Signal and Noise in the Common Core ELA/Literacy Standards

Retelling and recounting.

Tom Hoffman
Mar 18, 2014 · 8 min read

Common Core ELA/Literacy Standards Development Team member Timothy Shanahan recently cited an example of a common question about the standards he might receive from “teachers, principals, and consultants trying to figure out the standards.”

Our team is now debating the differences between recount and retell. We have found definitions of recount/retell, but we can’t seem to find credible resources that will clarify the differences. Since the Core uses retell in the K and 1st grade Core standards, and switches to recount in the 2nd grade standards, we feel it is critical that we are clear in explaining the differences. Can you help us to clarify the differences, or point us to a credible source to cite as we clarify the difference?

Let’s take a look at the kindergarten through grade 3 instances of anchor standard CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.2, as applied to literature (emphasis added throughout):

With prompting and support, retell familiar stories, including key details.

Retell stories, including key details, and demonstrate understanding of their central message or lesson.

Recount stories, including fables and folktales from diverse cultures, and determine their central message, lesson, or moral.

Recount stories, including fables, folktales, and myths from diverse cultures; determine the central message, lesson, or moral and explain how it is conveyed through key details in the text.

These are not the only uses of “retell” and “recount” in the standards.

Students are asked to “retell key details of a text” in the Informational Text version of R.2 at the K and 1st grade level. “Recount the key details” appears at the third grade level for RI.2.2. These at least are consistent with the usage for literature at these grade levels.

Other uses of “recount” present a more complex situation:

Write narratives in which they recount two or more appropriately sequenced events, include some details regarding what happened, use temporal words to signal event order, and provide some sense of closure.

Write narratives in which they recount a well-elaborated event or short sequence of events, include details to describe actions, thoughts, and feelings, use temporal words to signal event order, and provide a sense of closure.

Recount or describe key ideas or details from a text read aloud or information presented orally or through other media.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.2.4 (similar variations at grade 3 and 4)
Tell a story or recount an experience with appropriate facts and relevant, descriptive details, speaking audibly in coherent sentences.

Create audio recordings of stories or poems; add drawings or other visual displays to stories or recounts of experiences when appropriate to clarify ideas, thoughts, and feelings.

Most of these standards seem to clearly differentiate between “telling” and “recounting.” You “tell” a story. You “recount” an experience. This usage is consistent with several other standards documents used as exemplary benchmarks by CCSSI, such as California’s previous ELA Content Standards, Ireland’s Primary English Curriculum, and Massachusetts’ ELA Curriculum Framework. Students in early years “retell” stories to demonstrate comprehension (even at pre-reading levels); they (less frequently) “recount” experiences primarily to demonstrate speaking skills or writing.

The situation is somewhat confused by the listing of specific requirements for a written “recount” — “include details to describe actions, thoughts, and feelings, use temporal words to signal event order, and provide a sense of closure.” Should we regard that as an overall definition of a good “recount” across reading and speaking contexts?

But then we have this “recount or describe key ideas from a text.” Is “recounting” just like “describing” here? Or are they different?

And returning to the original question about Reading Literature Standard 2, what is the shift from “retell stories” to “recount stories” trying to tell us? Anything? Nothing?

It is clear that untold man and woman/hours have been wasted over the past four years pondering this question.

For example, Google points me to one local trainer’s tidy but unsupported and unsourced explanation: you retell something you were told orally, but recount something you read.

Literacy consultant Dea Conrad-Curry dug much deeper into the research and literacy literature:

The progression of Common Core Grade Level Standards sparks curiosity within my brain. The language, as direct as it may seem on a cursory read, is simultaneously explicit and nuanced. Take for instance the iterations of the Anchor Standard #1 over the course of grades K-4: in grades K-1 the standard asks kids to “retell,” but in grades 2-3 the standard asks kids to “recount.” By grade 4 and thereon through the grades, the word summarize is invoked. For some, this seemingly simple verb change indicates no instructional change; but for one who approaches text like a like a puzzle to be solved (aka: read like a detective), this seemingly simple change is a Columbo clue. Isn’t that the point of the standards: to foster critical reading skills among our youth, enabling them to read closely…make logical inferences…interpret words and phrases…(CCSS, 2010)?

In reality, the change in wording from “retell” to “recount” has done more than “spark curiosity within my brain.” The standard’s word choice has driven me to university repositories in search of a clear definition or distinction between these two words. Though my pursuit was dedicated, the results of my probing were somewhat inconclusive, resulting in my making professional judgement that can support teachers in their understanding of the subtle yet distinct difference between the terms.


