I’ll Be Happy to Tell You What I Don’t Like

About specific Common Core ELA/Literacy Standards

Tom Hoffman
Apr 28, 2014 · 12 min read

Erik Palmer issues a challenge:

For some time now, I have been asking haters to tell me exactly which standard they don’t like. You don’t like “Determine the main idea of a text; recount the key details and explain how they support the main idea?” You don’t like “Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, using search terms effectively; assess the credibility and accuracy of each source; and quote or paraphrase the data and conclusions of others while avoiding plagiarism and following a standard format for citation?” You don’t like “Adapt speech to a variety of contexts and tasks, demonstrating command of formal English when indicated or appropriate?” Well then, tell me exactly which ones need to be tossed out? NOT ONE PERSON HAS EVER ANSWERED THIS QUESTION. Only a fool sees things in black and white; all good or all bad; everything or nothing. Aren’t there some good ideas here?

OK, I’ll bite (however, I can’t get edge.ascd.org to let me leave a comment on the original post).

Determine the main idea of a text; recount the key details and explain how they support the main idea.

This is standard CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.3.2. One problem with it is that it is embedded in a densely overlapping nest of similar standards mapped across grade levels.

At the second grade level for reading informational texts, we have six of 10 standards addressing aspects of main ideas and various types of details:

Ask and answer such questions as who, what, where, when, why, and how to demonstrate understanding of key details in a text.

Identify the main topic of a multiparagraph text as well as the focus of specific paragraphs within the text.

Describe the connection between a series of historical events, scientific ideas or concepts, or steps in technical procedures in a text.

Identify the main purpose of a text, including what the author wants to answer, explain, or describe.

Describe how reasons support specific points the author makes in a text.

Compare and contrast the most important points presented by two texts on the same topic.

Since these are second grade standards, it suggests that it is possible to do all those things without also being able to explain how key details support the main idea, which is what differentiates the third grade standard. That’s some fine hair-splitting.

Also, one can only wonder what is the significance might be of the choice of the word “recount” in only the third grade version of standard 3.

The fourth grade version of the same standard is:

Determine the main idea of a text and explain how it is supported by key details; summarize the text.

Summarization is added in fourth grade, but is it possible to complete even the second grade standards without also being able to summarize the text? Or if second grade students in fact can “Compare and contrast the most important points presented by two texts on the same topic” without summarizing either, is that a reading issue or a writing issue?

The standards are also quite clear and specific that in 4th grade students should flip their perspective and explain how the main idea is supported by key details. Is that the same thing? If so, why is the wording different?

Questions about overlap and sequencing aside, is this a good reading standard for third graders? I would question the importance and utility of asking eight and nine year olds to “explain how (key details) support the main idea.” Like many individual bits of the Common Core standards, this sounds pretty good, but… what is even the possible range of answers to that question, particularly for “informational texts” read by third graders?

Simply look at the exemplar texts cited in Appendix B of the standards and consider how each key detail supports the main idea, for example, Boy, Were We Wrong About Dinosaurs. As is the case in many “informational texts” at this level, the main idea is basically the title: People in the past were wrong about what dinosaurs. Here’s a key detail:

Some of our mistakes were little ones. When the first fossil bones of Iguanodon were found, one was shaped like a rhino’s horn. Scientists guessed that the strange horn fit like a spike on Iguanodon’s nose.

Boy, were we wrong about Iguanodon!

When a full set of fossil bones was found later, there were two pointed bones, they were part of Iguanodon’s hands, not its nose!

So… that key detail is an example of how people were wrong about dinosaurs.

The main point of A Medieval Feast is, in my judgement, that a royal feast was a major operation for everyone in a manor. For example:

The manor house had to be cleaned, the rooms readied, tents set up for the horsemen, fields fenced for the horses.
And above all, provisions had to be gathered for the great feast.
The Royal Suite was redecorated.
Silk was spun, new fabric was woven.
The Royal Crest was embroidered on linen and painted on the King’s chair.
The lord and his party went hunting and hawking for fresh meat.

Those are all examples again.

Here’s another, From Seed to Plant:

How to raise bean plants
1. Find a clean glass jar. Take a piece of black construction paper and roll it up.
2. Slide the paper into the jar. Fill the jar with water.
3. Wedge the bean seeds between the black paper and the glass. Put the jar in a warm place.

Are steps “key details?” Yes? Is the answer to “how” they support the main idea just “by being steps?” Is it important that we know that steps are different than examples? Is that the point of all this? Are you starting to think this standard is an excuse to churn out banal multiple choice questions?

How does this key detail support the main idea?

