Education reform should not remind me of The Great War. Yet I see a vast wasteland of vitriolic trenches dug deep through the annals of reading research. Battalions of reading experts have barricaded their positions behind barbwire as toxic tweets roll across a devastated wasteland of civic engagement.

On one side you have those who wrote and support the Common Core State Standards who argue for increased text complexity. These scholars and pundits latch on to the idea American scores on international assessments must mean previous efforts and documented research in comprehension must be wrong. They note that the level of text complexity high schoolers read has steadily declined since 1984 (interesting the same year the standards movement was born).

On the other side you have teachers who cling to their approaches to reading instruction. They reject almost anything that favors the Common Core State Standards. They draw connections from the Common Corse State Standards to corporate interests run by the oligarchs in the Gates Foundation, The Broad Foundation, and ALEC.

In this discussion of text complexity and reading instruction both sides miss the single greatest shift in literacy practices in human history. As we evolve into a network society (Castells and Cardosa, 2005)  we must recognize socially complex texts not simply lexile levels  or instructional leveled texts.


Accountability Based Reformers

Accountability based edreformers believe we need new approaches to reading as our low PISA scores must prove that strategy instruction and readers’ workshop do not work (they do not mention what happens to international benchmark scores when you control for poverty).

Those on the more conservative side of edreform argue that along with text complexity we need to focus on building Hirsch’s idea of cultural literacy. They stress over and over again the role of content knowledge.

The accountability reformers have come out swinging against Caulkin’s flavored balanced literacy and readers workshop. They cite Tim Shanahan (who has argued against leveled texts long before the Common Core). Every time they testify before a state government in support of the CCSS the conservative edreformers stress how the CCSS require students to read the America’s founding documents over and again.

What they get wrong

We do know that after decoding ability background knowledge is the leading predictor of reading comprehension. (Paris & Stahl, 2005). Even early reading researchers from Gates (1931), Huey (1908), and Gray (1939) noted the relationship between background knowledge and reading.  Content knowledge does matter.

Yet so does motivation and choice. In readers’ workshop students get some degree of flexibility in choosing what they read. Some edrefomers bemoan this activity and state it only works for the middle and upper class. They want a common read in the classroom. The idea that choice should only be available to those born in brownstones rather than those born with brown skin does not sit well with me.

We know that agency, engagement, and motivation matter when teaching reading. In study after study engaged readers outperform less engaged peers (Guthre & Wigfield, 2000). Yet the Common Core State standards do not mention reading for enjoyment. Not once. The standards  do not cite motivation when selecting texts. In fact texts should be selected using some convoluted heuristic that usually just boils down to lexile scores.

We also know from three decades of research that strategy instruction works (Duke & Pearson, 2005). Yet many CCSS supporters attack strategy instruction as a vapid content free approach to reading comprehension. They have called for an end to pre-reading activities. They only want close reading which derives from a philosophy that views all meaning “contained within the four corners of a text” (David Coleman, author of the CCSS). Granted the effect size for strategy instruction (specifically reciprocal teaching) is much larger for less proficient readers than more skilled readers but shouldn’t that be an even greater reason to keep strategy instruction in our neediest schools?

The Opposition

Those who oppose a view of reading instruction that revolves around text complexity and lexile levels cling to approaches that level texts for students as part of instruction. To be clear this is not the only form of reading instruction included in balanced literacy classroom but it is  part of the daily routine. These advocates cite the work of Carol Burris and Fountas and Pinnell.

In these approaches the teacher provides a mini-lesson (usually some strategy instruction) and then students go off and read books at their “independent level” while the teacher provides guided reading lessons at students “instructional level.” Students can choose their books, but within a limited range that is often dictated by a computer program.

What they get wrong

Students are more than a number or letter. The idea that choice must be limited based on how well a student performs on very imperfect reading inventories simply does not make sense. I have seen many students engage in texts well above their reading level because the topic is of interest. Like the accountability based reformers the opposition also discounts motivation (albeit to a lesser degree).

These educators must recognize the importance of building background knowledge and enculturating students into the discourses that are favored by academia. When instructional minutes are precious teachers may have to recognize that independent reading is not always the best use of time nor the fastest approach for developing background knowledge.

What They Both Get Wrong

Both approaches to text difficulty ignore our shift from page to pixel. The Common Core State Standards do mention technology and call for media skills to be taught across all subjects (CCSS, 2010, p. 4) but when you read the anchor standard ten about text complexity you will find no mention of new media skills or socially complex texts.

Henry Jenkins et al. note that “literacy is no longer a set of personal skills; rather the new media literacies are a set of social skills and cultural competencies, vitally connected to our increasingly public lives online and to the social networks through which we operate” (Jenkins et al., 2013 location 1177). We need to redefine text complexity to account for socially complex texts.

Socially Complex Texts

I define socially complex texts as concurrent arguments that unfold in print and social media with varying degrees of authority and amplification. Basically socially complex texts are authored by opposing perspectives discussing an issue often with equal passion and mutual disdain.  

In order to make meaning with socially complex texts readers have to engage in network fluidity. These ideas often have a definitive volume, their is weight attached to them.  In fact the volume of texts around any issue is limitless. Yet these texts have no shape. They do not exist in silos.

