tackle those rigorous texts in every grade. She recommends directly teaching key words and concepts, gradually building students’ knowledge base, and then increasing the depth and complexity of the texts.

Along with textual rigor, we must also consider cultural and gender-oriented relevance. In The Trouble with Boys, Peg Tyre notes that one reason boys struggle in school is that their elementary school teachers often select texts that boys consider “too girlie,” and when faced with such books “they decide they don’t like to read.”[10] Indeed, as much as I love the Common Core Standards themselves, I am not wild about all of the suggestions in Appendix B for grade-level appropriate texts.[11] For instance, the grade 4-5 list made me wonder, Does everyone really have to read Black Beauty? Really? Lucy Calkins, Mary Ehrenworth, and Christopher Lehman raise this same point in Pathways to the Common Core, noting the book’s “formal, archaic language” and adding that in the Common Core’s recommended reading list, “contemporary children’s literature clearly takes a backseat to classics.”[12]

So, OK, even though some girls might love it, Black Beauty might not be for everybody. But how should you decide which texts to require in your curriculum and which to save for optional or independent reading? Along with the issue of gender, here is another important angle to consider: What are the demographics in your school? This question raises at least two other questions: 1) How will you entice students with culturally-relevant selections? And 2) How will you widen students’ perspectives through the lenses of diverse texts? It’s not enough to draw students in; we also have to show them the wider world. Discussions around these two questions often sound like conversations about nutrition: How can we achieve a healthy balance?

In addition to contemplating cultural and gender relevance, we must also consider the curriculum’s themes, potential author studies, and a range of genres. Let’s examine these ideas more closely….

What themes/topics will you address this year—both in your subject and in other content areas? For example, if you’re an English teacher, have you talked with the history and science teachers about interdisciplinary opportunities and appropriate texts to build background knowledge? English teachers should not be the only ones using books in their curriculum. When we began designing the ninth-grade curriculum at North Star Academy, we decided that in addition to an array of books in English and history, students would also read The Hot Zone[13] (an engrossing narrative about the Ebola virus) in their biology class.

Which authors have written enough grade-level appropriate books to warrant consideration for potential author studies? One school I worked with made the following choices:

4 Louis Sachar Holes

Small Steps

The Boy Who Lost His Face

There’s a Boy in the Girls’ Bathroom

5 Jerry Spinelli Maniac McGee


6 Mildred D. Taylor Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry

Let the Circle Be Unbroken

7 Walter Dean Myers 145th Street (stories)



8 William Shakespeare Romeo and Juliet

Selected sonnets

Which genres do you want/need to address? Look to the Common Core Standards for guidance. The K-12 Reading Informational Text Standards require that we pay persistent attention to nonfiction (and, again, across the curriculum, not just in ELA classes). The K-12 Reading Literature Standards consistently mention “stories, poems, and drama,” but they approach them differently in different grades. Here is a quick overview culled from the Standards:[14]

Grade Genres Mentioned in the RL Standards
K Stories; poems; story books with illustrations.
1 Stories; poems; books.
2 Stories, including fables and folktales from diverse cultures; poems; songs; two or more versions of the same story (e.g., Cinderella stories) by different authors or from different cultures.
3 Stories, including fables, folktales, and myths from diverse cultures; drama; poems; stories written by the same author about the same or similar characters (e.g., in books from a series). Note: Drama begins in third grade.
4 Drama; poems; stories, myths, and traditional literature from different cultures.
5 Drama; poems; possibly a graphic novel, multimedia presentation of fiction, folktale, myth, poem; stories in the same genre (e.g., mysteries and adventure stories).
6 Drama; texts in different forms or genres (e.g., stories and poems; historical novels and fantasy stories).
7 Stories; drama; poems; a fictional portrayal of a time, place, or character and a historical account of the same period.
8 Stories; drama; poems; suspense; humor; modern fiction; myths, traditional stories, religious works such as the Bible.
9-10 Drama; poems; stories/novels that include flashbacks, mystery, tension, surprise; world literature.
11-12 Eighteenth-, nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century foundational works of American literature; stories; poetry; drama (including at least one play by Shakespeare and one play by an American dramatist); comedy; tragedy; texts that include satire, sarcasm, irony, or understatement; multiple interpretations of a story, drama, or poem (e.g., recorded or live production of a play or recorded novel or poetry).

Whatever texts you select, it’s important to remember that your choices will significantly shape student learning. “We’ve always used that book,” “We have 500 copies of it,” and “It doesn’t really fit, but the kids like it” are not good-enough reasons to keep a text. So, as much as possible, let’s make thoughtful, purposeful decisions.

[1] Maddie Witter, Reading without Limits (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2013).

[2] E.D. Hirsch, Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1987); see also The Knowledge Deficit: Closing the Shocking Education Gap for American Children (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006).

[3] Sarah Tantillo, The Literacy Cookbook: A Practical Guide to Effective Reading, Writing, Speaking, and Listening Instruction (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2013), 7-13.

[4] The Standards can be found at: This particular standard appears on page 10.

[5] The Standards can be found at: This particular standard appears on page 14.

[6] Jeanne S. Chall, Sue S. Conard, and Susan H. Harris, An Analysis of Textbooks in Relation to Declining SAT Scores (New York: College Entrance Examination Board, 1977).

[7] Donald P. Hayes, Loreen T. Wolfer, and Michael F. Wolfe, “Schoolbook Simplification and Its Relation to the Decline in SAT-Verbal Scores,” American Educational Research Journal 33, no. 2 (1996): 489-508.

[8] Marilyn Jager Adams, “Advancing Our Students’ Language and Literacy: The Challenge of Complex Texts,” American Educator 34, no.4 (Winter 2010-2011): 4-5.

[9] Marilyn Jager Adams, “Advancing Our Students’ Language and Literacy: The Challenge of Complex Texts,” American Educator 34, no.4 (Winter 2010-2011): 10.

[10] Peg Tyre, The Trouble with Boys (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2008), 151. See also pp. 149-153.

[11] The Appendices can be downloaded here:

[12] Lucy Calkins, Mary Ehrenworth, and Christopher Lehman, Pathways to the Common Core (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2012), 38.

[13] Richard Preston, The Hot Zone (New York: Doubleday, 1994).

[14] The ELA Common Core Standards can be found at:

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WOOHOO!!!!  It’s HERE!  Click HERE to order your copy now!LITERACY AND THE COMMON CORE

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