  1. as an example;

(I can’t help but also note that CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.2.3 would ask an 8 year old to “describe the connection between” the steps in the bean planting process. How would you “describe the connection between” the steps above, especially since each “step” includes multiple processes which seem arbitrarily grouped? Still wonder why people are complaining about New York’s Common Core tests?)

From A Drop of Water: A Book of Science and Wonder:

There are few objects you can make that have both the dazzling beauty and delicate precision of a soap bubble. Shown here at actual size, this bubble is a nearly perfect sphere. Its shimmering liquid skin is five hundred times thinner than a human hair.

Right there you have the main idea (bubbles are amazing!) and several key details. How, exactly, does the latter support the former? Is it really necessary to do anything other than point out that these are supporting details? What does it even mean in this context to consider how it supports?

I am not seeking out edge cases; I’m just trying to apply the standard as written to the exemplar texts provided. Try it yourself.

And I am not reading pedantic detail into the standard — pedantic detail was explicitly put there by the authors. They chose each word with specific intention (or with careless indifference, take your pick). The unambiguous message is that in third grade, precisely, teachers, textbook authors and testing companies should focus students on explaining how key details support the main idea.

Would you ever, while reading a book on dinosaurs with your child, pause to ask how a detail supports the “main idea” of the book? Could you blame her if she looked at you as if you were an idiot? What is the opportunity cost of steering 3rd grade teachers all over the country to spend time with their students not discussing the wonders of dinosaurs, medieval feasts, sprouting seeds and soap bubbles, but instead dragging their students through inane pseudo textual analysis? Does anyone really believe this is necessary to get them ready for college courses a decade in the students’ future?

Moving on:

Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, using search terms effectively; assess the credibility and accuracy of each source;
and quote or paraphrase the data and conclusions of others while avoiding plagiarism and following a standard format for citation.

This is CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.7.8, as well as CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.8.8 and CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.WHST.6-8.8. This standard is both fragmentary and an amalgamation of several distinct tasks of greatly varying complexity. It is also redundant with other standards, including with the multiple identical versions of itself at the same grade level.

This group of standards suffers from a complete organizational breakdown. Here are the three seventh grade standards in the Research to Build and Present Knowledge cluster:

Conduct short research projects to answer a question, drawing on several sources and generating additional related, focused questions for further research and investigation.

Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, using search terms effectively; assess the credibility and accuracy of each source; and quote or paraphrase the data and conclusions of others while avoiding plagiarism and following a standard format for citation.

Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.

Apply grade 7 Reading standards to literature (e.g., “Compare and contrast a fictional portrayal of a time, place, or character and a historical account of the same period as a means of understanding how authors of fiction use or alter history”).

Apply grade 7 Reading standards to literary nonfiction (e.g. “Trace and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, assessing whether the reasoning is sound and the evidence is relevant and sufficient to support the claims”).

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.7.8 seems intended to be a subsidiary part of CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.7.7. For some reason CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.7.7 — the “conduct a research project” standard — is arbitrarily split in two. CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.7.1 through CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.7.3 are complex writing tasks with a list of enumerated requirements, so there is no structural reason that the distinct parts of CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.7.8 could not be listed under CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.7.7.

As it is now, CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.7.8 requires the student to “gather relevant information” without specifying what the information should be relevant to. The standard suggests that a mere sequence of quotes, paraphrases and a bibliography but not a completed research paper would be sufficient to meet the standard, but it is not clear if that is intended. This also implies that CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.7.7 could be met without meeting CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.7.8, which seems highly unlikely in practice.

Nor is it clear — at all — how to handle the amalgam of specific skills and tasks mashed together in CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.7.8. Since they are not separately enumerated, does this indicate that these disparate clauses should be evaluated wholistically? Using search terms effectively is important, and requires experience to do very well, but ultimately relies on the application of a pretty small number of rules of thumb. Is that of the same weight as “assessing the accuracy of each source,” which tends to be tossed around as if determining what is true is a straightforward process, the beginning and not the end of the educational process? If, boy! were the experts wrong about dinosaurs before, how is a student to determine if the latest book about dinosaurs is accurate?

It is impossible to sort out what the relationship between this writing standard and the reading standards is supposed to be. For example, citation is also the centerpiece of CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.7.1:

Cite several pieces of textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.

One should wonder why we need citation in two places. One might also wonder why “gather relevant information” is considered a writing task and not a reading task. Is citation in reading different than citation in writing?

The neighbouring standard, CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.7.9.B, represents an event horizon of recursion in the Common Core ELA/Literacy standards.

Apply grade 7 Reading standards to literary nonfiction (e.g. “Trace and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, assessing whether the reasoning is sound and the evidence is relevant and sufficient to support the claims”).

Does one have to meet all the reading standards to achieve that single writing standard?