Take the debate around text complexity. It is a perfect example of network fluidity and socially complex texts. Readers may have to travel to a Fordham blog, read comments on the Bad Ass Teachers Association Facebook page. They might follow the #CCSS and #edreform hashtags on Twitter. Their RSS feed is hopefully diverse and includes both perspective. They may even follow citations back to Google Scholar.

Reading in Fluid Worlds

How do we prepare students to swim in the meaning found in such a fluid environment? We have to go well beyond the positions staked out by those who support and oppose the Common Core. We need to look at #connectedlearning. Through agency, engagement and academically focused interest driven production we can teach students strategic text assembly.

Reading is no longer a closed event. Especially when we are engaging in civic discourse and activism. Students need to know how to evaluate and try out different perspectives. They need to understand and develop routines for managing external storage devices and having access to the history of human knowledge.

If educational reform debate pigeon holes the reading debate behind the battle lines of text complexity, close reading, and content knowledge then we have already lost the war

image credit: No man’s Land. Public Domain. Wikipedia.

I did it. I am now swimming in self loathing as I write my first listicle.  I want to begin by saying I support the Common Core State Standards. I believe when you read the anchor standards that the lofty goals can help point our schools to a better future.

Still I understand the frustration that many teachers lament. I may not support the vitriol on either side. Yet I do recognize that for some educators they feel the only recourse against well funded billions in corporate reform lies in both grassroots resistance, lazy clicktivism, and astro turfing. So to  discuss this discontent I decided to mask my ideas behind some basic listicle clickbait.

Civic and Community Ready Before College and Career

Many educators do not accept the general economic push behind education reform. Noisy education reform outlets bemoan any talk of educating the “whole” child. The focus, according to accountability based edreformers, needs to be on rigor, rigor rigor. Teachers do not see the path to prosperity through increased rigor in classroom.

Teachers believe in children and the community. Real reform will take community revitalization. Real reform will require a focus on civic engagement of students. Teachers want vigor, vigor, vigor.

So when teachers see David Coleman, the architect of the CCSS, stand up and claim we need to end our focus on narrative writing because, “as you grow up in this world you realize people  do not give a s**t about what you think or what you feel,” educators take note.

In fact this worldview is probably the antithesis of almost every teacher I know. We want students to have empathy for those in our community. We want students to work for a greater good. We teach students to write to engage in reflective practice. We want students to give a s**t, so much so that our kids try to change the world.

Maybe the focus of education should not be on economic outcomes. If we were to create a vision of education that stressed community and civic engagement I believe college and career would follow.

What can educators do?

We do not have to create such a bleak world vision in our classrooms. The standards have many entry points for civic engagement. Encourage students to think and explore their world.

Use the content void standards to personalize learning and allow students to develop voice and agency. While the supporting documents call for a curriculum rich in sequenced content knowledge the standards themselves avoid proscribing specific content (with the exception of  Shakespeare, early American literature, and some founding documents).

No Educator Involvement in Writing the Standards

On paper the CCSS seem state driven. According to CCSS state website the National Governor’s Associations created the standard. In reality the standards were bankrolled by large corporate interest such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and written by Achieve Inc. Susan Pimentel who was an former English major;  David Coleman a lawyer ; and Jason Zimba, a scientist, took the lead writing the standards as consultants.

Coleman, who spent some brief time as a high school tutor while an undergraduate, had the most educational experience of all the authors. In fact the only two educators brought in to validate the standards after they were written refused to sign off on their approval.

This pisses teachers off. Imagine a plumber rewriting standards of medical practice. Doctors would not stand for such illegitimate encroachment.

What can teachers do?

Take charge of implementation of the standards. The standards are not bad and in many cases are superior then the hodgepodge of old standards. The CCSS are supposed to be about what to teach and not how to teach. I often here that without any early childhood experts the standards are developmentally innapropriate for the K-2 classrooms. I hear educators bemoan that play gets taken out of the class.

You are wrong.

Playing with words and oral language development, especially in language and content rich classrooms, is the only way to meet the new standards in terms of early childhood education. Push back against administrators who only want the sole focus of the class to be on  phonic awareness and phonics. Fight for your literacy and play centers .Yes we need explicit teaching of these skills but we also need to immerse students in language and content.

Unfunded Federal Mandate

Forty five states approved the Common Core State Standards. Many with an economic gun to the head. The Obama Administration, under Arne Duncan’s education policies created Race to the Top. In order to qualify for hundreds of millions of dollars in aid states had to adopt the standards. This “carrot” came at a time of worst economic crisis since the great depression.

Very few states won any money. All of the states were left with cost of implementing the standards. States and districts had to redirect millions to new testing. They had to cut positions and salaries to ensure adequate bandwidth.  I know here in Connecticut we had just invested time and treasure to revamping our Language Arts Standards. These were immediately dropped and replaced with a hyperlink to the Common Core State Standards. Yes that is correct our standards were reduced to a hyperlink.

What can teachers do?


