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Critical Transformations and the CCSS

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Carol Ann Tomlinson, well known for her work with Differentiated Instruction, tells a story about teaching grammar to 12-year-olds. 


Concerned one day in class that a particular girl was unresponsive when she typically reacted in such a way that affirmed Carol’s ability to teach content, she reflected that maybe the girl’s behavior was a judgment on her…maybe she wasn’t teaching the way she was supposed to.  The next morning Carol was stunned to discover that the girl had run away from home.  In that moment she realized that she didn’t really know the girl well enough to help her.  Admitting she’d been more concerned about the theory behind teaching prepositions and conjunctions than why the girl was unresponsive, Carol’s transformative moment occurred.  It changed how she saw teaching from that moment forward.  


Several years ago I was teaching in a first grade classroom.  One particular boy, Matt (not his real name), resembled other six-year-olds on the playground and in the lunchroom.  Inside the four walls of our classroom, however, he became withdrawn, as he wasn’t learning to read.  Many days, he’d look up at me and say, with a quivering lip, “I just want to go home.”  My heart was breaking, but it didn’t change the fact that I didn’t know why he wasn’t learning like the rest and it didn’t change the fact that I was not successful in teaching him what’s considered to be the most important skill in a student’s school career. 


My transformative moment was named Matt.  I vowed to learn more about why some children learn to read easily but many others do not.  I took responsibility for his lack of learning and began to seek answers to important questions.  These are just a few:


1.    What is phonemic awareness and what role does it play in learning to read?

2.    Why is phonemic awareness difficult for some children?

3.    What role does phonemic awareness play in the child’s ability to learn phonics?

4.    What is considered systematic and explicit phonics instruction?

5.    How much instructional time should be allocated to phonics and decoding in primary classrooms and how does that shift to advanced word study in intermediate and middle school classrooms?



The CCSS present high-level academic learning goals with the intent to prepare students for college and careers.  The only road that leads to that end begins with learning to read proficiently by the end of second grade.  I’m very concerned that the foundational skills may be drawing “the short end of the stick.”  The reality is that unless sufficient attention is paid to systematic and explicit instruction, students learn to rely on guessing, and become increasingly frustrated when the text is too difficult for them to read independently.  The unfortunate results have names.  Like Matt, they will not learn to read proficiently and in Dr. Reid Lyon’s words “they will not make it in life.” 

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