This pervasive redundancy and recursion between reading and writing would not have been difficult to sort out. Particularly if one draws ideas from the state and international counterpart standards to which CCSSI supposedly benchmarked the Common Core.

The inclusion of the exact same standard in the “regular” grade 7 and 8 writing standards (e.g., CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.7.8)and the “Writing Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects” (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.WHST.6-8.8) is particularly baffling and would seem to violate what would be a fundamental rule of learning standards design if standards design was considered a serious academic and technical pursuit and such rules existed. That is, the Common Core contains two separate, enumerated, but identical standards at the same grade level. The only difference is that one standard applies specifically to research in history, social studies, science and technical studies while the other presumably applies to all research, but what other subjects are there in middle school in which one can do research beyond history, social studies, science and technical subjects? Is research in English class different than research in History class? If so, why are the standards identical?

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.7.8 and the entire set of research standards are an utter mess.


Adapt speech to a variety of contexts and communicative tasks, demonstrating command of formal English when indicated or appropriate.

This is anchor standard CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.SL.6. It also appears as a grade level standard for grades 5-12. This standard suffers from two common issues in the Common Core ELA/Literacy standards: it is a misleading political double headfake, and it is redundant with several other standards.

This standard seems to be a descendent of NCTE/IRA standard four, dating back to 1996:

Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.

Those standards were loudly derided for being too general, not rigorous enough, and not objectively assessable, and the American style of standards writing has evolved over the past 18 years into the form taken by the Common Core. Nonetheless, allusions to or reminders of the NCTE/IRA standards are likely useful to gain acceptance by teachers of English and Reading.

On the other hand, opponents of the NCTE/IRA standards were particularly concerned about the squishy relativism they perceived in standards like:

Students develop an understanding of and respect for diversity in language use, patterns, and dialects across cultures, ethnic groups, geographic regions, and social roles.

Thus, formal English is now explicitly emphasized.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.SL.6 offers less than it appears on the surface, however. In the context of the Common Core — “college and career-readiness” — it is impossible to think of a context or task for which formal English is not appropriate, particularly in any task that would conceivably be used for assessment. At best, this standard recapitulates a practical weakness of the NCTE/IRA standard — nobody is really going to fail because of an overabundance of formality and propriety.

If then, in practice, CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.SL.6 is simply asking the student to use formal English in a variety of academic contexts, it is redundant. Most of the remaining Speaking and Listening standards explicitly specify a “variety of… communicative tasks” which also require that “…style (is) appropriate to task, purpose, and audience,” or the equivalent.

Beyond that, each grade level version of this standard refers to the relevant grade level Language standards, e.g.:

Adapt speech to a variety of contexts and tasks, demonstrating command of formal English when indicated or appropriate. (See grades 9-10 Language standards 1 and 3 here for specific expectations.)


Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage when writing or speaking.

Use parallel structure.*

Use various types of phrases (noun, verb, adjectival, adverbial, participial, prepositional, absolute) and clauses (independent, dependent; noun, relative, adverbial) to convey specific meanings and add variety and interest to writing or presentations.

Apply knowledge of language to understand how language functions in different contexts, to make effective choices for meaning or style, and to comprehend more fully when reading or listening.

Write and edit work so that it conforms to the guidelines in a style manual (e.g.,MLA Handbook, Turabian’s Manual for Writers) appropriate for the discipline and writing type.

Given Language standards 1 and 3, what on Earth do we need Speaking and Listening standard 6 for? Does anybody actually expect teachers to assess whether students are using adjectival, adverbial and absolute phrases in their spoken language to provide interest and variety when command of formal English when indicated or appropriate?

Standard CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.SL.6 is a nothingburger.

Palmer asks us to be satisfied that the Common Core ELA/Literacy standards address several basic tasks in the subject, but just as he points out in his post that we are 20 years into the era of high stakes testing in American schools, we are also 20+ years into the era of academic standards. At this point, we have a right — and a responsibility — to expect that a new set of standards — particularly those adopted nearly nationwide — do more than just check topics off a list and move on.

As Common Core advocates rush to point out, no standards are perfect, and one can always find something to nitpick, but I would argue that the specific issues I’ve described above are surprisingly unique to the Common Core. In particular, forcing “college and career ready” anchor standards to be applied all the way back to kindergarten, with grade by grade progressions (except in high school, where year by year preparation for college becomes less important?) is essentially unprecedented and creates dozens of novel glitches and inconsistencies for no clear benefit.

Compound that with a tight timeframe and unusually high-stakes political requirements and dealmaking, and you end up with the special kind of mess that is the Common Core ELA/Literacy standards.

Common Core Annoyances

Illuminating the complexities, contradictions and screw-ups…

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