Rigid Philosophical Viewpoint

Teachers, especially those trained as English or early childhood literacy teachers, take issue with underlying philosophical views that guide the Common Core State Standards. First is the viewpoint of close reading over more personalized responses to the text. Coleman once again suggested that the meaning of text only, “lies within the four corners” of the text.

Many educators and decades of reading comprehension research disagree. The close reading methods emerge from a school of thought called New Criticism. You are asked just to focus on text structure and read and reread texts to try to crack the author’s code.

The authors of the CCSS suggest such a viewpoint in order to try and equalize the amount of prior knowledge and experience diverse readers bring to a text. The idea that students can turn off background knowledge is absurd.  According to Beers and Probst “Meaning is created not purely and simply from the words on the page, but from the transaction with those words that takes place in the reader’s mind (p.34).”

Another rigid viewpoint revolves around the purpose of reading. The CCSS make no mention of reading for enjoyment. The goal, according to the standards, is just to push students through more and more complex texts without much thought to the reasons of why we read.

In fact if you look through the Appendices the literacy scholars who are not cited reveal just as much as those who are cited. There is no mention of of Guthrie, Wigfield, or Gambrell. These scholars through decades of research, have demonstrated that reading motivation predicts performance on comprehension. Yet if you read the standards teachers are not to discuss reading for enjoyment.

What can teachers do?

In terms of close reading I do believe teachers were spending too much time on pre reading activities. I do not, as many CCSS advocates suggest, propose eliminating pre-reading activities. Activating background knowledge or pre teaching key vocabulary is smart practice. I just believe the majority of the time should be spent reading sources.

In terms of motivation and reading comprehension build a classroom that celebrates the written word. Do not simply abandon your better practice to constantly disssect text structures.

Conflating Standards, Assessment, and Teacher Evaluation

The simultaneous roll out of the Common Core, the development of new high stakes assessments, and teacher evaluations (all required for RTTP or NCLB waivers) is probably the greatest source of consternation for teachers.

Teachers need to know that having national standards and national assessments, in direct conflict with the constitution, has always been the goal of accountability based ed reformers.They want to shut down local school boards,the “educational sinkholes” that destroy our education,  and replace them with appointed rubber stampers who will push national assessments.

I am staying away from the connection of using “poor” test scores to push for privatization of education but that is a constant undercurrent in the accountability based ed reformer mindset.


I myself do not automatically find evil in the high stakes testing. PARCC and SBAC are creating innovative measures. I just think we maybe using the assessments in the wrong way. Accountability based ed reformers are quick to hold up the NAEP assessments as the gold standard. The NAEP results are used to show the inadequacies of the American education  system when compared to homogenous nations without  huge income disparities.

There is a reason NAEP is the gold standard. The assessment uses best practices that CCSS assessments will not use. NAEP is not administered to every student. Instead scientific sampling methods are used that improve the reliability of results. NAEP would never try to assess every single student nor would they try to use the results to judge the contribution of individual teachers.

Teacher Evaluation

States use one of two methods to measure the contributions teachers make to student test scores. Value added models or student growth percentiles. Neither will work. In fact I envision thousands of law suits as teachers lose jobs or seniority based on bad math. You just cannot parse out the variability in scores caused by individual teachers.

Teachers are also now being judged using assessments that no one has yet seen, are untested, and are legally barred to discuss. Imagine your job being on the line and your effectiveness  using a brand new workflow was judged using a test you have not seen nor can discuss. Wouldn’t you be upset?

Teachers are going to be judged on their effectiveness to teach new standards, using a new test, and methods that the statistical scientists have suggested do not work.

What can teachers do?

If student growth is going to be included in teacher evaluation models we should push for the use of district determined measures over the use of the long dreamed about national assessments. DDM’s correlate highly with state assessments and NAEP scores. You also get the results quickly and they can inform practice. So if the assessments are valid, correlate with out gold standard of assessments, and cost millions less to administer why not use them?

We also need to push for increased observations and student artifacts as part of a teacher evaluation process. The observations should be a mixed of announced and unannounced and teachers should develop their own professional development goals and connect these goals to student artifacts.

I have asked the students in my hybrid literature and literacy classes to re-imagine the writing mini-lesson. Students in my graduate classes may also choose to develop a digital text and tool learning activity.

Many may, and should, post a recording of a lecture that goes through the steps: explicitly define, model, guided practice and independent practice. Some students wanted to play more with technology. They wanted to create texts to use in the classroom.

So I decided to play as well. I created four short tutorials on winning at academic writing.I focused on the secondary and college level. Elementary and middle school teachers, however, can get the general idea.

Tutorial One: Defining the Game

In this video I introduce the idea that academic writing is its own genre with specific discourse practices.

Tutorial Two: Do not be Wishy Washy

In this video I discuss strategies for framing the problem and taking a position.

Tutorial Three: Play with Words

In this third video I discuss the importance of defining key words and concepts. I had this idea I used to improve my writing from high school through my doctorate. Good writers define key words great writers make up their own words.

Tutorial Four: The Idea Pocket

In the last tutorial I describe the importance of pre-writing and using evidence from your sources. Throughout the series writing success is defined as a grade not as the piece itself. This is the antithesis of what I believe as a teacher of writing.

