CCSSImageWhat do the controversial Common Core State Standards (CCSS) have to say about language? I’ve heard teachers and students, colleagues and friends, talking about the Common Core, hinting at worries about yet more standardization and inevitable high-stakes testing. I can agree that more standardization, especially regarding language in a massively multilingual and rapidly changing educational context is worrisome. But, what do the CCSS actually say?

Anyone with Internet access can take a look and navigate through all the standards on the website (www.corestandards.org). So, I did. I had one guiding question: What are the CCSS telling teachers to teach our kids about language? I found some happy surprises.

First, I found this statement in the introduction to the “Language” standards:

Language: Conventions, effective use, and vocabulary

The Language standards include the essential “rules” of standard written and spoken English, but they also approach language as a matter of craft and informed choice among alternatives.

Those quotation marks around “rules” were my first hint of potential CCSS flexibility. Perhaps the crafters of these standards take the concept of language “rules” with a grain of salt. If “rules” are in quotes and craft and informed choice considered important, teachers could be liberated, rather than constrained by the Common Core.

Could this stance be consistently maintained from Kindergarten through Senior Year? I continued through the Language standards to see.

The word nuance in one of the Kindergarten standards (#5) caught my attention and supported my first impression that strict definitions and rigid “rule”-learning wouldn’t be the focus. So, I began there:

K5: With guidance and support from adults, explore word relationships and nuances in word meanings.

K5C:Identify real-life connections between words and their use (e.g., note places at school that are colorful).

K5D: Distinguish shades of meaning among verbs describing the same general action (e.g.,walk, march, strut, prance) by acting out the meanings.

This sounds like a nice way to learn about language and meaning in context: Walking through a school, noting places that are “colorful”–or, marching, strutting and prancing, accentuating the nuance in each gait (and word)!

But, Kindergarten is supposed to be fun. Even standards writers might think so. What happens in first grade? They must start memorizing dictionary definitions then, right? No!

In first grade, this standard remains the same:

With guidance and support from adults, demonstrate understanding of word relationships and nuances in word meanings.

Now students note “places at home that are cozy” and continue to “distinguish shades of meaning,” of verbs like look, peek, glance, stare, glare, scowl or adjectives like large, gigantic.

And in second grade, students must demonstrate their recognition of nuance without “guidance and support from adults”:

Demonstrate understanding of word relationships and nuances in word meanings.

In third grade the standard adds “figurative language” but maintains the need to find nuance.

Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships and nuances in word meanings.

This standard remains exactly like this through 12th grade. Children go from marching, strutting and prancing around school to analyzing the shades of meaning of hurl versus throw to identifying hyperbole and paradox. Students’ understanding of word nuance consistently grows along the way.

But by starting with the “nuance” standard, I may have created a biased impression.  What about other standards? Are the rest more “rule” bound, standardized and lacking in nuance?

I started over in Kindergarten, this time with the most boring looking standard I could find, 1A. No nuance there:

Print many upper- and lowercase letters.

1A progresses to first grade like this, with even less nuance, as many changes to all:

Print all upper- and lowercase letters.

To second grade:

Use collective nouns (e.g., group).

And third grade:

Explain the function of nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs in general and their functions in particular sentences.

And, Common Core State Standard 1A continues in the same vein from 4th to 10th grade:

4th: Use relative pronouns (who, whose, whom, which, that) and relative adverbs (where, when, why).

5th: Explain the function of conjunctions, prepositions, and interjections in general and their function in particular sentences.

6th: Ensure that pronouns are in the proper case (subjective, objective, possessive).

7th: Explain the function of phrases and clauses in general and their function in specific sentences.

8th: Explain the function of verbals (gerunds, participles, infinitives) in general and their function in particular sentences.

9th and 10th: [in an abrupt and ironic break with previous grades] Use parallel structure.

Grammar rules seem to be piling up.

But I also noticed a healthy pattern of explanation of rules of “proper” usage (grade 6), interspersed with the slight concession to context, noting these features may function differently in “particular” (grade 5 and 8) or “specific” sentences (grade 7). But where does this all lead? What happens in 11th and 12th grade. Certainly you can’t be teaching more grammar points to 17 and 18 year olds?

Nope! In 11th and 12th grade, rules become “rules,” or, more explicitly, a “matter of convention” that “can change over time” and be “contested”:

11th and 12th: Apply the understanding that usage is a matter of convention, can change over time, and is sometimes contested.

After this dip into the Common Core website, following the ripples of a couple standards through the grades and into adulthood, I began to feel reassured that the CCSS (on their own) will not doom us to decades of robotic teaching and learning.

Understanding nuance is officially Language Standard #5. Nuance also infuses these standards and their interpretation. Like so many educational tools, they can be used and abused. I’m hoping to use them to support more critical thinking about language in classrooms, among students and their teachers, the community, and beyond. I’m also hoping that when students are exploring “shades of meaning,” (CCSS language standard 5D) those who speak several languages, or varied dialects, will be invited to share those shades of meaning too. (See Nelson Flores’ post on Multilingualism and the CCSS). Ideally, up to and beyond graduation, students will engage with the nuance of language, knowing they can also be the ones who change language “rules” and contest conventions.

What have your experiences been with the CCSS? Have you been aware of them as a teacher, a professor, an administrator, policy-maker, or a parent? As a citizen who consumes media about education policy? What do the CCSS ignore or leave out? How are they constraining? How might they be liberating?

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