Retell implies an oral recapitulation of the narrative elements, probably best put in order but not necessarily; as we speak, we may correct our thoughts and provide for that correction in our speaking. On the other hand, recount may be written or oral and requires a clearly sequenced ordering of narrative events. Retelling is less formal and probably told from the point-of-view of the story’s original narrator and in the tense the story was told; recounting, more formal in stance, sets the context for the recount from the beginning and is told in either first person or third person depending on the nature of the recount, but always told in past tense (which BTW aligns with grade 2 Language Standards).

Shanahan, however, believes that the question itself reflects an error in reading.

My response is that these well-meaning educators are not approaching these standards appropriately. They are looking for a narrow precision of meaning in a document not intended to provide that. I know that close reading is in right now, but a close reading of the standards—trying to make these fine distinctions by analyzing the words and structure closely—will undermine successful educational efforts rather than supporting them. …

These standards, because they are from the “fewer, bigger, better” school of standard writing, are intentionally not so precise.

Fortunately, for some objective perspective, we can refer to the Common Core State Standards Initiative Standards-Setting Criteria, which state:

These standards have been developed to be: Fewer, clearer and higher, to best drive effective policy and practice…

So no, “fewer, bigger, better” is not accurate. Clarity is meant to be the emphasis, not big-ness.

Clear and Specific: The standards should provide sufficient guidance and clarity so that they are teachable, learnable, and measurable. The standards will also be clear and understandable to the general public.

Quality standards are precise and provide sufficient detail to convey the level of performance expected without being overly prescriptive. (the “what” not the “how”).

Clarity and precision are guideposts for judging the success of standards, acording to CCSSI. One would have hoped members of the Standards Development Team understood that. In particular, precision is necessary “to convey the level of performance.” Quality, precise standards do not change wording across levels (e.g., retell to recount) except to indicate a difference in the performance expected.

Indeed, the Common Core Standards for Writing expect as much from any “informative/explanatory text,”

Use precise language, domain-specific vocabulary, and techniques such as metaphor, simile, and analogy to manage the complexity of the topic.

Establish and maintain a formal style and objective tone while attending to the norms and conventions of the discipline in which they are writing.

In one sense I agree with Shanahan — do not get hung up on this distinction. The difference is that I am willing to state that failing to maintain consistent usage for “retell” and “recount” was a writing mistake which was never corrected, whereas Shanahan prefers to blame the reader.

How, exactly, did this expensive, trivial, yet egregious error — which has sent untold literacy Ph.D. consultants on discursive snipe hunts — survive the editing and review process for the standards intact? This is not an obscure backwater of the standards; it is Reading Literature Standard 2 in K-3. It is literally the second standard on the first page of grade level standards.

You can scan across the verbs “Retell… retell… recount?” Picture David Coleman peering over his reading glasses around the ill-lit conference room. “How is ‘recount’ different than ‘retell?’ Can we measure that? Is it a pedogogically significant difference? … Bueller? Bueller? OK, make them all ‘retell.’” Or, alternately, “OK, I want that distinction more clear in tomorrow’s draft.” What’s that exchange take? 30 seconds? A minute?

How did it get through its first committee review? Did everyone assume everyone but them knew the difference between “retell” and “recount?” Does “recount” just sound more “rigorous?”

Did the standards writing groups have a style guide? If electrical engineers can manage it, can’t literacy experts?

Uniformity of structure, of style, and of terminology should be maintained not only within each standard, but also within a series of associated standards… Analogous wording should be used to express analogous provisions; identical wording should be used to express identical provisions.

The same term should be used throughout each standard or series of standards to designate a given concept. The use of an alternative term (synonym) for a concept already defined should be avoided. As far as possible, only one meaning should be attributed to each term used.

To be clear, I understand that English Language Arts standards are by their nature somewhat vague. Teachers will always have to argue about and decide what the difference between a “somewhat well developed” and “well developed” paragraph is. But if “fully developed” is ambiguously mixed in as perhaps, but not definitely, a synonym for “well developed”, leaving readers to ponder the possible distinction, that’s just bad formal writing.

In the end, this leaves teachers and other people using the Common Core standards forced to constantly filter out signal from noise. Retell/recount: I’ll ignore that. “Familiar stories” is that important? How unfamiliar should not familiar be? I guess I’m going to not worry about what a “precise” but not “knowledgeable” claim is in that writing standard…

And as for me, I am once again left drained and dumbfounded at how comprehensively screwed up the Common Core Standards are. It is such a mess that any tiny thread becomes so convoluted you can’t even explain the problem to someone without inducing a coma, let alone get to a possible solution. Trying to come up with a comprehensive critique is seemingly beyond human endurance.

Common Core Annoyances

Illuminating the complexities, contradictions and screw-ups of the Common Core ELA/Literacy Standards

    Tom Hoffman

    Written by

    Common Core Annoyances

    Illuminating the complexities, contradictions and screw-ups of the Common Core ELA/Literacy Standards

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