The snark just provides a gateway into writing and discussing academic writing as a genre is beneficial to developing writers.

Next Steps

These mini-lessons and others like it can teach students some of the basics of the genre. They would never be enough. I would need to also include mentor texts and exemplars of student work. These works could then be annotated using a variety of tools such as a pencil, subtext, or poetry genius.

I could also create a bank of more minilessons using Plotagon. Technology now allows on demand direct instruction. So I hope over time to have a bank of these short video tutorials.

If you want to contribute to the effort please feel free. I am trying to highlight my efforts to support open learning. I find the writing community (looking at you NWP and #FYCchat) to be open to open learning. So if you want to help curate, critique, and create great digital texts and tools to support writing contact me. Lets learn, fail, and reflect together.


slider image credit: Writing on Windows. everRiviere.

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When you examine the instructional shifts outlined in the Common Core State Standards (though I prefer the term better practice rather than shifts)  you will find grounding  claims in evidence as central to many of the goals outlines in the CCSS anchor standards.

This often involves a series of practices labeled as analytical or close reading. I have explained that close reading is not a goal but rather it is the ends to the means. It is what good readers do to  utilize evidence from the text  during reading, writing, and speaking.

To engage your students in analytical reading I have explained that I often draw on the work of Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey (2011)  and suggest basing your reading on text based talk and text based analysis. I also believe that in order to fully make meaning with complex texts students need to transform the text by creating their own literary responses (Smagorinsky, 2007)


Using Digital Texts and Tools

New media allows us to combine these three elements: original response, text based talk, and text based analysis into our instructional routine. I have discussed using SubText or neuAnnotate on iOS devices and PDFZen on chrome devices. When I am keynoting a conference or doing workshops with a district I often hear, “We are a BYOD district. How can I do this and not be device specific?”

Rap Genius as the Device Agnostic Solution

Rap Genius, the largest database of annotated lyrics in the world has launched exciting new educator features. These include, poetry genius (for literature) and news genius (for current events and informational texts).

Rap Genius and the educational offshoots are web based. This means they are device agnostic. This will allow BYOD districts to have a collaborative place online to engage in the close reading of texts.

Using digital texts and tools for text annotation combines the three elements I believe are necessary for analytical reading. More importantly I believe tools, such as rap genius increase the efficacy and efficiency of teaching and assessing text annotation.

How Do I Get Started?

You can become a Genius by first signing up for an account. You can link to Facebook or Twitter. Then email Liz at and let her know that you want to be “educator-ized.”  This will allow you to create classroom pages.

Next you have to add a text and create a classroom page. Many of the texts you may want to use are already included so search first, but I added a chapter so you can see how easy teachers can use poetry and news genius:

Rap Genius began as a lyrics sight and then expanded into more traditional literary and nonfiction texts. This have left some UI features that may confuse some students. Poems and chapters are called songs. If students add original work or poetry they share “songs.” This is confusing at first but easy to overcome.

Text  segments can only be annotated once. This causes some students to race to be first. Then other students can offer “suggestions.” The “suggestions” feature is also used for general conversations about annotations and the text and may not refer to improving the original annotation. To address this issue teachers can take a few steps. First create multiple class sets of texts and have students annotate in groups.

My other idea is to create classroom annotations codes such as Q-for questions, C- for criticism, !!- favorite part, etc. Students can then use these labels within the suggestion box.

Like many digital texts and tools Rap Genius does not allow students under the age of 13 (thank you COPA) to use the website. That does not mean you are out of luck. To handle this issue educators should create a teacher account. Then place students in small groups. Have them annotate the poem using pencils. As a class you can then vote on or randomly select the annotations that you the teacher will enter on the text.


For BYOD districts clamoring for a device agnostic annotation tool Rap genius is your answer. For those districts wed to a specific OS you should still evaluate Rap Genius as a possible g solution to build in opportunities for close reading.

Close reading is not the goal. It is what good readers do to reach a goal of reading for and with evidence. Rap Genius will allow educators to model, teach, and assess students analytical reading while providing opportunities to use multimodal reading and writing environments.


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Much of the focus on the Common Core State Standards revolves around the idea of college and career readiness. In fact the anchor standards describe what the few authors of the Standards believe students need when graduating high school.

What if these “educational” experts got it wrong? The standards largely paid for by tech dollars from The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation put a large emphasis on drilling down into the meaning of specific texts and arguments as a method to raise GPA and test scores.

What if those grades and test scores do not matter? According to Google these metrics have little to do in predicting “career readiness.”  In a recent article by Max Nisen (which I first came across listening to TWIG 238) he documents an opinion piece by Tom Friedman explaining  why Google has stopped putting emphasis on GPA, test scores, and attending elite colleges in their hiring practices.

Google, masters of big data, have spent years pouring over metrics of what makes a good employee. I worried we may miss some key attributes of skills needed for the information economy in the CCSS . So I decided to take a closer look at the anchor standards using the attributes Google wants in “career ready” employees.

Learning Ability Versus IQ

According to Google people with the ability to problem solve on the fly make better employees than those with high IQs. You need to be able to find information, in many disparate places and piece together solutions.

When I examine the anchor standards for Key Ideas and Details I only see text, not a plural version (texts) of multiple source reading. Multiple source reading does gets covered in the Integration of Knowledge and Ideas. The anchor standards in the Speaking and Listening strands may capture much of the ideas shared by Google. So maybe the anchor standards do stress learning ability. Can learning ability be stressed in an outcome based document?

How will the anchor standards, which do address some of the attributes Google looks for, translate into classroom practice? I worry more about the grade level expectations and how they will translate into curriculum. Will classroom teachers create environments for students to struggle with ideas and problem solve with disparate texts? Does the collaboration called for in  the anchor standards for speaking and listening exist today?

Language Arts

When I go back and re-read the publisher guidelines sent to textbook makers I do not see opportunities built into pre-packaged curriculum for learning on the fly. Instead the focus seems to place all meaning within the text and stresses the role of individual learners. To me this reinforces the belief that grades and test score are all that matter in being college and career ready.


I next turned to the math standards. Once again I found promise in the standards for mathematical practice. Studens have to persevere in problem solving, reason both abstractly and quantitatively, and construct arguments (plus a few more see the standards for more info). I still wonder how these standards of practice will translate to classroom practice. I appluad the greater emphasis on numeracy as a tool for making meaning and arguments but I see the large focus in most schools I work with on simply models and precision.

Emergent Leadership versus Traditional Leadership

Google also puts less emphasis on traditional leadership like being president of student council and more on emergent leadership. They define this as being able to seize opportunity and guide others during problem solving.

Once again on the fly learning and teaching while working collaboratively. Where does this “career ready” attribute fit in the #CCSS anchor standards? The closest the anchor standards come is the first anchor standard for speaking and listening:

Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.

It is not a perfect match. I prefer NCTE’s framework for 21st Century Learning. To me the idea of being able to work and lead  a group to solve problems through multiple pathways of knowledge is the critical skill students need.

What do schools need to do?

Focus on Assessments of  Future Learning and not Past Learning

A large emphasis by CCSS supporters, rather than the standards themselves, has been placed on a curriculum richer in content knowledge. In many aspects I agree. After a certain point the best way to increase reading comprehension and thinking in general is through the building of background knowledge.

Yet I also wonder, and study, if the role of background knowledge is changing. Maybe the future founders of the next Google can acquire prerequisite background knowledge on the fly. Schools need to build assessments, and the learning around these assessments that examine how well children can assemble knowledge from varied sources across diverse media on topic they know little about.

On the Fly Learning,  On the Fly Teaching

Much of the attributes Google looks for in “career ready” employees focuses on abilities in the moment. In both knowledge and leadership they look for fast problem solvers. How many classrooms reflect this type of environment well?

I am guided here by the work Rand Spiro has done with Cognitive Flexibility Theory. Spiro argues that students must criss cross ill-structured domains of knowledge and avoid rigid mindsets that cause errors of oversimplification. Much of this should be done through case based simulations.

I worry that CCSS, and misguided implementation by schools,  may emphasize rigid mindsets

I also believe that Problem Based Learning is more critical than ever. I am the first to admit I never taught problem based learning well or even at all. Yet looking at the dispositions wanted by tech giants I cannot think of another approach that would build these habits in students. We have to allow for:

  • Greater autonomy in learning.
  • Civic based real world problems.
  • Differentiated and individualized learning.
  • Multiple simulations  with multiple and diverse cases.
  • Frequent collaborative work to build in dispositions of flexibility and emergent leadership

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Many districts, here in Connecticut, have taken on the task to realign district wide writing assessments to both the Common Core State Standards and the rubrics published by Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium.

(Please note earlier versions of the post did not correctly refer to SBAC. Images still list it as Smarter Balance and not the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium).

This got me thinking, as a teacher of writing teachers, how would I encourage the use of assessment to not only align to political tailwinds but to help ensure students can write a college level when graduating high school.

I see a few options for schools:

  1. School leader developed rubric
  2. Creating them at the district level

Option One: School Leader Developed Rubric

  • School leader with an SLO  focused on argumentative writing  would be volunteered to develop arubric
  •  Examine smarted balance rubric and CCSS writing appendix (description of how pieces were scored).
  • Choose criterion
  • Develop rubrics
  • Test, ………….etc
Option Two: Developing and Testing Rubrics
  • Have schools that have already developed rubrics test theirs. Offer that same version to others buildings to try.
  • Develop and share a rubric based on the CCSS and Smarter Balance Rubric
  • Administer a pilot assessment
  • Score and develop anchor packets that can be used to calibrate raters.
Either option involves a ton of work. What I think needs the greatest focus though is how the rubric translates into improving learning in the classroom. My basic tenants of belief when assessing writing:
  • Evidence of scores cannot be inferred.
  • Teachers need to know that they do not need to focus on every criterion at once.
  • Teachers should (or district should be) developing a library of mini-lessons
  • The teaching of argumentative writing is closely linked to text based analysis of mentor texts
    • Texts should be annotated using codes aligned to the criterion in the rubrics
    • Text annotation needs to be taught and modeled.

So I decided to share my attempt at creating an argumentative writing rubric that could be used at the high school level:

Click Here to Open Rubric


How does it work? Well I attempted to align the rubric to both the Smarter Balance argumentative writing rubric and the Common Core Anchor Standards:

Argumentative Writing Rubric


At the top of each domain you will find a CCSS anchor standard. Then each criterion is a grade level expectation. The scale of each criterion is taken word for word from the Smarter Balance Rubric

How would it work?

Improving Writing Instruction

The entire rubric could be used as a summative assessment to give teachers classroom level or building level snapshots. I would NEVER use such an extensive rubric for formative assessment.

There are 13 criterion and four level of scales across five domains. That would be 52 individual boxes for a student to have to consider. In no way will that help them to become better writers.

Instead teachers could take a piece, and with the student focus on a limited number of criterion. Possibly they would choose a specific domain. Maybe after reading the student work the teacher and student may choose 1-3 criterion as targeted areas of growth.

A Holistic Score not a Mathematical Equation

The teacher, and the young writer, are the ultimate arbiters of quality. Therefore I do not assign different point values to each scale and criterion. No complicated mathematical equation exist. Instead the rubric relies on teacher expertise and evidence from the writing to assign an overall holistic score for each domain.

Assessment Needs to Drive Instruction

The domain and  criterion in the rubric should be used to read mentor texts with purpose. Teachers should develop an annotation system that has students identify the qualities of strong writing.

Each student may have a different focus to improve their writing. Do not be afraid to have students work on only a small piece of the rubric at once. In fact I believe students will find this practice more rewarding.

Use schoolwide or classroom wide data from the entire rubric to identify gaps in knowledge growth. Take this information and cater your mini-lessons to fit this need. Record minilessons using screencasts. Overtime you will have a library of better writing practices.

Next Steps

Feel free to open the Google spreadsheet and use as much or little of the rubric as you desire. You can also contact me and we can develop ideas together to connect writing instruction and assessment.

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When you read the recent reports about texts being read in the classroom you would conclude our students spend time lost in texts well below grade level.

Yet do we really suffer from a lack of complexity in what students read? The CCSS Appendix A cites a slew of research indicating a sliding scale of complexity. The Fordham Institute report, “Common Core In Schools: A First Look at Reading Assignments,” written by Timothy Shanahan and Ann Duffett add fuel to the fire by suggesting students should not turn to popular young adult fantasy novels. The authors suggest these texts are well below the grade bands suggested in Appendix A.

However,these curricular guidelines and critiques miss a very important text. The internet. In fact the Fordham report, which analyzed the texts being assigned in schools did not mention the word internet once. I find it hard to believe that not one student was asked to utilize the internet at all for any major assignment. In fact we know from recent Pew studies that the majority of students turn to the internet as their primary information source.

The Most Dominant and Complex Text

The internet by definition is the most complex text students will encounter. Let us ignore the additional complexities caused by searching for sources. We can suspend our knowledge about building your own texts through hyperlinks. Lets overlook the challenge of evaluating and synthesizing disparate texts. While all of these qualitative features greatly increase the complexity of internet based texts we could just examine the quantitative measures.

Using the Metametrics Lexile Analyzer I searched for websites that would fall in the suggested band for fourth grade. First I used Google advanced search just to find websites at the “basic level.” All of the websites I checked were well over the 6-8 band. I then checked teacher websites, teacher created webquests, and popular kids news magazines. Once again the Lexile scores fell well above grade level.

I found the search for internet resources  that fall within suggested lexile ranges for elementary quite difficult. Does that mean we should give up? Does that mean teachers should ignore the Internet in the early grades?

No. While much of the content at the elementary grade level could hide behind paywalls we still need to prepare our youngest students to read the most complex text. Here are a few tips:

Do not Create False Dichotomies

The CCSS, especially the writing standards, require students to integrate both print and digital sources. We should do so in the classroom as well. I just worry, based on the reports cited above the internet is being viewed as a tool to deliver texts and not as text that requires new tools.

Use Apss and Websites that provide Lexile Measures

New tools and apps have emerged that can provide guidance to teachers. Newsela,in partnership with major newspaper publishers provides links to multiple articles that can be adjusted by lexile range. Subtext, an iOS app, also will select texts at specific lexile scores.

Work to Create Open Ed Resources

The Professional Learning Networks I participate in have matured greatly in recent years. Maybe we should harness this power and move beyond the reflection, sharing, and discussion we engage in. Maybe it is time to become content creators instead of content pushers.

If we note a lack of Internet sources at the 450-945 range we could band together to make these sites available. Teachers across the country set yearly growth objectives. Why not include a self study of text complexity in those goals? Elementary teachers need far greater training in text structure, the teaching of academic vocabulary, and text complexity.

If we worked together to create open resources we would not only increase our own pedagogical and content knowledge but would fill a vast void in early elementary texts that has persisted since the birth of the internet.

Teach Online Reading Comprehension

This internet thing is going to be around for awhile. It will continue to transform our literacy practices. In fact I will say it again. We need to teach our youngest students to read our most complex text. Teachers can do this.

For example I often use Google Custom Search to make a personalized search engine. I will populate it with texts my students can use. I then throw in one or two distractor websites. This allows me to teach students about relevancy and reading search results.

I have also printed out search results and webpage so we can examine multiple cases of disparate text structure.

We can also utilize our librarians. They are one of the most important teachers schools have. By working in partnership we can design units that teach content while building internet inquiry skills.


I highly doubt our youngest students suffer from a lack of text complexity. My quick examination, and unscientific look, of the sites teachers assign during webquests actually show the opposite. Students, even when directed by teachers who sift through search results ahead of time, encounter texts well above the suggested grade bands. This of course ignores the additional layers of complexity caused by the act of internet inquiry itself.

I do not know if the same patterns hold true in the upper grades. I am sure someone has studies the lexile ranges of the most common assigned websites. I just know that by not even mentioning the internet in our discussion of texts assigned by teacher we ignore the greatest literacy challenge our students face.

Image: By Junior Melo (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons


[relatedking pro]


Does the internet change the way readers use background knowledge? Can readers with greater inquiry skills or more open mindsets make up for a lack of background? These questions have perplexed me and have driven my educational research in the last few years.

The internet has shifted so many of our social practices and literacy acts I wonder if it also changes how we historically look at background knowledge.

Recently the role of background knowledge has come to the forefront of reading instruction. Common Core (which I do support) advocates have called for greater close reading with very little pre-teaching. The thinking is this will help alleviate differences in the reader caused by varying background knowledge. Underlying the philosophy is the idea that all meaning is contained within the text.

David Coleman, a major author of the Common Core famously stated that the meaning of a text “lies within the four corners of the text.” While I appreciate an increased focus on analytical reading with a higher frequency of informational texts I wonder what happens when meaning has no corners.

First the idea that we can eliminate any differences caused in comprehension due to differences in background knowledge collapses in the face of decades of research. Simply attaining to the text without taking opportunities to activate and build upon that which is (un)known isn’t wise.

Second texts today have no corners. Specifically the internet, a boundless space of recorded knowledge remains in constant flux as readers build their own books..

Close(d) Reading in Open Spaces

Yet these two observations are deeply connected. The role of background knowledge in predicting comprehension is one of the most stable findings in all of reading research. Yet researchers when examining meaning making in online spaces have not reached a consensus as to the role of background knowledge.

Some researchers have found background knowledge to be a significant predictor of online reading comprehension. Other researchers found opposite results. The difference usually involved including a measure of Internet use (likert frequencies).

Yet I believe the role of background knowledge shifted because those with savvy skills and open mindsets have access to unlimited knowledge. In fact many colleagues posit that opening up the Internet to allow for just in time schema creation favors comprehension. Thus students who move beyond the four corners of their original source with an open mind set may outperform students who do stay locked within the four corners of a text either physically or mentally.

Examining On Demand Knowledge Assembly

Let us turn to a few examples from my own reading experiences to demonstrate how prior knowledge can shift. I am currently building a list of public domain texts I can use and share. In two separate instances I engaged in knowledge assembly on demand.

I came across Struck it at Last by Edward Dyson. When I read the poem the optimism of the voice in the face of such hardship attracted me. Yet I knew nothing of the context. I examined a few lines of one stanza:

Here he brandished axe and maul ere
Buninyong, and after that
Fought and bled with Peter Lalor
And the boys at Ballarat.

I ended up Googling “Lalor Ballarat” and learned the poem described a miner revolt in Australia during a Gold Rush. The poem, by moving out of the four corners of text, took on new levels of meaning. I immediately gained understanding in the author’s perspective. I then went on to read about Peter Lalor.

The second example came about when I decided not to continue the Orson Scott Card Ender series after Xenocide. I read many reviews on goodreads and came across the phrase Due ex Machina. I remembered the phrase from my English classrooms and from a Simpsons episode. I had to learn more. So I once again turned to knowledge assembly on demand. My just in time schema building allowed me to realize the phrase “god from the machine” traces it roots back to Greek literary critics. Science Fiction (a genre new to me) audiences use the phrase to describe events when protagonists get out impossible situations through a mixture of machines and bad writing.

In each of the previous examples the role of background knowledge shifted. I recognized a lack of understanding than quickly filled in the gaps. In fact I not only filled in the holes but built new structures of knowledge in those holes.

We need to continue to investigate how background knowledge and internet inquiry affect our traditional view of literacy practices. We need to teach our students to savvy searchers and sifters. Finally we need to create learning opportunities.


On Monday we held the second Literacy Research Association Netcast. We put together an amazing panel on Grpahic Novels

I, a novice in the world of Graphic Novels, was struck by a few salient points.

First there is a general misconception about the complexity of Graphic Novels. Many teacher erroneously believe that graphic novels step down from the complexity of texts. This belief the panelists argued is cuased by numerous novel adaptations that create the illusion of being less complex. When we examine the body of work that began as graphic novels and not as adaptions the layers of meaning captured both in and out of frame become clear.

The complexity in graphic novels involves three levels. The vocabulary of graphic novels often exceeds other grade level texts. Yet lexile scores use sentence length so they disfavor graphic novels. The second level of complexity involves the art. In fact expert comic book readers pay more attention to the art rather than words when compared to novice readers. The third level of complexity emerges at the intersection of art and words and in the spaces between panels

David Low, a panelist, coined the term graphile to describe this additional qualitative difference. The presenters agreed this where we need to mov in order to support teachers. We do not need to justify the use of graphic novels but understand the challenges of graphile complexities. We need to move past talking about modes in graphic novels but delve into how people use those modes for meaning making. Finally we need to develop a system to evaulate the quality of graphic novels so we can make recommendations to teachers.

Subtext is one of the most powerful tools to support meaning making with an iPad.


Anyone who has attended my recent professional development sessions knows I believe  in three ways to building reading comprehension: increasing background knowledge, text based talk, and text based analysis. Subtext acts as a tool to teach content within the disciplines by weaving text based discussion and closed reading together.

It is my favorite app to support readers.


When you install Subtext you have to sign in using Google or Edmodo ID. I spoke to a representative of Renaissance learning, who purchased Subtext and she let me know that an AR log on is coming soon as well as a desktop version for the app (hoping for Chrome extension…hint…hint).



From there you can add a new book, download the user guide or make a class.



When you want to add to the library you have a few choices. SubText used .epub files (no kindle or iBook folks). So you can add any ebook or possibly check out a title from the library.

Still the epub support is amazing. Many teachers commonly mistake that the the Common Core State Standards do not dictate any specific titles. They are wrong. In the literature bands of high school students must read Shakespeare and early American literature. Most of these tiles are in the open domain. If you visit Project Gutenberg you will find many of these classics for free.

No more buying books of Shakespeare and Twain. Instead roll the savings right back into your readers. No more banning the annotating of texts. Celebrate the mark up.



Subtext  also organizes an article of the week and their premium content by grade level bands using the ATOS readability scale. This is a powerful tool that can cut down on the amount of time teachers spend sifting for grade appropriate content.



You can also turn any website  or PDF into a subtext article. This is especially useful in the disciplines. Take English for example. Many schools want to increase the amount of non fiction in the classroom.

I do not suggest an add on, another unit in an already overloaded curriculum. Instead support the disciplinary literacies of English such as theme and characterization. Reading Mice and Men in the classroom? Why not focus on the analysis of theme through non fiction. Find sources that seek to answer if the American Dream is still possible and import those sources into Subtext.

(Note you can also add the Subtext bookmarklet to your browser).



Once you have chosen a source you just click on the button to add it your library.

Subtext 9


You get a clean stripped down text. Students can then highlight the text for a series of options. For example you can choose highlight.

Subtext 10

I love the highlighting section of subtext. It is what I have been waiting for years as our talk has focused on close reading. You see close reading is not an outcome. It is not something we measure with a rubric. Key ideas and details, craft and struce, integrating knowledge and ideas, these are outcomes. Closed reading, is how we get there.

For me this means text annotation, or what I call purposeful coding of text. Most students highlight by coloring (example above). Annotation takes a purpose. Subtext allows me to track the purposeful coding of my students.

Say for example I was coding for argumentation. I could select a color and a tag for: position statement, main arguments, claims, evidence, counter-claims, and transition words.

If my purpose was tracing the development of a central idea I could code for main ideas, evidence, and my inferences.

Subtext 11


After I tag the highlight a color coded paper clip appears (though as someone who is red-green color blind I would prefer greater contrasts in the palette).

Subtext 12


You also have other options for the highlight. You can discuss, copy, and google. If you highlight one word you get a defintion (though jettisoned was not in the subtext dictionary so I might suggest Google). The discussion features are very rich. This is where subtext builds in text based talk.

Subtext 14


The discussion is directly connected to an element within the text. As a reader or teacher you can decide who can see the comment. You can also mark the Spoiler alert button (a feature I love) and decide who can reply.

Subtext 16


You also have other discussion options such as true/false, multiple choice, and poll questions. These questions can appear in the text or at the end of the chapter. A very powerful tool. I have never understood chapter and unit tests with literature. No good reader I know sys, “That was a great book now I should sit down and answer some multiple choice questions.”

Disconnecting our assessments with the texts (a tleast in English) has always made little sense to me. It isn’t a discpling specific practice. A literary critic would not write a book review without the text. Being able to include our checks for understandings within the text helps to model good practice.

You can then share a text in your library with a class by creating a group.

Subtext 18 (1)


This is a powerful piece. You could have a group for your class. Maybe you do leveled books or allow for choice in genre or titles. Students can be organized by group. Maybe your school or district has a common read. Why not make one big group/

Subtext 18


You then title your group.

Subtext 20


You will then be emailed a code to share with students.


Subtext has everything I love. It takes good pedagogy, text based talk and analysis, and increases its efficacy and efficiency. I would recommend the app to anyone. I am not a premium member so I could not do a full review or tutorial. I am also interested in finding out more about the reports generated by the app. I think being able to quickly track students purposeful coding of text or have access to searchable discussions is probably the most powerful way to track student learning objectives around analytical reading.